Social media and thought leadership: The virtuous circle for B2B marketing

As B2B marketers invest more money and time in both thought leadership and social media, they risk missing a great deal of potential benefit they can achieve by bringing the two together in a holistic way.

All too often, at least in my experience in the tech sector, marketers investing in thought leadership view social media primarily as a channel for disseminating content.

They get the idea that social media is important, and that relying on traditional media channels (including email and websites) to promote their ideas is no longer enough.

As such, they're beginning to slice and dice thought leadership content into blog posts, tweets, videos, and the like -- and use TwitterLinkedInFacebookYouTubeSlideShare and other platforms to promote that content as widely as possible in the social sphere.

This all seems fine, but I think it's far too limited a view.

In fact, isn't this just a more refined version of the same old one-way broadcast mentality? Ponder big thoughts, maybe do some research, put together a presentation or white paper, and then release it to the world and wait for the acclaim and customer inquiries to come rolling in.

"Going social" with content gives it a better chance of being seen, but a more collaborative approach to understanding customer issues and creating new Points of View before even creating any content greatly raises the chances that customers will actually care.

Socializing every aspect of the thought leadership process requires a more fundamental shift than just reformatting content and creating a longer checklist of places to publish.

It means letting go of the notion that you have all the good thinking locked inside your organization, that you shouldn't publish anything until it provides all the answers, and that thought leadership is about you talking and customers listening.

It means taking the zeitgeist of social media seriously, that it's not a "channel" at all, but a way of thinking and doing business based most of all on listening, sharing, and collaborating.

The reality is that lots of great thinking and experience lie outside your organization (to say the least), customers and partners want to collaborate in developing new approaches and solutions, and the best way to demonstrate expertise is to ask the right questions and facilitate ongoing conversation.

The virtuous circle of social media and thought leadership includes five main elements, discussed below:

  1. Customer and market insight: Tapping social media and networks to dig deeper (and often faster) into the issues your customers and prospects really care about. This can begin as simply as using Google Reader and Google Alerts to follow important online conversations. It can be as sophisticated as using high-end monitoring and analytics services like Radian6 or Nielsen BuzzMetrics, organizing "Innovation Jams" like IBM, or building your own customer communities to ensure a steady flow of deep customer insight.
  2. Collaborative Points of View: Rather than rely on a single expert or a purely internal team, why not work with customers and other stakeholders to craft a more relevant and compelling Point of View to undergird thought leadership content? Executive interviews, client roundtables, external working groups, academic and think tank partnerships can all be part of the thinking process, not simply vehicles to disseminate finished products. Social tools make these collaborations far easier and more affordable to manage.
  3. Relevant routes to market: This is the area of marketers are already digging into, and with good reason. If you're NOT taking advantage of social tools and networks to disseminate your thought leadership content, you're missing an enormous opportunity to reach key stakeholders where they are increasingly spending their time searching for new ideas. The recent Forbes study, The Rise of the Digital C-Suite, is only one of a multitude of survey reports documenting that executives now rely on online search, video, and social networks as a core information source.
  4. Viral leverage: Your customers and prospects trust independent experts far more than company spokespeople, as Edelman's Trust Barometer shows every year, and gaining their support is far more likely to trigger social media sharing than anything you do directly. Identifying and reaching out constructively to the new influencers in your markets (bloggers, analysts, community managers, etc.) is now essential to thought leadership success.
  5. Conversation and community: The old broadcast mode of thought leadership assumed a straight line from polished publication to customer inquiry to sales presentation. In a few rare cases of truly blockbuster ideas, this may even have worked. In today's vastly more networked world, customers want to chew over and debate your ideas at length -- and often without you even present. Inspiring, facilitating, and participating in the conversation is the right goal for thought leadership marketing, and using social platforms and communities is the best way to make this possible. Not incidentally, it's also the best way to gain deep and ongoing customer and market insight, which keeps the whole circle going.

Make sense? What do you think?

Comments (1)

Mark Delfeld

Rob, Excellent article. I particularly liked the collaborative angle. In my experience collaboration with customers via round tables has been difficult because the company tries to over manage the process. It takes too long to set them up and they just don't meet as often as you want them to. But the results are alway good - particularly in helping a firm chart a thought leadership strategy. Social media is a great way to jumpstart those efforts. Anyone out there have any examples they can share. Thanks, Mark