July 28, 2017

Four reasons to hate thought leadership

You may have noticed that I’ve changed the name of my blog. I’ve changed it for two reasons. First, because I’ve left ITSMA and joined SAP, where I will focus on marketing the good ideas of the many subject matter experts there. I’m going to share my experiences in helping to build an engine for developing and disseminating good ideas for SAP (with names changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike). I won’t be focusing on B2B marketing in the broadest sense anymore; I’ll be narrowing things to idea marketing (and the role that social media play in it).

Second, I’m changing the name because I’m going to make it my personal mission to end the use of the term thought leadership to describe this method of marketing B2B companies. I don’t know of another marketing term that gets so much hate mail. I know because I have a column in my Twitter dashboard that searches the term. Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t serve up the hate on the term.

Here are three reasons why their hatred is justified:

  • It’s pretentious. The term implies that practitioners are smarter than everyone else—including every other thought leader out there.
  • It’s a set up for failure. Truly great ideas are rare. Mostly what we do with thought leadership is educate and inform. We add a new twist to an existing idea or we do a deeper analysis of a well-known issue than others. That’s not really leadership.
  • It’s bastardized. The term has come to mean so many different things that it has become a throwaway. I’ve seen the term applied to anything that carries a marketing message. But thought leadership is supposed to be the antidote to the stuff that we (and, more important, customers) dismiss as collateral.
  • It disregards social media. Thought leadership implies depth. It’s impossible for a tweet to be thought leadership but tweets have an important role to play in the development and promotion of ideas. Thought leadership and social media can’t be done in isolation. They are joined at the hip.

I also dislike another term that seems to be gaining ground these days: content marketing. “Content” sounds so achingly dull and bland. And it could describe anything. What customers are looking for are good ideas, not content.

What do you think?

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9 attributes of the best idea marketing content

Some time back, I blogged about the attributes of a thought leader. Lately, I’ve been talking to B2B marketers about the content delivered by these thought leaders and asking, What defines good thought leadership content? Here’s what I have so far. Surely, you have a suggestion that will get us to ten attributes?

  1. Visionary. It’s best to address a problem before customers realize that it’s a problem.
  2. Provocative. The best thought leadership pieces are bold and attack conventional wisdom.
  3. Differentiated. No “me too” ideas allowed. The ideas should be new (to the target audience, anyway) or offer a unique angle on a familiar subject.
  4. Relevant. Defines a problem or issue that is important to the target audience.
  5. Timely. Being first to interpret the impact of a new regulatory requirement, for example, reduces the chances of being perceived as “me too” thinking.
  6. Has a narrative. Great ideas are better when they are presented in the context of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
  7. Demonstrates mastery. The ideas should be presented against a backdrop of deep contextual understanding and experience.
  8. Can be delivered on. There’s little point in doing thought leadership if it’s something that the company can’t follow through on.
  9. Backed up by proof. Thought leadership is little more than an interesting opinion unless it is backed up with data and case studies.

What else would you add to this list?

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Eight attributes of a thought leader

Social media are growing up. The initial thrill of connecting to a bunch of peers that we’ve never met is giving way to the desire to get something useful out of those connections. Interesting research from Edelman shows that there has been a decline in trust in “people like myself” and “regular employees.” Meanwhile, trust in “credentialed experts” and “company technical specialists” is rising—we’re getting so desperate we even want to hear from the CEO.

Clearly, there’s a growing hunger for thought leadership in social media. Our prospects and customers want us to cut through the noise of social media just as they’ve wanted us to cut through the noise of every other communications channel that came before. Thought leaders themselves must be better-rounded than in the past, as comfortable online as on stage or in an interview.

I’ve been interviewing ITSMA members about their thought leadership programs as follow-on to our recent thought leadership survey and asking about what makes a good thought leader. Based on these interviews and on my own experience working with thought leaders, I’ve started a list of key characteristics (please add your own attributes to this list):

What are the personal attributes of a thought leader?

