Using Thought Leadership to Address the 3 Top Solutions Marketing Challenges

ThoughtLeadIn a February 2012 survey that was conducted by Solutions Insights and ITSMA on Anatomy of Solutions Marketer only 6% of solutions marketers listed as one of their top three challenges “Creating thought leadership to support solutions approaches.” Either they've got this problem solved, or they regard it as being relatively unimportant compared to the top three issues they identified:

  1. Enabling the sales force to sell solutions;
  2. Working across organizational silos; and
  3. Identifying market opportunities and targeting the appropriate audience.

The good news is that a properly executed thought leadership program helps address all of these issues.   And incidentally, items 4 and 5 – Communicating the solutions value proposition and Differentiating from competitors and creating brand awareness – are also addressed by a well planned and executed  Thought Leadership program.

Many different definitions of thought leadership exist, and each organization ultimately has to decide what makes sense given its particular business goals and focus.  There are, however, several common elements that recur.  First and most critically, thought leadership is not pure marketing collateral – although the two should complement each other.  Second, thought leadership should be fact-based. Third, it should address a clearly defined client issue.  And fourth, it should be forward looking and novel – after all, it’s not called thought followership!

So, let’s take each of the top three challenges we initially identified and see how thought leadership can help address them.

Enabling the sales force:

SalesForceEnablementA key element of solutions selling is helping clients identify their needs.  Clients are hungry – ravenous even – for insights about what their competitors are doing and how others in their space have addressed the challenges they face.  A properly constructed piece of research provides clients these insights and gives the sales force a set of issues to discuss in consultative way.  Good thought leadership enables a solutions firm to embrace the “freemium” strategy that so many apps developers use: provide something of value to clients, while enticing them pay for a deeper engagement or a personalized experience.

Working across silos:

OrgSilosStrategically conceived research efforts will draw on expertise from all parts of the organization.  Research should be neither a solitary activity, nor the sole province of a single consultant or thought leader.  The key researcher should tap into the network of the organization, both internal and external, to create a compelling piece of content that colleagues will feel comfortable using because they’ve contributed to it and therefore feel ownership.

Identifying new market opportunities and the appropriate audience:

NewMarketDuring the course of the engagement, the researcher should at the very least be validating hypotheses about the firm’s solution(s).  When done really well, however, research uncovers latent market opportunities in a way that a more sales-oriented effort might not be able to, simply because of the different dynamics inherent in conversations driven by different purposes.  Further, during the course of interviews, the researcher should be able to more precisely define the target audience for the research and, potentially, for the eventual new solution. A good thought leadership effort serves as a key part of a solutions company’s R&D process.

Maturity of a Thought Leadership program:

A high-level thought leadership process map encompasses nine key elements:
  1. Selecting a topic
  2. Defining an audience
  3. Determining a deployment strategy
  4. Scoping the project to determine appropriate level of effort
  5. Deciding on methodology
  6. Choosing appropriate suite of deliverables
  7. Deploying the work through appropriate channels
  8. Measuring impact
  9. Incorporating lessons learned

ThoughtLBelow I’ve classified typical practices at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.  See where you are today, and consider what it would take to get you to the next level along each dimension.





Selecting a topic

Focused on existing solution company is trying to sell

Client needs inform research, with focus on areas where company can help

Client needs drive topic selection with aim of informing development of new solutions

Defining an audience

Broad, undifferentiated

Targeted to a specific role or industry

Targeted to a specific role within an industry (e.g., Retailing CFO)

Determining a deployment strategy

No effort until piece is completed

Planning starts a couple of weeks before completion

Deployment strategy addressed at beginning of research

Scoping the project

Quick (2-6 week) project, 1-2 people part time

4-12 week effort, 1-3 people part time

6 week to 6 month project, at least one full time resource with participation from several other team members

