January 21, 2018

Thought leadership is still dead; long live idea marketing

So much of what passes for thought leadership these days is little more than warmed over brochures. It may look better and read better than a brochure, but it’s still a brochure because it emphasizes our products and services over the needs of the people we are trying to reach.

Last year, I wrote a piece that talked about why thought leadership is dead and why we needed a new term to describe it.

This week, Gartner proved why we need to make the change. Proclaiming that thought leadership isn’t just for consulting firms anymore, Gartner said in this press release that thought leadership has emerged as an “organized discipline.”

Phew. Glad that we now have permission to finally get ourselves organized and go forth and do what we’ve already been doing for years.

Then Gartner did what it always does; it coined an acronym: TLM, or Thought Leadership Marketing.

Gartner has a peculiar habit of trying to lay an intellectual claim through acronyms—perhaps it’s the firm’s heritage in IT. Regardless, it’s a twist on an old consultant’s trick: Gain attention and credibility with press, customers, and influencers by creating your own definition, which gives you the ability to insert the “what we call x…” phrase into descriptions of otherwise basic things.

Having been a journalist for years, I know that these acronyms lead even the most feeble-minded of us journos to the next obvious question: What do you mean when you say (insert acronym here)? That gives the analyst an opening to define what’s behind the acronym and establish intellectual ownership of the subject area.

Now, I don’t mean to single out Gartner here. Like I said, this is an old consulting trick—everybody does it. And in Gartner’s defense, sometimes IT can be so complex and confusing that it really does help to have an acronym for talking about things.

I guess I’m a little bitter, through. At CIO magazine, I spent years writing about one of those Gartner-coined acronyms: Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software. The more I learned about it, the more I realized how little the acronym had to do with what the stuff really did.

So I’d like to try, with your help, to nip TLM in the bud before it gains the power to make us all miserable.

Gartner’s definition of thought leadership marketing is this:

“The giving—for free or at a nominal charge—of information or advice that a client will value so as to create awareness of the outcome that a company’s product or service can deliver, in order to position and differentiate that offering and stimulate demand for it.”

Yikes. What a mouthful. But beyond the awkward language, I think that the definition is just plain wrong. Or at least, as some colleagues who also write thought leadership marketing have told me this week, too narrow.

I think that this definition will lead to the perpetuation of the brochure-on-steroids interpretation of thought leadership. It is not about positioning your offerings at all. It is about selling a point of view that educates the audience. The education is the exchange of value that begins a relationship between the customer and the deliverer—whether that deliverer is a salesperson, a marketer, or a subject matter expert. That relationship is deepened through a coordinated, multistep campaign with successively more intimate communications over time.

At some point that relationship will include describing your offerings, but at that point it ceases to be thought leadership. It will be a case study of your offerings in use, or it will in fact be a brochure. But it won’t be thought leadership, because it will no longer be about ideas.

That’s why I suggested last year that we ditch thought leadership and use the phrase idea marketing instead. I even developed an acronym: IM. (Damn, guess that one’s already taken.)

Idea marketing isn’t easy. It presupposes that we have something to talk about besides our products and services. And the truth is that as marketers we don’t have anything else to talk about. Idea marketing means we need to do more. We need to do research. We need help from subject matter experts and salespeople with their ears to the ground in the market. The difficulty of lining up those other pieces is why we often wind up creating expensive brochures rather than ideas.

Idea marketing is not purely about the nature of the content (Gartner’s definition sounds like it intends the output to be white paper to me). It is a process for developing and disseminating ideas through various channels that build a relationship with prospects and customers. It is designed to move them through the marketing funnel more quickly.

True idea marketing (or, if you insist, thought leadership marketing) requires more than marketing. Here are the five important pieces:

  • Research the need for ideas. Idea marketing will be an expensive waste of time if your customers aren’t looking for it or don’t see you as an acceptable source for it. Doing research first allows you to set goals using reliable, objective data. Then when people start to question your strategy (and they will), you can show them the numbers. Survey internal sales and marketing staff, customers, target markets, and influencers to determine what they are looking for. Here are some questions to ask:
    • Do customers view of you as a thought leader? If not, can they envision you moving into that role—i.e., give you permission to be a thought leader?
    • What are customers’ areas of interest?
    • What types of vehicles (councils, conferences, white papers, social media, etc.) are target customers most interested in?
    • How can idea marketing influence customers’ buying behavior?

