TL in 4D: Four dimensions for thought leadership success

B2B marketers know that thought leadership is essential, especially when selling high-value solutions. Business buyers tune out most traditional marketing, but they are always looking for new ideas. If we can produce interesting and useful content, and use social media and other platforms to spread the good word, we at least have a chance of getting into the conversations that our customers and prospects actually want to have.

Perhaps not surprisingly, thought leadership topped the list when ITSMA recently asked marketing leaders at big tech and IT services firms which tactics will be more important in 2010. According to ITSMA, 77% of respondents cited thought leadership development as a priority, beating out references and testimonials, senior executive programs, and social media.

For most B2B firms, however, thought leadership is getting a great deal more lip service than investment. Other than top consulting and professional service firms like McKinseyDeloitteand Accenture, few B2B firms have yet created a focused and well-organized thought leadership marketing program. My own recent review of 72 corporate members of the Institute for the Study of Business Markets, for example, found that only 24 of these manufacturing, industrial, and technology companies even had a link to thought leadership content on their home page.

All too often, thought leadership in B2B is thinly funded (if at all), episodic, and superficial.

  • There is no dedicated staff, no editorial calendar for content production, and a heavy reliance on subject matter experts "volunteering" their nights and weekends to bang out a few white papers, articles, and blog posts.
  • Content tends to overemphasize company promotion and underemphasize customer and market evidence.
  • Publications typically are one-off productions with little coordinated effort to leverage new thinking into multiple formats, networks, and channels.

To make a real impact with customers and create real distinction in the market, thought leadership needs focus, depth,and continuity.

Consider, for example Accenture's years-long in-depth research on high performing companies. They focus on strategic challenges facing each industry the company serves, orient primary research and publications to different executive roles among their client base, and deliver insights across a wide range of online, face-to-face, and social media platforms.

Not every company has Accenture's deep pockets, to be sure, but the lessons are clear. And it's not just a matter of blogging more and getting more content onto Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- although social media clearly IS critical for thought leadership dissemination and engagement.

At a more fundamental level, companies looking for greater impact with thought leadership need to consider four essential dimensions of program development:

  1. Points of View: Effective thought leadership is rooted in compelling, differentiated, and evidence-based points of view on important business challenges -- not product features or quick opinions or the experience of a single client engagement. Companies need to invest the time, research budgets, and analytic expertise it takes to create points of view that really matter. You've got to take a stand, but in ways that are not simply provocative but rooted in primary research and real world experience. (For a guide to developing effective points of view, check out Solutions Insights' Point of View Development Template.)
  2. Internal Education: Especially with the rise of social media, you're relying more and more on a great many employees to tell your story, not just a few executives or subject matter experts. Investing in internal education around your points of view is critical to equipping marketing, sales, and other customer-facing employees (which could be anyone online) to engage constructively on the issues that matter in ways that demonstrate real expertise. It's also a great way to generate more insight and tap more internal experience to feed into Point of View development.
  3. Market Engagement: Publishing and disseminating content is what most people think of when they consider thought leadership marketing. But the traditional reliance on white paper publishing, conference speaking, and pushing for mainstream media coverage is far too limited in today's always-on, socially networked world. Market engagement today is about pervasive presence and ongoing conversation; publishing is just the beginning of the process. And the development of more substantial points of view makes it much easier to produce steadier streams of useful content across multiple platforms.
  4. Program Operations: Making this all work requires dedicated staff, disciplined processes, and clear metrics and accountability. This doesn't have to mean huge staffs or budgets, but it does mean accepting that the "volunteer" work on nights and weekends is unlikely to have a serious impact or create distinction against competitors with a more organized and funded approach. Rather, you need to bring together people, processes and tools that can do the research and analysis, generate compelling points of view, and sustain the internal and market engagement required to reap the benefits effective thought leadership can provide.

Based on our own research and experience working with thought leadership programs across the IT and professional services sectors, Solutions Insights has developed a four stage roadmap for thought leadership program development, as you can see below. It's a simple model that necessarily abstracts a great deal of nuanced reality, but it should be useful in evaluating your own programmatic maturity and considering next steps for improvement. We'd love to know what you think of the roadmap -- and please weigh in with comments on your own approach and experience. We're still learning, too.

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