Strengthening thought leadership marketing: Five steps to excellence


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I’ve just had the privilege of helping judge ITSMA’s Marketing Excellence Awards, and was impressed in particular with the submissions in the Thought Leadership Marketing category. 

As recently as five years ago, thought leadership marketing was mainly the province of the top consulting firms. Few other B2B firms took it seriously. Boy, has that changed! The submissions in this year’s awards program reflect a substantial increase not only in spending but, more important, in the programmatic discipline that is necessary to make a serious impact with customers and market influencers.

I can’t name names yet because ITSMA is still selecting finalists and then the ultimate winners. It’s clear from the submissions, however, along with working with many of these companies over the years, that there are five important ways in which the best of the best stand apart from the crowd:

  1. Focus and depth: Lots of companies practice “random acts of content,” dashing off periodic white papers, articles, videos, blog posts, and the like with little focus or depth. But when you’re dealing with high level customers facing serious business challenges), the scattershot approach provides little value. Indeed, according to a major study of business technology buyers last year by ITSMA and Pierre Audoin Consulting, only 16% of these buyers believe that their solution providers are very helpful in showing them the possibilities to solve their business challenges. If you’re going to join the ranks of the “very helpful,” you need to pick one or a few issues, stick with it, and go deep.
  2. Do the research: A lot of so-called thought leadership is really just opinion, perhaps based on a project or two. Our customers want evidence, and evidence usually requires research. The best thought leadership programs are built around serious research, including analysis of existing literature, new customer surveys, and in-depth case studies. One of the main reasons that the industry analyst firms remain so influential with buyers is that they are constantly cranking out new research. (Yes, marketers sometimes question the quality of that research, but it is generally miles ahead of the “thought leadership” content that vendors themselves produce.) To help make “thought leadership” worthy of the term, start from the beginning and don’t skimp on the research.
  3. Engage and empower internally. Too often, marketers publish thought leadership content but forget to tell anyone else in the organization. At best, this can mean losing the opportunity to have more colleagues representing that good thinking in the marketplace. At worst, customers start asking your people questions on an issue about which they have no idea. Especially as you begin to integrate social media across the business, you want more people engaging directly with customers, prospects, and other stakeholders. Engaging and empowering your customer-facing employees with thought leadership gives them something valuable to talk about, and can quickly become an essential multiplier for overall program impact.
  4. Leverage your best content. Market engagement today is about pervasive presence and ongoing conversation, not just traditional publishing and speaking. Customers want to chew over and debate your ideas, often without you in the [virtual] room. To help make this happen, you need to leverage your best thought leadership content by publishing compelling bits and bytes in appropriate formats across the networks and channels where your customers congregate. If you’re working on a white paper, for example, you want to think: Is there a short video we can produce? Where can we blog about this? What articles can we publish? Where are there opportunities to brief our best customers on our new thinking? Is there a debate I can set up?
  5. Invest in expertise. Ultimately, great thought leadership programs are built around experts — experts in the subjects at hand, of course, but also experts in research, analysis, publication, social media, and collaboration. The most successful programs invest in their people in at least three ways: Funding full time staff positions, recruiting for necessary skills and helping existing staff develop the right skills, and investing in partnerships for complementary capabilities (including brand recognition, as with prestigious academics, universities, and/or outside media and research organizations).

Building a successful thought leadership marketing program is a long-term process. The companies that are best, such as McKinsey, Accenture, IBM, Deloitte, and others, have spent years doing the research, building market presence, and refining what works. They pick key customer issues and stick with them. They go deep. And they invest in their people and programs. 

      What’s missing from my list? What works best for you?

      Republished with author's permission from original post.

      Rob Leavitt
      Rob is a Principal at Solutions Insights, a B2B consulting and training firm, and a Senior Associate of the Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA), where he served as Vice President of Marketing and Member Advocacy from 2-27.


      1. Good piece Rob. The only hold back from vendors doing a better job is the patience of sr mgmt (the big boss) and obsession with immediate leadgen results. Fortunately, i have worked with a few clients who practice good TL in their marketing programs. Often times it involves the periodic use of SME from the analyst community, but some of the SW vendors out there have some pretty fair SME in my experience.

      2. Thanks Henry. I certainly agree that senior management and lead gen focus is often an obstacle, but I do also believe that, even when there is senior level support, the actual execution is a real challenge for many companies. I’d love to hear more about some of the clients you’ve work with (I’m at robleav at gmail); I’m always looking for good practice examples. In my experience, though, even many companies that put in some real time and budget still fall short in some or all of the five areas I cite above. But maybe I’m just in an overly critical mood today!


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