Answers to these questions will drive the structure of the program and its ROI goals.

  • Determine the readiness of the organization. Professional services firms expect their consultants to have new ideas, and that expectation flows through everything those firms do, from recruiting and training to marketing. Idea marketing requires a cultural commitment to creating an internal idea supply chain and strong executive support.
  • Build an idea network. There are two parts to idea marketing: idea development and content dissemination. Marketing is potentially great at the latter, but it needs help with the former. An idea network provides a reliable source of content for marketers to package and disseminate. The idea network focuses on identifying internal thought leaders and building alliances with external academics and customers who can help develop and test ideas. Primary and secondary research provide the inspiration for some ideas and the objective justification for others. Internal knowledge share sessions and reward-and-recognition programs provide the motivation for idea generators to step forward and help imbue the idea supply chain into the culture of the organization. (ITSMA clients can download a detailed example of a network here.)
  • Create a content development process. Marketing needs to develop vehicles for disseminating ideas to customers and salespeople. The key components of the program are:
    • Develop a publishing process. Marketers must become publishers, with a process for refining and presenting content through various vehicles (such as conference presentations, white papers, social media, etc.).
    • Create a calendar. A calendar helps marketing plan the frequency and focus of its output.
    • Align content with the buying process. Marketing needs to develop materials that are appropriate to each stage of the buying process so that customers and salespeople can get the right information at the right time. Marketing and sales need to agree on the alignment of content to the various buying stages so that sales will get the right signals about when and how to approach customers for a sale.
    • Install systems and metrics for supporting idea marketing. The goal of idea marketing is not simply to raise awareness of the company; it is to help move buyers through the sales funnel and to make a sale. For that reason, the program needs to be tightly integrated into the company’s IT systems—and particularly its CRM systems—so that the impact of thought leadership can be tracked all the way through to the sale. These are the key components:
    • Install a lead tracking and nurturing system. Marketers can use the consumption of idea marketing to track the readiness of prospects to buy if they have a system for tracking a prospect’s activities. For example, if a prospect downloads a piece of content targeted to the interest phase of the buying process and reads it thoroughly, a lead tracking and nurturing system can track that activity and send a signal to salespeople that the prospect is most likely ready for a call. As the lead is passed over to sales for follow-through, the idea content is tagged as part of the sale. If a sale doesn’t result, the lead can be put back into the nurturing process while keeping track of the content he or she has already consumed. This lead tracking system should be integrated with the company’s CRM system (most traditional CRM systems are not set up to handle lead nurturing) so that leads can be handed back and forth between marketing and sales without losing anyone along the way.
    • Agree with sales on the definition of a sales-ready lead. The benefits of the program will be lost if sales and marketing can’t agree on the point at which the consumption of the content provides a reliable signal of intent to buy. There needs to be a smooth handoff of prospects between marketing and sales for idea marketing to have the fullest possible impact on a sale.

So I think we need a clearer and broader definition of thought leadership marketing than the acronym gives us. What do you think?

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Why the volume and quality of interactions with customers has to pass for social media ROI

Google Analytics - Number Nerd
Image by LollyKnit via Flickr

I wish I could say that social media leads to sales. I really do. But I can’t. And I haven’t encountered anyone else who can either, have you? So when we think about social media ROI, we need to make a leap of faith. We need to believe that more engagement between our companies and the people we want to reach is a good thing that ultimately leads to sales—but down a long, narrow, winding path with a few jumps between cliffs thrown in there.

To make ourselves feel a little more comfortable with this idea, we may need to categorize social media with something whose hazy ROI we’re more familiar and comfortable with: PR.

There have been research attempts made to uncover and evaluate methods for measuring the ROI of PR. But you’re not going to like them.

