But with the decline of traditional media (meaning: smaller staffs and fewer print pages) combined with the ascendency of social media, companies must look beyond announcements to communicate who they are and what they stand for as part of their marketing and branding initiatives.
This article is designed to offer some perspectives on Thought Leadership based on extensive experience that includes helping clients generate new business and led to acquisitions in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars.
What is Thought Leadership?
Thought Leadership is a form of content marketing designed to establish a company's senior executives as having interesting insights and perspectives on issues important to customers. Thought Leadership topics must be timely, relevant, credible and interesting, and can include:
- Blog articles (such as this one).
- Social media posts (such as the ones we'll post to cross-promote this blog).
- Contributed articles to key publications and media.
- Newsletters and direct emails.
- Case studies and white papers (though we're seeing more interest in shorter-than-traditional white papers).
- Speeches (which can be repurposed as content for a blog post, a podcast and social media).
- Surveys or reports on interesting issues. (For example, for one cybersecurity client, we offered quarterly updates on key threats. For a nonprofit, we issued an annual look an important issue, based on a consumer survey, facing its constituency; the results were widely picked up and sparked national coverage.)
Really, Thought Leadership anyway you can get your message out to audiences that matter to you.
Why Should Companies Consider Thought Leadership? People like to know who their buying from, and like to buy from companies whose values are aligned with theirs. Partly that's because, especially with consumer items, we define ourselves to an extent by the items we purchase: our cars, clothes, technology and other items may help to define our self-perceptions and say something about who we are. (Remember the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials?)
Interestingly, this is true for B2B customers as it is for consumers.
Need evidence of that? On this blog, we've discussed the rise of corporate boycotts: "boycotts by companies in order to demonstrate distance from controversial programs and personalities" and as a way to show support for their customers.
So it's important to clearly define "who" your company is and what it stands for, and Thought Leadership is a way to communicate that.
What are the Benefits of a Thought Leadership Campaign?
Thought Leadership is a way to engage with customers, potential customers as well as employees and potential employees and partners by providing thoughts and insights on issues that matter to them.
With an effective Thought Leadership campaign, companies can:
- Establish credibility by showcasing expertise on key topics and encourage innovation.
- Start conversations with prospective customers by addressing topics that are important to them.
- Differentiate themselves from the competition and raise awareness of the company.
- Define who they are by discussing corporate values.
- Establish a sense of community.
- Provide content that can educate and help to qualify customers. (We had one startup client who said that after a campaign we conducted, "The number of calls coming in did not increase -- but the number of calls from people who understood clearly what we do increased by 90%." This was a significant time savings for them because the calls that came in were from people who were better positioned to buy the product.)
- Improve their SEO rankings by generating more searchable content.
- Provide another way to provide context on a news announcement. (Recently a blog we wrote about an acquisition of a client was repurposed and included by several reporters looking for more detail than was communicated in the deal press release.)
- Make it easier to close sales.
You may have noticed that the last bullet point immediate above stated "Make it easier to close sales" but not "Closes sales."
Thought Leadership can have a call to action (CTA) -- like subscribe to a free newsletter, download a white paper, schedule a demo or sign up for a free trial -- to turn your audience into a sales lead.
But -- and this is important -- without the expectation that a Thought Leadership piece will lead to a direct sale. It shouldn't be all about your product or service offerings. That's a turnoff for most people. For example, Rubbermaid has received recognition for helping customers stay organized, with tips that include Rubbermaid products without the hard sell of the ABC (Always Be Closing) of selling. People look for Thought Leadership content that will help them solve issues they're dealing with but they don't always want to be sold to.
Instead, Thought Leadership is about showing customers that you understand what business problems keeps them up at night and having perspectives on key issues and topics they need to address during the day. It's about providing helpful insight and showing that a company is engaged and relevant and is willing to help. It's about building trust and establishing credibility.
When Should You Consider Launching a Thought Leadership Campaign?
Organizations that don't have a lot of news but have a lot of insight and expertise to share are ideal candidates for Thought Leadership.