Deciding on methodology

Experience-based, drawing on lessons from one or two engagements

Informed by experience, augmented by secondary research

Driven by primary research, including interviews / questionnaires

Choosing the deliverables

Single article posted once and left alone

Foundational article supplemented by supporting works, including social media

Prior deliverables, with robust supporting work, including marketing collateral, PR, further articles exploring particular implications of research

Deploying the work

Post PDF on website

Target certain prospects for meetings to discuss findings

Undertake Multi-channel effort, including social media and feedback from consumers of the research

Measuring impact


Assessment of web traffic

Robust scorecard tracking key metrics over time

Incorporating lessons Learned

No formal process for incorporating data

Individual practitioners consciously assess what worked and what didn’t

Team formally conducts after-action review and recommends areas of emphasis and de-emphasis for next time


Thought Leadership is but one part of the interconnected web of resources available to solutions providers.  Solutions professionals will maximize research’s impact when they view it as part of a complex solutions system, rather than a stand-alone effort with only a single point of connection to the marketing group.

About the author:

Dan Latimore has led strategic research groups (IBM’s Institute for Business Value and Deloitte Research) for the last dozen years.  A frequent author and speaker, particularly on financial services topics, he can be reached at

Comments (18)

Vijay Kumar

Great post. Thank you for the insights into the pervasive role of thought leadership. However, I have a few concerns regarding the classification of beginner, intermediate and advanced in the thought leadership process map. The issues mainly rise when companies like Cisco are looking to create solutions offerings that could be easily replicated and implemented across various clientele. In that case would it be accurate to place such companies, though successful, as beginners or intermediates in certain elements (1, 2, & 5) listed above?

Alvaro Aquique

As mentioned before, thought leadership is a powerful tool which if executed correctly can solve the main solutions marketing challenges. Also it is a fundamental part of a real solutions company. Now a day, due to the increasing commoditized markets, the tough fight between firms to get the attention of their target markets and the surplus of offerings, people around the world is getting more buying power than before. Those people, in charge of purchases try to get the best deal available in the market which, at the same time, can contribute to achieve the organizational goal of their firms. I strongly believe that thought leadership can make the difference in the market. It is strong enough to cover a broad range of issues within a solutions organization and hard enough to achieve that no every firm has the capacity and the methodology to implement it. As mentioned in this highly educative post, thought leadership has different stages and different areas which must be developed in order to master it. One of the areas that I consider is very sensitive and complex is the design of thought leadership resources for external applications. In this range of ideas we can see sales enablement documentation, documents and brochures for marketing use and web site information including videos; each of them are designed to communicate the right message to the right customer but at the same time, when not designed properly, it can provide critical information to the competitors and it can cost the first mover advantage. These resources at the same time are an essential part to turn the intangible into tangible, a characteristic that is highly demanded by customers in order to justify the expenses of millions of dollars in services and solutions. Also, thought leadership documentation can be sold as any other product, thus allowing the firm to recover part of its invested capital in this area.

Shi Yin

Compared to a solution that by definition focuses on solving specific customer problems through a combination of products, services and intellectual property, Thought Leadership helps a company identify new markets and strategic business opportunities. Currently, solution companies use Thought Leadership mostly to support solutions approaches. In my view, when solutions marketing has matured, some leaders who have mastered solutions marketing have to redefine Thought Leadership in order to use it not only to help themselves identify new opportunities but also to address their clients‘ strategic or tactical issues. At the same time, they are able to provide relevant solutions for these clients. The new purpose of a Thought Leadership program maybe indicate that a new level next to solutions marketing will come.

Gang Wang

Great article about thought leadership! Thought leadership is becoming moe and more important when a traditional product/service company wants to transform itself to a solution company. Especially in this competitive and difficult business environment, our clients are skeptical. We cannot understand their needs sometimes and usually offer them the best "offering" we think but not the best fit our clients need. A good thought leadership program can really figure out where should our value proposition be and how we can measure the benefits.