  • Relevant experience. At a minimum, a thought leader must have experience that will sound relevant to your target audience. But they can’t merely seem like a peer; they need to be perceived as an expert. Usually, that means experience that is deeper than the target audience has, or breadth of experience working across multiple companies or industries, or all of the above.
  • Presence. Hard to define, but you know it when you see it. These people aren’t just comfortable in their own skin; they know how to take over a room or an interaction in an un-threatening way. Like most mammals, our first encounters with strangers involve a subtle sorting out of who is dominant and who is submissive. Those with presence can make others willingly go submissive, and therefore make them receptive, without anyone minding.
  • Rapport. This is beyond just good people skills; it is the ability to adjust to other others’ individual pace. Thought leaders (like successful presidents), can meet all sorts of different people at their own level without pandering or patronizing.
  • Curiosity. Thought leaders are endlessly curious, not just intellectually but also about people. Their rapport with customers extends to a genuine, ego-free interest in the problems those customers face. Good ideas aren’t enough; those ideas need to be informed by a wide-ranging exposure to other inputs and opinions.
  • Synthesis. Thought leaders see the threads of insight lurking within a complex stream of information and use them to create a new idea or a new way of looking at an old problem.
  • Storytelling. One of the most important attributes of a thought leader is the ability to weave insights into a cogent narrative that brings ideas to life for others.
  • Courage. Not all new ideas are met with a warm reception. Thought leaders can’t be afraid to question the status quo and defend their ideas from critics. But this courage must be tempered with patience in the face of harsh criticism. Taking the high road in these situations is the highest form of courage.
  • Empathy. Accusations of elitism and being out of touch will follow thought leaders who can’t see things from the perspective of others.
  • Humility. This isn’t just about admitting when they’re wrong, it’s acknowledging that they don’t know everything at each step of the way. The goal isn’t just to be ingratiating. Humility contributes to success by making others feel welcome to contribute their own ideas and feedback.

What other attributes do thought leaders need to have? Which of these attributes are most important? Please give me your thoughts!

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Getting Started in Social Media: An Interview and Podcast with SAP's Steve Mann

Podcast: Getting Started with Social Media with SAP’s Steve Mann Part 1

Podcast: Getting Started with Social Media with SAP’s Steve Mann Part 2


Here’s my edited interview with SAP’s Steve Mann, who is creating and implementing a social media strategy for the B2B software giant. With his personal interest in science and sociology, Steve has some insightful views on the human side of implementing a social media strategy. I’ve also included a two-part, edited Kochcast with Steve if you’d rather listen than read.

Chris Koch: Steve, what do you think should be driving B2B companies’ strategies in social media today?

Steve Mann: The dynamics of most markets have changed dramatically over the last few years. We have gone from being a supplier-centric economy where the supplier is in control to a buyer-centric economy where the buyer is in control. And these buyers are demanding transparency from their suppliers.

One of the best ways to drive that transparency is through the use of social media. It has become a conversational economy where customers expect to be able to talk to suppliers and they get really turned off when suppliers talk at them. Social media is what enables that conversation between the suppliers and buyers to happen.

Chris Koch: We’re getting a lot of questions from ITSMA members asking, Where do I start with a social media strategy? There are so many different things that they could be doing, that many don’t end up doing anything. What’s the first thing that people should do to get started?

Steve Mann: It’s been our experience that there are a lot of things happening in companies around social media which organizations don’t even know about. So, one of the first places to start is actually to take an audit of what’s happening in your organization.

Through our audit at SAP, we found that there are a number of grassroots initiatives around social media that we are really happy that we know about for two reasons: Number one, we can take advantage of synergies in those efforts and number two, we can use the enthusiasm and the passion around these grassroots initiatives to drive an overall social media strategy.

So, for example, SAP has an internal social networking project that launched a couple of months ago called “Harmony,” which has over five thousand SAP employees involved.

And another good opportunity is our SAP Developer Network and Business Process Expert community platforms, which, combined, have over one million community members already.

Chris Koch: Can you talk a little bit more about Harmony? How did that get started, and what are the goals of that?

Steve Mann: Well, it got started because there was a realization that we needed a better way to connect individuals with one another inside SAP. The informal networks that people create at SAP are very powerful in helping you perform your daily business tasks and so we wanted to create tools that enable individuals to make those connections easier and to collaborate more effectively.

But Harmony also comes from the realization that our employee base is changing rapidly. There are 76 million millennials—people born after 1977—that are now entering the workforce, and one of their expectations is that they have the tools and the technology that enable them to easily collaborate across functional groups. Harmony does that.

Chris Koch: What are some of the highlights of Harmony’s functionality?