Jumping through ROI hoops
Techniques include measuring the:

  • Value of impressions. We track the marketing mix (including PR) over time against trends in sales. Lots of variables there.
  • Return on media impact. This is the number of articles or blog posts that mention the product or service measured against the trend in sales. Again, tough to isolate PR’s role.
  • Value of earned media. This is what it would cost to place an ad in a magazine vs. the cost of getting the story placement. The PR cost is usually less and the value is usually larger, but by how much? Old beliefs about the relative value of earned media vs. advertising are all over the map—and probably need to be revised in the age of social media.

But ROI has to be there, right?
Still, we know in our bones that positive word of mouth has a positive effect on sales. We just have a hard time proving it. The only effective argument I’ve heard recently is that we embed calls to action in social media that drive readers to a landing page where we capture their information and start nurturing them as leads. But without good systems for tracking those leads from social media all the way through a sale, it’s difficult and expensive to do. And it leads back to the problem we have with PR. Did the social media impression really lead to the sale?

As with PR, perhaps all we can do is establish that social media was at least a guidepost along that narrow rocky path to a sale.

Volume and quality of interactions
So if you buy that leap of logic, let’s say that blogs are another channel, like PR, in a marketing mix designed to familiarize customers and prospects with our companies and us. And if that’s true, then we should try to increase the volume and quality of interactions with have with customers and prospects through social media, no?

That’s when things start to get easier. We can more easily measure engagement in social media. Especially on blogs.

For this reason, I think we need to think about blogs as the center point of a social media strategy. Aside from the corporate, a blog is the mother ship of social media interaction and content. And blogs are really measurable. In fact, we can do a lot of it for free. Here are some metrics, mostly for blogs, that help build engagement with customers and prospects. Please tell me what I should add or take away. And if you have the magic sauce for social media ROI, please douse us with it!

(For much more on the social media ROI topic, see this terrific list of resources compiled by Robin Broitman at Interactive Insights Group called the Social Media Metrics Superlist.)

