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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