Putting Thought Into Thought Leadership

An effective thought leadership strategy enables companies to build brand visibility and establish credibility and trust with prospects and clients. Yet, the term “thought leadership” is often misused or confused with content marketing.

Content marketing refers to providing useful, educational content on topics related to your company’s unique expertise without promoting its offerings.

Content marketing strategically uses various content formats and delivery channels to educate your audiences and help them make better business decisions, while building visibility for your company and its expertise and, ultimately, converting your audiences to customers.

“Great thought leadership should help senior executives shape their thinking and make better decisions.” – Michael Reeves, Global Brand & Marketing, EY

Thought leadership has to do more than educate or provide helpful information. It has to offer a new or different perspective that provokes a new way of thinking about something.

The Why: Why Do We Need a Thought Leadership Strategy?

B2B and professional services customers want to understand how your company can solve their problems – more precisely, they want to know which company among all the similar service providers will solve their problems best.

Thought leadership engages prospects very early in the research process (even before they are in market), helping them understand how your company is the best choice long before there’s an RFP.

For most companies, thought leadership leads to several significant business benefits:

1. Thought Leadership Moves the Conversation Beyond Features and Benefits

85% of B2B Marketers Fail to Connect Their Content to Business Value (The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to Thought Leadership, LinkedIn Marketing Solutions)

Thought leadership takes the conversation beyond the scope of your technical capabilities or the services your company provides. It shows that you understand and can help solve your audiences’ most pressing business problems.

When conducting customer interviews on behalf of our clients, we hear a common frustration. Most services companies have a very narrow, siloed approach – unwilling to look beyond the narrow project scope to the larger business impact of the project outcomes.

Thought leadership helps companies connect their offerings to the business value of solving their customers’ problems. And it does it before prospects are ready to discuss technical features and benefits or a specific solution.

2. Thought Leadership Works With Prospects’ Self-Directed Approach to Making Decisions

Studies show that today’s customers rely on their own research significantly more than on advice from a company representative or sales professional when making decisions. They do their homework!

Your company’s brand visibility and reputation as a leader in its field have become a critical part of the buyer’s research and selection process and, as a result, of your marketing.

According to Grist’s “The Value of B2B Thought Leadership Survey 2020,” top direct actions taken by executives when a company’s thought leadership hit the mark are:

32% reviewed the company’s market sector specialization
32% reviewed the company’s service offerings
31% reviewed the company’s capabilities

By comparison, the 2018 survey lists these three tops actions:

43% reviewed related articles
33% explored other sources on the topic
33% attended an event by the company that produced thought leadership

Notice a significant shift in the value that business executives place on thought leadership and how the content they consume influences their business decisions. This means that you need to publish more and higher quality content, do more speaking, publish articles in your and your clients’ industry publications, develop reports and other forms of thought leadership.

3. Thought Leadership Builds Credibility, Trust and Confidence in Your Company

With long sales cycles and a complex decision-making process, your company continually needs to have conversations with prospects, building credibility and trust over time.

Thought leadership signals that your firm and its experts can be trusted. What’s more, it earns companies the coveted “trusted advisor” status.

82% of Business Decision Makers State Thought Leadership Increased Their Trust in a Company (Marketing Insider Group)

However, credibility and trust don’t result from bate tactics, marketing gimmicks and mediocre, superficial content. They grow out of a deep understanding of your customers and a sincere desire to help them make difficult business decisions in today’s fast-changing and complex world.

In the 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study:

47% of executives shared their contact information after reading thought leadership
45% invited a firm to submit a proposal based on thought leadership
58% awarded a project based on thought leadership
61% said they are willing to pay a premium when they perceive an organization to be a thought leader

Done right, thought leadership creates a measurable positive business impact. Done wrong, it damages your brand and your company’s reputation. According to the same survey:

60% of decision makers stopped following an organization after reading thought leadership
29% decided not to award a project based on company’s thought leadership

The biggest complaint related to thought leadership is that content is superficial or lacks insight.

Always remember, a thought leader has to do more than show off their knowledge or be helpful. Thought leadership has to be thought-provoking and challenge customers’ assumptions about the subject or open their eyes in some way. It has to offer value beyond what customers can google on their own.

The How: Where Do We Start?

Align a Thought Leadership Strategy to Business and Marketing Goals

Begin by asking: Why are we doing this? What would we like thought leadership to help our business accomplish?

Although you can’t sell through thought leadership, it has to align with your offerings. It has to be relevant to your business, and like any marketing activity, thought leadership has to create positive business outcomes.

Use thought leadership to:

Build Brand Reputation and Relevance

Thought leadership helps associate your company’s name with its unique expertise, niche market or specialized offerings and what’s relevant to its customers. This is especially critical when you enter new markets or expand your offerings and need to “prove” your credibility in those areas.

Get in Front of New Customers

Thought leadership helps you get in front of new customers who currently may not be aware of your company, or those who are hesitant to go outside their select number of trusted companies. By putting high quality thought leadership in front of those prospects, you may be able to crack the door open just enough to start a conversation.