  • Connect to your most important keywords. SEO is really a fancy term for constructing your sentences carefully—especially your headlines. If the intention of your blog is to drive traffic to your main website for lead generation, then you should be using the keywords on your blog that matter most on your website. To oversimplify it, if you want to sell more ERP software, you should use keywords like “enterprise software,” a lot on your blog so that Google associates your blog with your company’s area of expertise.
  • Grow the number of influential referral sites. “Owning” a keyword term in Google searches is nice, but building traffic to your blog through references on other blogs and websites is the key to sustained, long-term growth. Obviously, the more influential the referral site the better. But we’re not talking just sheer numbers here. For example, being listed on the blogroll of a highly respected blogger, analyst, or journalist not only generates traffic; it also establishes you as an authority among the people who care most about the subject you’re blogging about. That authority begins to have exponential effects over time. You and your posts are referred to more often as the network of referrals grows. The growth in traffic then confers its own authority—you get lots of visits so you must be smart. It becomes a virtuous cycle.
  • Don’t forget the outbound links. We all tend to obsess over the number of mentions with get in blog rolls or our influence rank in Technorati. But we often don’t stop to think about whether we’re linking to anyone else’s blog. One of the cornerstones of social media is sharing. Be generous with links to other blogs and websites and others will return the favor and build your traffic for you.
  • Understand the location of your audience. In Google analytics, you can drill down by country—even by city—to see where your traffic comes from. Comparing the geographical distribution of your blog to your company’s website should give you a sense of whether your blog is hitting with the same areas of the world as your website. It could also reveal potential new areas of focus for your salespeople.
  • Measure endurance. Good blogs hold people to the page they’re viewing. So time spent is metric to track to see if people spend more time reading over time. Bounce rate is a good metric for websites because it helps show whether people are finding what they’re looking for. But it’s not so good for blogs because blogs generally only have one or two pages—a page for the posts and a page for “about me” or “contact me—so the bounce rate is going to be higher for blogs by default. You read the post, you leave. Google analytics also has a metric for loyalty—the numbers of repeat visits over time—that shows whether people are sticking with you.
  • Find and nurture your VIPs. It’s hard to measure the number of people who care about and are really influenced by your blog. So I apply the old subscription model. If people care enough to want to know when your next post comes out, they are engaged. If they also comment on your blog, they are friends. Make a list of the people who subscribe to your blog through RSS and e-mail and match them up to your comments. Those who both subscribe and comment regularly are your VIPs. RSS+comments=VIP. These are the people who matter; they should receive responses to all their comments and an e-mail thanking them for being such a valuable collaborator. If they happen to also be customers, then all the better. But just don’t try to sell them. They know where to find you.
  • Use Twitter for blog PR. If Twitter isn’t one of your highest-ranking referral sites, you’re not using it properly. Twitter is the logical front end to a blog post. It’s where you distill the post down to a nugget and put a link next to it. There are even tools like Tweet This, that can be set up to send a tweet based on the title of your post automatically. Or a tweet can be the inspiration for a blog post later on. Regardless, blogs and Twitter accounts should be joined at the hip, because Twitter is a powerful traffic builder to blogs.
  • Use URL shorteners to gauge subject interest. By using a URL shortener like bit.ly within a Tweet, you can track how many people click on the content link you offer in your tweets. Sure, the language of your tweet counts in building interest, but if you link to content that is directly related to your tweet, it’s a good gauge of how popular the subject is among your followers.
  • Use social networks as water coolers and newsstands. LinkedIn and Facebook have groups where you can post elements of your blog post as a question, or post the entire thing as a news item. Track the number of comments and views to the things you post. The numbers aren’t too big here generally, as the group tools on these sites are crude and many group leaders don’t spend much time filtering out the self-promoting jerks that litter these things with spam. But it’s a way to expose your blog to new faces and engage in dialog away from the blog.
  • Build cross-referencing across social media tools. No social media tool is an island. All should cross-reference each other at every opportunity. So for example, your blog comments on other’s blogs should contain your Twitter handle and a link to your blog. The communities you belong to should all Your LinkedIn profile should display your most recent posts and tweets, and your blog should display all of the above. There’s no real way to measure all this from what I can tell, but it isn’t hard and it can’t hurt.
  • Embed and measure calls to action. If we can get people to a landing page, we should. Social media offer plenty of opportunities for doing that. And sometimes social media becomes the end in itself. For example, the landing page could be for a LinkedIn group you manage rather than the traditional white paper, newsletter, or Webinar. Social media gives us ways to build relationships with customers that white papers or newsletters can’t.

What do you think?

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Social media isn’t enough. We need a marketing transformation.

During one of the first few days I went to work at CIO magazine in 1995, I had what we called a “vendor visit”—one of many I would have in the coming years. The idea behind the visits was to avoid having us journos become isolated in our ivory tower. We needed to hear from marketers who were out there day-to-day listening to CIOs’ problems and aspirations. Plus, many were advertisers, so the visits made it seem like we weren’t completely ignoring what they had to say.

But mostly we were.

Back then what marketers had to say was all about their offerings. And why not? The IT industry was on fire and the stuff was flying out the doors. Marketers and salespeople didn’t have to do much coaxing to get CIOs to buy, so why get complicated?

But a quick read of our magazine showed that we didn’t write about products. We wrote about the typical concerns of a C-level executive, such as strategy, leadership, organizational design, and change management. Kind of a Fortune magazine for IT executives.

Bibles, vacuums, and boxes
But the vendors had little need to engage with CIOs at that kind of level. And the guy that showed up to see me that day was a representation of the times. Big, stony-faced and intimidating, with a lapsed football player’s gut and a big school ring buried into one of his fingers. He wasn’t a marketer, but he had been sent by a marketer, who hadn’t bothered to accompany him or even send an agency PR person for translation and kind supplication. So much for hearing about the latest strategic trends affecting CIOs.

This guy was a salesman. Could have been bibles or vacuum cleaners, but they didn’t need sales guys for that stuff anymore. They needed guys to take orders for these boxes. He swung his expanded briefcase up onto the table, pulled out a media kit bulging with press releases about speeds and feeds and plunked it down on the table in front of me. “That’s for you,” he said. Then he launched into a pitch, delivered in a tone and with an expression that made it clear that this time could be money in his pocket if it wasn’t for me.