Protyush Banerjee

The top 3 Solutions Marketing challenges are rightly pointed out by Dan Latimore in his blog on Solutions Insights website. Speaking on “freemium”, it is definitely a way to entice the client to pay for a deeper engagement or for a personalized experience. However, it is very important for the client to get involved in the Though Leadership process. For example, IDeaS Revenue Solutions, a SAS company, makes revenue management software for the hotel industry. It has embraced the concept of Thought Leadership in a very structured way and involves clients in some way or the other. For example in every issue of their “white paper” or case study of successful transformation of the business due the IDeaS software, is highlighted with insights taken from the client and putting it across for others to get inspired, educated and enticed to consider IDeaS for their business. Identifying markets, opportunities and audience is critical too in propagating Though Leadership. It was made explicit when HVS Consulting Services started publishing market reports in its site and holding conference dedicated to hospitality business growth prospect in these markets. The key elements of a mature Thought Leadership process is an excellent way for any solutions company to market itself.

Youssef Khalil

I wonder if companies who are more into consumer goods can get benefits from thought leadership. With the rise of the internet, even end users care about companies thoughts and ideas, they read blogs, reports and other consumer comments, they even attend seminars in case of a launch of a new product and listen to keynotes. In commoditized markets, thought leadership can be one of the factors that help a company get differentiated, today consumers are more and more aware, more open to ideas and no doubt that though leadership will backup the solution offered by a company.

Julian Hergenroether

After reading this blog and the results of the survey, it reminds me on the challenges associated with the solutions approach within the company I work for. The company offers customized solutions for the stabilization of biofunctional proteins and this for clients in the pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and medtech industry. Even though our whole business model is about customized solutions focusing on the individual needs of our clients, the marketing process and measurement of the results are still challenges for us. For our Thought Leadership (even though we call it differently), we are using scientific publications, success stories about projects conducted together with research institutes or with one of our clients and press releases. The issue here is about finding the right channel to reach the right people in this particular industry. And since you want to reach only a small audience, the existing network is of great importance. But this may be an issue for small companies and start-ups that do not have a big footprint in the market place yet. Another question, where our company is still struggling, is if we should go for the new approach on marketing our solutions according to the guidelines Solutions Insights is providing. Or do our clients, coming from a well-established and traditional industry, not appreciate this way of marketing yet? So, it does not only require a different mindset and way of operations within the company that provides solutions on the customer side.

Kiet Luong

I used to work for a company that's offering solutions and services on mobile phones. Based on classified typical practices, my company is in the Intermediate level. The company always try to develop something news to different segments of customers. However, we are trying to keep the innovation not so far from the core business. For the thought leadership strategy, we are trying to run the pilot program with our customers, getting their feedback, create success stories and testimonials. After that, we publish our research on newspapers, websites, social media and try to keep the discussion moving on. As it supported by success stories and strong references, the outcome of thought leadership strategy get successful easier. And to evaluate the impact we come up with different metrics as mentioned in the advance level rather than just measuring the website traffic.

Nikhil Srivastava

Upon reading this blog, many underlying questions surfaced and were answered simultaneously. Creating a thought leadership approach to market a solution and differentiate from competition is by far the most sought after strategy, which more and more corporations are employing. The most important question answered by Dan Latimore in this blog is how to initiate such a program. There is no wrong time to start a thought leadership program. An on-going debate amongst my peers is whether to initiate the shift from product/services to solutions or merely identifying and labeling the offerings as 'solutions'. Operational and organizational shift would come along with the identification and need of new opportunities and unmet customer needs, whereby a thought leadership program running parallel to re-alignment would provide the much needed competitive edge. One must not forget that an organizational shift which requires silo busting and internal education programs and re-alignment of sales force, is in itself the first step to thought leadership.