This is especially true for clients that have complicated stories to tell because their customers likely have complex issues to solve, and Thought Leadership via blog posts can tackle complex stories in a way that press releases, Twitter and LinkedIn can't.
For example, we had a client CEO -- very smart guy, who felt he didn't have much to say as a Thought Leader. He ran U.S. operations for a global software developer, but the U.S. was one of its smaller divisions. First we had to convince him that a blog was the best way to tell their story because of the absence of hard news that reporters like to write about. reluctantly, he signed off on the blog. Within a few months, we started seeing interesting results. The blog articles were cited by current customers, who helped spread the word. Traffic to the website increased, and we started getting recognition for the blog from the other regions within the company. Our direct clients were invited to the company's exclusive global marketing meeting to discuss the success of the Thought Leadership blog, and our content was frequently picked up by the folks in other regions.
We found that blog provided us with a way to tell the company's story in a way that would not have been as effective if we had focused only on traditional media.
For a biotech client that started off focusing on media relations, we added a social media component to be able to address issues important to their customers. Through its blog, the company discusses trends, industry changes, and mostly, tips on how to work smarter, get projects completed faster and on budget. The client has seen significant growth over the past five years, recognition among its peers for pioneering (in their industry) social media, and validation in the form of being acquired by a billion-dollar global company. The client has told us over the year that awareness among prospects has been high because they see a lot of valuable content. And the acquirer company was interested in part because of the client's successful Thought Leadership campaign.
What are The Elements of a Successful Thought Leadership Campaign?
Here are 7 important elements:
- Understand your customers and develop content that addresses the problems they deal with.
Your expertise is important but Thought Leadership really starts with a good sense of what drives your customers. Some clients have based their knowledge on annual customer meetings, input from sales reps or relationship managers. Whatever works well for your organization, make sure you're focused on issues relevant to your customers' issues.
- Address customers' questions and offer real advice.
For one client, where pricing was an issue, we discussed pricing transparently (something not usually done in their sector) and offer a lot of articles about how to save money. If you see this as an opportunity to just sell product, no one will read your stuff and you will lose credibility.
- Stay relevant and timely.
We can all get caught up with other aspects of our jobs so that we miss timely connections for Thought Leadership. We generally develop a quarterly roadmap that looks at events and calendar items to connect to blog articles. That said, also make sure to write some content that is specifically timeless – what reporters call “evergreen” because it’s useful now and next year.
4. Give your Thought Leadership some personality.
People want advice but they don't want a lecture so your Thought Leadership should be engaging, convey a sense of the clients' individual personality and interesting. Don't talk down to the reader.
5. Make it interactive.
You can invite customers or partners write a guest blog or include interviews with industry people you respect. It could be a great opportunity to profile a customer or a partner, and enhance their credibility – and yours by showcasing smart people.
6. Be patient but also be committed to Thought Leadership.
Successful Thought Leadership has to be built over time to establish credibility. It doesn’t come with a flip of the switch. You should figure out if you have the time to develop your voice and the budget and resources to launch a campaign. You don’t need to post every day, just find a consistent pattern. But Thought Leadership is something of a treadmill – you need to keep going with it. It’s kind of sad to see an abandoned blog or Twitter feed. The company may still be doing fine but an abandoned social media feed leaves people wondering about the viability and commitment of the company.
7. Remember to repurpose and cross-promote.
You should consider repurposing content to play across different channels. For example, we once took a client’s white paper that had underperformed (written before we started working for the client) and broke it out into nearly 75 different tweets, which included a CTA every five or six tweets. Doing so gave us useful social media content and generated a wave of downloads months after the white paper had been published, which helped justify the costs.
Because you never know where your audience will be, you should cross-promote content across all channels to reach your audience wherever they might be (which could be Twitter on Monday, LinkedIn on Tuesday, LinkedIn on Wednesday and Instagram on Thursday)
Thought Leadership is an important tool for marketers. If you have more questions about Thought Leadership campaigns, let us know what they are, and we'll answer them in a forthcoming post. Or feel free to contact us at blog at birnbachcom.com.