Move Prospects to Clients

By building credibility and trust in your company, thought leadership reduces the perceived risk associated with hiring you – especially if you don’t have a history of working together. It helps prospects understand how you approach problem-solving and what methodologies you will apply to solving their specific problem.

Expand and Deepen Relationships

Given the length and complexity of B2B sales cycles, thought leadership is a critical tool for staying top of mind between project opportunities and expanding existing relationships. However, to keep your audiences engaged, your thought leadership must align with their most pressing challenges, needs, concerns and interests.

What your customers want and need from their trusted partners is help with staying on top of industry trends and solutions in response to those trends.

Your thought leadership must deliver personal value to decision makers within your clients’ organizations.

Use Marketing Research to Inform Your Thought Leadership Strategy

Use these three types of business intelligence to inform your thought leadership strategy and help you make better, more strategic and more effective decisions.

1. Customer research, including buyer persona development and journey mapping
2. Competitive research
3. Industry research

Also read: Knowledge Is Revenue: How to Conduct Killer Customer and Competitor Research

Customer Research

Statistically, there are between 6 and 10 decision makers involved in complex B2B sales. These are your buyer personas – collective archetypes that represent each of those typical decision makers.

Begin with developing 3 to 5 personas to keep it manageable. Focus on the core attributes and behaviors, and create a separate persona only when the buying process or key motivators are different.

Focus on collecting information that would help you tailor your thought leadership topics and content to each persona.

  • What questions do decision makers have at the very early stages in the buying process?
  • What would help them make more informed decisions?
  • What issues are they worried about at 2 AM that you can help them solve?
  • What would help them do their job better?
  • What are the trends, challenges and opportunities that affect their world?

Download Your Ultimate Guide to Better Customer Research

Use this information to identify thought leadership topics, channels and formats. Remember that thought leadership is most effective in the early stages of the buyer’s journey and in the ongoing client relationship management phase. The stages in between rely more heavily on content that educates about and highlights your company’s offerings, provides proof of experience and how-to technical content.

During the Exploration/Awareness phase, prospects are looking for self-education, and they are not ready to evaluate specific solutions or solution providers. Thought leadership content allows you to reach audiences that are not presently aware of your firm, helping meet the first two objectives we’ve discussed above: increase brand relevance and get in front of new customers.

In the Evaluation/Consideration phase, your prospects are already aware of your company and may be considering it for an opportunity. Your focus should be on providing insight into your industry and the solutions your prospects need, showcasing your unique expertise and approach to problem-solving.

The thought leadership content for the Client Retention phase will be similar to the first two stages of the buyer’s journey. Focus your insights on helping your customers do their job, make better decisions and stay informed of emerging trends and opportunities. Your thought leadership should add value and, ultimately, strategically grow your existing client accounts.

Competitive Research

Also read: How to Conduct Killer Competitor Research

Understanding what your competitors are doing will help you identify any gaps your thought leadership can fill – or at least join a conversation with your own point of view.

To evaluate your competitors’ thought leadership, create a matrix that captures their topics, the types and formats of their published content, and the channels and frequency for each.

To dive deeper into their keywords or see which competitors’ content performs better, you’d need to use some paid analytics tools such as BuzzSumo, SimilarWeb or SEMrush.

Document what you can from each public website, blog and social media. Make a note if their experts present at conferences and do webinars, podcasts or guest blogging. Also identify any industry publications in which competing companies and their experts appear.

Analyze what you’ve collected, looking for what’s missing in the conversation, creating opportunities to set your company apart.

Business and Industry Research

This type of research helps you understand what’s happening in your customer’s markets, stay ahead of your industry trends and identify where your unique expertise can add value.

Primary research in itself is a highly valuable thought leadership strategy. However, if you don’t have the capability or capacity to conduct primary research, use existing research from trusted sources to develop thought leadership.

There are many local and global research companies that publish hundreds of reports every year – McKinsey & Company, Gartner, EY, Boston Consulting Group and Think with Google, just to name a few.

LinkedIn industry groups can be great sources of understanding what your customers are talking about and what questions they are asking.

And finally, ask your internal client-facing teams about questions they get from your customers at each stage in the buyer’s and customer’s journey. This will help you build content around addressing your customers’ challenges, questions and concerns.

Plan Your Thought Leadership Program

Deciding what to talk about can be overwhelming!

Your thought leadership lives at the intersection of your expertise and what your customers care about.

To find opportunities where your brand can own or lead timely conversations, begin by asking:

  • What is our expertise?
  • What is our brand’s point of view?
  • What topics can we choose where we have credibility and can actually be seen as thought leaders?
  • What’s the overlap between what we want – or can credibly talk about – and what customers need and want to know?

The Who: Working With Your Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

“I was once asked how to be a thought leader. The answer is: You have to be one.” – Brian Solis, Principal Analyst, Altimeter Group

Although the goal is to achieve a collective position of your company as a thought leader, you can’t get there without the individual contributions of your experts.