Daniil Brodovich

Excellent article, I totally agree that companies should put more attention to their thought leadership program in order to succeed in solving other issues they are facing in developing and delivering solutions. Thought leadership helps companies to move towards pull strategy and at the same time helps companies with their push efforts. I believe that the main problem why thought leadership doesn't get deserved attention because it is hard to measure and rear gives immediate results. I had troubles to explain the long term benefits to a client because the company was focused on fast results from its marketing campaigns, not understanding all the benefits it can get from its thought leadership activities. With a large popularity of social media thought leadership campaigns can be more effective than ever and the synergy between two can create tremendous positive impact on company's business. There is great article on the forum which further expands on this fact called "Social media and thought leadership: The virtuous circle for B2B marketing".

Hannah Law

Wonderful article on thought leadership. This initiative is, I agree, one of the more underused and undervalued strategic activities on the agenda today - and one that firms of every shape and size should be thinking about. Especially in an age where clients are becoming more savvy, more critical, and ultimately more demanding about the players they share the field with, those that urge their people to start new conversations and dialogues, and strive to be true leaders of innovative thinking (rather than just doing), are the ones poised for the biggest futures. I would add one critical element to successful thought leadership, that the article does not address directly, but that in my experience has been core to compelling conversations: Brand stewardship. Any though leadership initiative - be it a new conference sponsorship, white paper, PR effort, etc. should be evaluated first and foremost on how the discussion complements and cultivates the company brand. Such efforts do as much to define the author, as they do to educate the industry, and putting thought leadership as the prow of the brand actively communicates what you mean to your clients - rather than just what you do for them. This is especially true for companies who are undergoing a strategic shift into a solutions mindset, and therefore updating their own brand value proposition. Thought leadership, if done right and well, can be the fastest and most authentic way to educate the industry about the caliber and intelligence of your human capital - not to mention outline clearly your own ambitions as a firm. Indeed, investments in pioneering new conversations, new ideas and new approaches can be the lynchpin in shifting your brand from being relevant, to being truly resonant in your space.

Cynthia Lin

This is an informative blog for any one or any company in or going into thought leadership. In addition to providing a step by step guide, it addresses how thought leadership can help with the most common challenges companies face. This shows the benefits and value added to a company for moving into the vast playing field of thought leadership. But, most importantly it addresses what is usually done wrong within thought leadership. If someone reads nothing else on thought leadership but this blog, s/he will be equipped with do's and dont's, benefts, and how it can help address the most common challenges solutions companies face. A great read!

Michael Smith

As the others are saying, this is nicely written, Dan. I had been seeing more and more comments on blogs with casual mention of thought leadership, and honestly I'd been wondering what's the big deal. The way you describe the process to thought leadership really helps me understand the power of this device. Though my first impression of thought leadership was that it was a celebrated form of bragging -- this piece gave me a different feel on the topic, that the companies engaging in this practice are in fact the businesses on the cutting edge, with the most sophisticated and effectively structured communication systems. Thought Leadership, done right, is one of the best "pull" tools out there. It's interesting to note the differing levels of thought leadership. Those who do it at the beginner level might indeed come across as empty boasting, or attention seeking, with little benefits gained. The insight for me -- something I picked up as a student in Steve Hurley's class -- is that as with just about all initiatives in marketing we need to have the proper metrics in place to measure the impact of our moves. Otherwise, we're all just hoping to get lucky.

Caryll Mullings-McDonald

Great article. I particularly appreciate the overarching view that Though Leadership can do so much more than act as collateral for the marketing department but can as the article and many of the commenters have alluded to offer far greater use to the company. One thing I would like to add is that when it comes to the sales team, thought leadership is not just something they can use to add value to their client but also helps to attract talent to the company. If done correctly and well the company that is a leader and pace setter in their field regarding ideas, innovations or even just creating platforms will position themselves powerfully not just in their clients eye, but their partners, their competitors and of course potential talent . Another point I would like to raise is the distinction b/w B2B thought leadership and B2C. Some colleagues and I were discussing thought leadership in the B2C world and what we found as a commonality is that the motive behind TL in B2C seems so clearly "sales" oriented that often B2B businesses focus their thought leadership NOT on their core offerings but on secondary issues. Often because the consumers are usually more skeptically and it may simply comes off as a "sales tactic" otherwise, confirmed by the above post where M. Smith wrote he used to think of TL as a "celebrated form of bragging". Also in B2C businesses TL is often used for CSR purposes, further keeping the public as skeptics. It is possible that TL despite being around for long time is now being used even more as a powerful tool because of solutions marketing that has seen the valuable role it can play to any company. By nature of its definition, solution marketing forces those involved in TL to take a look at the broader picture, be rigorous with their thought process and present only concepts of relevance and importance to the marketplace. Something a B2C marketer using TL will benefit from as well.