For my part, I made sure I conveyed the same body language, while choosing the chair nearest the door. I counted the minutes (these things go even more slowly when you have to listen).

Michael Jordan and the baseball bat
When it finally ended he said something that I’ve never forgotten. As he grandiosely snapped the buckles on the briefcase and dragged it off the table, he snorted, “CIO magazine, huh? Why don’t you have CIOs writing it?”

At that moment, I realized that I wasn’t just wasting his time. In his mind, I shouldn’t even have been working there. Given my minimal knowledge of IT at the time, I guess he had a point.

But it was clear that he had no concept of how difficult it is to write clear, compelling content about complex subjects. Assuming CIOs would be willing to accept the pay cut, and smart and determined as they are, I’m certain that few have the talent for or interest in the publishing process.

What am I paying for?
Marketers today are in the same position I was with that sales guy in 1995: Wondering how to explain the value and difficulty of creating clear, compelling content about a complex subject.

Except that today many of those sales guys are gone. Today, more salespeople are able to have business and strategy discussions with customers and take the time to listen to their needs. Thus, their skepticism becomes sharper and more justified. If I can do all this in a sales call now, why do I need you?

At ITSMA, we’ve seen investments in the things that we used to identify as the key contributions of marketing—like advertising, brochures, events, and trade shows—shrink consistently. And today we’re seeing marketing budgets as a percentage of revenue dipping to their lowest levels ever—at or below 1%.

Businesses are asking if you’re not doing all these things you used to do anymore, why should I give you more budget? And if I do, what am I paying for?

The model needs transforming
Pledging to do more with social media isn’t the answer. What we need to be telling the business is that we’re going to transform marketing completely. Getting into social media really means getting into publishing. It means creating a constant stream of idea-based content that keeps buyers interested and engaged. That’s hard, and it means a real shift in skills for many marketing departments.

I think the suspicion that we see of social media, which is justified, is mixed with fear. Let’s identify that fear so that marketers will have an easier time making the transition. I think it’s fear that the hardest aspect of marketing, content development, is ascending to become marketing’s most important role, as advertising, traditional PR, and events shrink and fall away.

The content engine
Marketing departments are going to have to transform themselves into content development engines. And just as important, they are going to have to sell the value of that engine to their businesses to prevent further cuts to the budget. As McKinsey consultant David Edelman said at the ITSMA annual conference last November, we can’t make social media an add-on to a system that isn’t adding the value that it once did. We need to look at how to do things differently.

Here are some of the key aspects of that transformation:

  • Marketing is becoming data. We couldn’t measure the effectiveness of ads in the old days, but the CEO saw the ads and signed off on them, so that made it okay. We couldn’t measure the effectiveness of events and trade shows, but sales people saw the crowds at the booth and the bar and so it didn’t matter. But as we shift to a content focus, it is all online and its impact is invisible. There is no visual, visceral confirmation of its impact. But a white paper isn’t just content; it is data. It can be tracked and measured.
  • Automation creates metrics. We tear our hair out trying to devise metrics that we can’t report on because we don’t have the data. If we automate the processes that matter, the metrics we need will be staring us in the face.
  • The funnel becomes electric. The impact of our content will be visible if that content is linked to an automated, closed-loop lead process. Getting agreement with sales on a sales-ready lead is critical. And with all the SaaS-enabled software available today, there’s no excuse for not automating the lead management process—at least up to the point where marketing hands over sales-ready leads. You don’t even need to involve IT anymore. And the excuse that these systems don’t integrate with old CRM systems is becoming less and less valid. If the vendors can’t help with the integration, IT can. Marketing needs a better relationship with IT.
  • Content creates relationships. It isn’t enough to develop idea-driven content and ship it out; we have to redesign the creation and dissemination processes so that readers are lured into conversations and relationships. This is where social media tools are helpful. But developing and disseminating content that builds relationships—think publishers and subscribers—takes different skills.
  • Buyers become approachable. After consolidating their power for years through internet search, B2B buyers are beginning to emerge from behind their firewalls and show up in places where marketers can find them. We have to meet them halfway. That requires a culture shift in the company and new skills for marketers and employees.
  • PR becomes conversation. We’re all PR now. Employees, subject matter experts and marketers all need to represent the company, but in a way that is transparent, constructive, and cordial. PR people meanwhile should use their thick skins and relationship skills to help build the conversation in social media. But it means shaking up the PR department and our relationships with PR agencies.

