Winning with Ideas: 7 Tips for Thought Leadership Success

It wasn’t exactly headline news, but it certainly caught my attention when Booz & Company recently announced that Thomas Stewart, former editor and managing director of Harvard Business Review, was joining the management consulting firm as Chief Marketing and Knowledge Officer.

Editor to CMO is not your typical career progression, especially in these days of growing pressure on marketers to hold the line on costs and demonstrate return on investment. You’d expect a hard-core marketing veteran at a blue chip company like Booz rather than a career writer, editor, and intellectual like Stewart.

But the reality is that marketing, especially for companies that sell high value solutions, is becoming less about pushing products and more about demonstrating expertise and knowledge. Hiring someone like Stewart reflects the growing understanding that B2B marketing organizations need to think more like publishers and less like promoters. We need to produce great content that demonstrates thought leadership. We need to win first and foremost with our ideas.

Thinking like a publisher means developing and disseminating ideas and information that your potential buyers actually want. Cut out the promotional fluff they ignore anyway, provide legitimately useful information, and you’ve taken an important step forward in standing out from the crowd and opening the door for constructive conversation.

Doing thought leadership successfully, though, is not simple. Your prospects are inundated with allegedly helpful information, your competitors are vying for the same intellectual space, and you can literally go crazy trying to figure out how best to package your knowledge and figure out which communications channels are most effective.

Years of experience studying and working with top technology and professional services companies suggest that seven steps are essential to thought leadership success.

  1. Be relevant. This seems obvious, but I’m constantly at how many companies produce white papers and other purported thought leadership material that just isn’t relevant to the buyers they are chasing. Being relevant means understanding what the important business issues are for the audience, what information could be especially useful to them on those issues, and what research, insight, and experience you have that supports fresh thinking on those issues. Simply explaining the features of a new product or service usually doesn’t qualify.
  2. Be real. Buyers are always looking for proof that you know what you’re talking about, and that you’ve actually done work on the issues you’re discussing. Customer case studies, not surprisingly, are among the most popular materials in the thought leadership marketing tool kit. But buyers are wary of the stories that are too perfect. They know things don’t always work out for the best. Buyers appreciate learning about how you and others have struggled as well as succeeded. Sometimes failure stories can be as enlightening as success stories. And “stories” is indeed a great way to think about thought leadership. It’s a lot easier to remember a story than a slew of statistics.
  3. Be engaging. There are few things more sleep inducing than the long, jargon-filled white paper. You might have good ideas, information, and insight for your audience, but if you can’t package it in engaging ways, it’s of little use. Partly this is just a matter of tone and style; don’t be afraid to liven things up! But it’s also a matter of formats. What about publishing simple e-books instead of boring white papers? Maybe a blog is the best vehicle to showcase your expertise. Can you use audio or video? Google got all sorts of attention recently for producing a comic book to help explain its new browser, Chrome.
  4. Be present. Thought leadership content does little good if it’s just locked away in some corner of your Website. Attracting buyers and other influencers to your material means being present where they are already congregating – and making it easy for others to spread the good word about your valuable content. Traditionally this meant buying expensive advertising or pleading with major media gatekeepers to give you a platform. Now the Web, and especially online social media, make it much easier to reach your audience directly through blogs, online communities, social networks, podcasting, and the like.
  5. Be conversational. Publishing great material is just the beginning of the thought leadership process. The point, after all, is to get into direct conversations with your prospects. Thought leadership publications (including audio or video) should always include clear invitations to continue the conversation (i.e., easy access to company experts, online communities, or other interactive vehicles). In fact, buyers would often rather learn about new ideas in the first place through private discussions or small seminars rather than publications and one-way presentations.
  6. Be aligned. One of the biggest risks with thought leadership is having the marketing organization tell one story while sales and delivery folks are telling another. Putting forward some great new ideas about issue X gets undercut immediately if your customer-facing colleagues have no idea what you’re talking about. Taking the time to work internally and build alignment around key issues, ideas, and approaches is critical to presenting a unified front to the market.
  7. Be in it for the long haul. The reason Booz and Bain and McKinsey are widely respected as experts in the market is because they are constantly cranking out interesting research and ideas. It’s certainly not because they spend a lot of money on clever advertising (they don’t!). Even a company like Accenture, which does spend heavily on advertising (wouldn’t you like to have Tiger Woods, too?), invests heavily in ongoing research on key issues and proof points to back up their claims about “High Performance. Delivered.”

Thought leadership marketing is not for necessarily for everyone, but it is fast becoming one of the most effective ways to for companies to distinguish themselves from the competitive masses. Even if you can’t afford to hire the next editor from Harvard Business Review to lead the charge, thinking more like a publisher and exploring how best to take the seven steps above should go a long way toward crafting a successful approach.

— Rob Leavitt © Knowledgence Associates, 2008 / All Rights Reserved

Rob Leavitt is President of Woodridge Marketing, a strategic consultancy that helps companies stand out from the crowd. He is also an Associate of The Bloom Group, which specializes in thought leadership marketing for professional services firms, and a former Vice President of Marketing and Membership Community at ITSMA, where he studied and worked on thought leadership marketing with many of the world’s top technology and services companies.

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