Steve Mann: Well, for us it’s the ability to profile ourselves and to develop expertise roles and a behavior-based profile of an individual. Say somebody is looking for a person who has social media skills and customer experience skills. They can do a search on Harmony and my name will pop up. So it enables you to easily identify those individuals who you could need on any given project.

Number two, it will also allow integration into SAP’s transactional systems—obviously, we use our own transactional systems. Harmony enables you to run the workflow and the processes that support any given project at SAP.

Chris Koch: What prerequisites do you need to have internally in terms of social media before going externally?

Steve Mann: Number one, do you have a culture where you allow experimentation and have a high tolerance for failure? Because frankly, failure is big part of social media and social networking initiatives because we are still so early in the evolution of strategies and technologies.

For example, if you are a very strong command-and-control type of organization, it may be much more difficult for you to implement either an internal or external social media strategy. It’s difficult to maintain that traditional sense of control in an organization that truly implements a 360-degree social media strategy for both internal collaboration as well as for external collaboration with the market.

Secondly, do you also have tolerance for negative commentary in the market about your organization? If not, you should stay away from social media because customers will see through any efforts to control them or their messages.

The third assessment factor is to discover the real pain points that can be addressed with a social media strategy. Is it my communication strategy? Do I need to be closer to the market? Is it around co-innovation? Am I not being innovative enough in my products and services or is there not enough uptake of my products and services and if so, why?

Well, to answer those questions, I need to get closer to the market and one of the best ways to get closer to the market is to co-create with customers and partners.

Chris Koch: Can you give us an example of how you would use social media to do co-creation with customers?

Steve Mann: Let’s say that I am planning SAP’s next-generation CRM system. We go out and solicit “voice of the customer” input into the product development cycle. We ask customers what they need in terms of capability that we should be delivering into the solution. So the customers are actively influencing what the product does from generation to generation of that product.

We also do that on the content side. We have many plans to develop user-generated content. Many times customers and prospects do not necessarily want to speak to a supplier. They would rather speak to another customer.

And so by enabling a prospect to talk to an existing SAP customer, there is a user-generated content component. For example, the content that a prospect is getting about SAP solutions could potentially come from another customer and not SAP. That is in fact what happens today on SDN, the SAP Developer Network.

Chris Koch: How do you know whether your existing customer service infrastructure is ready to handle all the communications that occur in social media? For example, let’s say a customer posts a complaint on a blog. There is an expectation in the back of his or her mind that somehow everyone across the company is reading this and that someone is going to get back to him.

Steve Mann: The first issue is don’t do social media if you are not willing to hear negative things about your company. It’s a conversation and in any conversation there are positives and negatives and you have to take the good with the bad.

Secondly, when an individual gives feedback to a company—no matter whether that feedback is negative or positive—that individual deserves to be engaged with. And so the people, the processes and tools need to in place to engage with that individual and not only say, hey, we heard you, but here is what we are going to do about it.

It’s critical that organizations realize that social media drives a greater degree of customer intimacy than ever before. You are much closer to your customers and they are much closer to you, which is a good thing and a bad thing.

It’s a bad thing in that if you don’t manage it well, it can hurt your brand. It’s a great thing in that customer intimacy promotes greater customer loyalty, customer loyalty promotes more repeat business, which in turn promotes greater satisfaction with the brand.

Chris Koch: Let’s talk about content. Marketers hear over and over—and ITSMA research shows—that customers want to talk to each other and get peer recommendations. But then marketers set up an online community and nothing happens. Nobody says anything; it just dies. What content should marketers provide so that you can generate some real good discussion?

Steve Mann: Well, again it goes back to this notion of co-creation. I would never just create a forum for a customers to talk without first figuring out what customers want to talk about.

And the way you do that is you need to interview a lot of customers and really understand what’s on their minds, what issues they would want to talk about and then you build the community of interest that will focus on those issues.

You then have to market these capabilities just like you market anything else. People need to know that they exist. People need to understand what the value would be to them and what the benefits are to them for becoming members and taking time out of their day to participate.

Then, finally once you get those folks in there, yes these discussions need to be moderated so that they stay on track. But my advice to companies that are looking to do this is to stay out of the way and let the customers talk to one another.

Great things will happen when they have the opportunity to talk to one another, but you have to provide the forum, you have to provide the right topics and you have to provide the right moderation.