Eino Hjort af Ornas

Insightful article. It is interesting to read an argument on how integral, yet often overlooked, thought leadership is in solutions provision and development. Thought leadership has no doubt always been a factor in businesses gaining the upper hand over the competition, but is seems that only relatively recently have there been structured effort to capitalize on the wide-reaching benefits this can bring to an organization. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, where it is becoming more difficult to distinguish one offer from the next one, though leadership might just be the holy grail of differentiation. While product features and operational processes are constantly reinvented, thought leadership is an endless means of generating the backbone of those innovations (whether it be by customer request or spontaneous idea generation). While it is quite clear that thought leadership both requires, and can create, cooperation and coordination across an organization, one of the very real dangers of it is that it could lead to loss of organizational coordination of efforts. Requiring organization-wide efforts to be successful, though leadership is thus only as fast as the slowest part of the organization is in embracing it.

Manuel J. Oliveira

Working across silos is of course a key factor when trying to develop an effective Thought Leadership program. However, it is often argued that to be effective a Thought Leader company needs to focus on a specific topic or thought, in order to create a concise and clear message to send to the market, as well as a solid leadership on the matter. This would require a certain specialization, than in some cases will only incentive the collaboration between marketing and a specific department of the company. In this sense, Thought Leadership would not be the best instrument to work across silos, because it doesn't create multi-department collaboration environment, but rather a one on one collaboration environment. If marketing is involved, then the dynamics will not be much different of a product-based company. Therefore, the key here would be to create a surrounding environment (through the use of incentives, for example) that would facilitate the cross-department collaboration around a common idea that can deliver results to the customers, rather than a too much focused thought about a too specific technological expertise, for which only one or a few departments are relevant.

Brian Hegstad

Can you have a mature thought leadership program without meeting all 9 of the criteria set forth here? I believe that you can. The one element that I take particular exception to is the second one, defining an audience. Basically what is being said here is that the more targeted the audience, the more advanced the thought leadership is within the company. I believe that the more you target a specific audience with your thought leadership piece, the more skewed it becomes. Additionally, you reduce your audience in such a way that you are just reaching a small number of people and limiting the overall effect the it can have on your business. I am not saying that there aren't cases in which a specific target audience is not appropriate, I am just saying that considering the narrower scope as more advanced seems to me to be too much of a generalization.

Naaz Tabassum

Thanks Dan for this blog on Thought Leadership, its very educative as this whole concept of Thought Leadership is new to me and I really liked this concept. I can see from this blog that Thought Leadership is a very helpful tool in solving all the issues related to becoming a solutions company. The fact that Thought Leadership is not a marketing tool and it has to build on facts, issues of client and has to be futuristic this automatically will help the company market themselves and will be able to establish their authenticity in front of their clients. This concept also adopts the fremium model by which the company is able to provide free insights and value to the client in order to get the business. Thought Leadership would be helping the company internally too as it will help the leader to break the silos and let every department contribute into building up this research and it will help the company to give a direction in sales by identifying the potential markets and clients. With all these benefits added to it Thought Leadership is a great concept which should be a "must have"for every solutions company. The best part about this blog is that it would help a company to adapt and evaluate themselves through the 9 key elements important for the thought leadership and also the table for the beginner to advanced level stating the level in the each element.