At ITSMA, we’re calling 2010 the year of marketing transformation. We wouldn’t use such grandiose terms if we didn’t see a real need for change. When she saw the trend in the numbers that we prepare our annual budget study, my colleague Julie Schwartz asked an important question: “Do we want to spend another year doing more with less? Marketing has to do things differently.”

We’re going to offer more specific on how marketers should make this transformation backed up by selected data from the 2010 survey at our webcast, The Year of Marketing Transformation: ITSMA’s 2010 State of the Profession Address on January 26.

In the meantime, do you agree that marketing needs a complete transformation? If so, how would you do it?

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Eight reasons to monitor social media and a list of tools for doing it

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I think that monitoring social media is one of four key aspects of a social media engagement strategy.

Social media monitoring is a way to figure out what’s being said about your brand and reveals opportunities for engaging in conversations with customers and influencers. At its most basic, social media monitoring starts with what is known as the “vanity search.” Through one of the popular search engines, you set up a recurring search on key terms that will alert you to relevant online discussions of your brand, your competitors, and influencers.

But things can quickly get complicated from there. For example, what if your brand or offering uses a generic term like “Service Oriented Architecture”? How do you separate the specific discussions about your offering from the general conversation?

Furthermore, a vanity search cannot distinguish whether what’s being said about your brand is coming from a blogger with 2000 readers that include your most important customers or from a grad student whose RSS feed goes to his Mom.

The good news is that online conversation is captured forever within the bowels of a server somewhere, just waiting to be analyzed to death. The bad news is that gaining real insight from that data is difficult—though a horde of software developers is working on it.

Social media monitoring software is a fast-growing category of tools designed to slice up online conversations to try to determine things like where conversations about your brand occur most often, or how much you are being talked about versus your competitors.

Since many of the monitoring tools are new, most are available as Software as a Service (SaaS) over the internet, which makes it easy for marketers to try them out. Yet this same newness means that few are integrated with the software that marketers already have, such as CRM.

Here are some of the ways that these tools give marketers more insight into online conversations:

  • Determine tone and sentiment. Some developers are using algorithms and analysis to determine whether conversations are positive or negative and whether the individuals within the conversation are supporters or detractors. But the developers acknowledge that using computers to determine the tone of human conversation is still a work in progress at this point. For example, the tools can’t distinguish between tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and criticism.
  • Assign a response. Some of the tools let you define the types of comments or conversations that deserve a response, flag them, and route them to a designated person for action.
  • See the distribution of conversation. Most of the tools let you segment the different types of social media to determine where conversations are happening—such as blogs vs. Facebook.
  • Trend the conversation. Some of the tools let you analyze the direction and popularity of conversations over time. This is helpful during important periods like new offering launches or in the aftermath of a crisis.
  • Determine share of attention. You can track the amount of conversation about you versus your competitors.
  • Identify influential sources. The tools can determine the popularity of conversations and the sources of those conversations. This helps you decide which blogs you’d like to do outreach with, for example.
  • Locate the conversations. Some of the tools let you see the geographic locations of people involved in the conversation.
  • Track propagation. Track a comment from a blog post all the way through to mainstream media.

Here is a list of companies that do some form of social media monitoring, by category:

Search tools:

Microblogging search:

Discussion Forum Search

Comprehensive (so they say) tools:

Sources: ITSMA research, Ben Barren, Murray Newlands, pier314, socialmediamonitoring.ca, social media monitoring wiki.

What have I left out? Please let me know in the comments.

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