With most companies, a thought leadership program is a shared responsibility between technical experts and marketing professionals. The exact “split” will depend on many factors, including the size of your company and its marketing team.

It helps when SMEs have high visibility and large, valuable networks that will help increase the reach and impact of your thought leadership exponentially.

However, this is also a great way for younger technical professionals to build visibility, credibility and their personal brands. And they are often more eager to help marketing teams as they have much to prove and a burning desire to become more visible – within the firm and the industry.

Also, think about different content delivery formats and who would be better at authoring an article versus recording a video versus presenting a webinar or participating on a panel.

Help individuals share their content – provide scripts and graphics for individual sharing across SME social networks and encourage them to share directly with prospects and clients.

Make sure that once content is published, you collect all the positive feedback you can and communicate it back to your SMEs. It will be much easier to engage them if their efforts are getting noticed and recognized.

Taking Your Thought Leadership Content Over the Finish Line

It took a lot of work to get to this point, and having a distribution and promotion plan is critical.

The formats and channels will depend on the goals, topic and other factors, such as where the intended audiences for this content congregate.

Make sure that you provide your thought leadership content to all client-facing teams in a format(s) that makes it easy to share with their prospects and clients.

These are some high-level steps for promoting your thought leadership and thought leaders.

Promotion Checklist

Determine the most effective format and channel mix for each piece. Although it’s likely to always include your blog and LinkedIn, consider other channels and formats that showcase each piece in the best possible way and reach your audiences more effectively.

Develop a promotional schedule. Develop a calendar for the initial rollout campaign and decide when and how often you’ll be promoting this content over time. Is this content evergreen? Then put it into a regular rotation, making sure to update it as needed over time.

Produce and optimize channel-specific graphics and promotional scripts. Providing easy-to-use tools simplifies sharing for employees who are less comfortable with social media. It also ensures that all messages are consistent and on-brand and include all proper hashtags and mentions.

For SMEs:

  • Make sure their individual LinkedIn profiles are fully optimized
  • Work with them on promoting content from their profiles and responding to any comments, looking for further opportunities to add to the conversation
  • Research and carefully curate content from other credible sources that supports your SME’s point of view and helps build greater visibility of their specialized expertise

Identify a select group of company leaders and client-facing employees whose expertise is similar or who have exposure to the type of prospects and clients you hope to reach. Work with them individually on content promotion.

Measuring Impact

Measuring “thought leadership” can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Considering the time and effort required for starting and running a thought leadership program, you need to know and be able to show that it’s working.

Demonstrating success not only will help justify time and resources spent but also help ensure internal support for growing and expanding the program in the future.

Different activities require different levels of investment. For example, speaking opportunities, panel participation and webinars are highly effective in positioning your company as a thought leader.

However, they take time and some actual cost. On the other hand, one speaking engagement or webinar can result in a much higher number of leads than a blog post, for example, and provide you with a great deal of additional content to reuse and repurpose. Establish a process for selecting events and presentation venues that make the investment worthwhile.

Calculating revenue generated from thought leadership requires fully connected internal systems and technologies for lead tracking and attribution and for your business development, marketing and leadership teams to be fully aligned.

However, there are some metrics that a marketing team of any size can easily set up and track.

Your Metrics Must Align With Your Goals

If you are looking to increase your firm’s visibility and credibility in specific areas of practice, these are some metrics you could use:

  • Increase in website traffic, especially new users
  • Search engine position
  • Social media engagement
  • Branded searches
  • Media or influencer mentions and backlinks
  • Inquiries and leads generated

Website traffic is easy to see, and it’s easy to track improvements over time. Look at your month-over-month numbers and note any spikes in new visitors related to events such as a webinar or a content promotion campaign.

Look for any indicators related to increasing your firm’s ability to be found.

Keep in mind that for topics that are very highly specialized or target a small group of prospects, the traffic numbers or rankings may not be as high, which doesn’t mean that your content is not performing.

High social media engagement, especially comments and shares from your targeted personas, will indicate that your thought leadership resonates with your ideal audience.

Use lead generation forms to track leads and inquiries received as a direct result of someone consuming your thought leadership. Develop a process for SMEs and other client-facing staff to track and share when someone contacts them with an opportunity after reading an article or attending a presentation.

Don’t discount qualitative metrics – someone mentioning an article or presentation or a prospect providing feedback related to the ideas expressed in your thought leadership.

“Anecdotes about how content is used can be more compelling than quantitative measures about the ROI from a piece of content.” – Lucia Rahilly, Global Editorial Director, McKinsey

Train your SMEs, leadership, PMs and other client-facing staff to document and bring back to marketing any anecdotal proof of your thought leadership working, getting the attention of people outside your current networks – especially, if these people are potential clients or referral sources or are in markets and geographies where your firm is less known.

Need help planning and executing your thought leadership program? Substance151 works with companies to develop thought leadership strategies and plan and execute programs that strengthen their brand, expand their reach and influence and attract their ideal clients. Contact us to start a conversation!

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