Another equally important strategy is to go to where our customers are and listen and participate in their communities. SAP has other communities like ASUG, SDN, BPX, and Diamond where we engage customers directly. Through participation in these communities we not only hear what our customers are telling us but we begin to understand what they are saying.

Chris Koch: Should you create communities around fairly narrow topic areas? Is that more likely to get them talking?

Steve Mann: Well, I think that’s a very good point, Chris. As a matter of fact, my prediction for 2008 is that you will see a lot more closed and proprietary social networks developing rather than these large, broad, open social networks like Facebook and MySpace.

Chris Koch: And why is that?

Steve Mann: Because I think people want to coalesce around specific interests and talk to people who have expertise and capability in their particular area. It goes back to this notion of compelling content. If you are a lawyer and you want to find compelling content, you should go to a social network that focuses on lawyers—same thing for physicians, or engineers, or high-tech guys like me.

Chris Koch: People come to us all the time and ask, what technology should I start with in social media? Blogs? Podcasts? Second Life? I don’t think this is the right way to approach it, but people always seem to want to lead with the technology. What do you think?

Steve Mann: I get the same questions all the time. Chris, it’s an impossible question to answer because there are hundreds of different solutions out there. When people ask me this question I ask what business problem they are trying to solve. Once they have told me what the business problem is then I will recommend a solution.

Chris Koch: Okay, let’s talk about the future. In our research people say that the most bang for they get for their marketing buck comes from in-person meetings around a topic or thought leadership. Should the goal of social media marketing be to create an online version of those in person meetings?

Steve Mann: That’s an interesting question. I can tell you what’s happening in SAP. One of the things we are doing is exploring virtual events and bringing people together online in virtual event spaces to really interact and collaborate with one another.

We’re building out some tools to do that now and we are going to be holding one of our first virtual events shortly and the goal is not necessarily to replace real time events because there is nothing like networking in real time with other individuals.

But the goal is to provide alternative methods of communication and collaboration. There will always be other opportunities to do that real time networking and we will never move away from those, but it allows us in a cost-effective manner to really bring people together for collaboration and knowledge transfer and that’s what it’s all about as far as SAP is concerned.

Chris Koch: Let’s talk about other ways social media will impact existing marketing tactics. For example, how do you see the traditional case study changing?

Steve Mann: First, I would move away from static customer stories and replace them with live reference stories—such as videos that tell the story.

Barring that, I would want to try to get the customer to blog about his experiences, or allow me to record video about his experience or his company—to make communications and entertainment merge into something of real “communitainment” value. In that way I think you drive a level of stickiness around the content that you could not possibly achieve in a standard, static case study.

Chris Koch: You talked about the rise of the Millennials before. Can you say more about the generational issues that will impact social media?

Steve Mann: There are going to be and continue to be generational differences in the way people consume content and information and you need to take a multi-generational approach to how you communicate with your market. I actually recommend that companies hire inter-generational experts.

Chris Koch: What do you mean when you say that?

Steve Mann: Individuals that have expertise in understanding generation differences both in your workforce as well as in your market and can help you attune your strategies to those generational differences.

Chris Koch: So would that be like a change management consultant?

Steve Mann: Well, these individuals really will do a number of things for you. First, they will educate you on the intricacies of intergenerational differences between Millennials and Gen Xers and Boomers. They will help you construct your appropriate plans to inform and educate not only your executives, but the people who have to tell the stories to the market. And they can help guide you on tone, process and policy for each specific generational segment.

For example, Boomers may not care if your IT department blocks access to Facebook from inside the firewall, but the Millenials will. They have an expectation that those tools will be available there for their life, both professional and personal. Social media is not some passing fad with them. They are digital natives. They have grown up with the Internet and they expect to be able to access it whenever, wherever, and however they want. It’s really important to understand that their individual values are not going to change over time. So if companies want to attract, retain, manage and motivate young employees and customers over the next generation of workers, it’s the companies that need to adapt—not the workers. That’s the big one.

Finally, you need to train your leaders to lead differently. The leader almost has to be a little bit of a therapist, because the individuals that you are working with to deploy social media are very self-sufficient individuals who are highly networked and highly collaborative to begin with. They require more passive listening and a teaching management style. You need to set expectations carefully with them. I know I am focusing a lot on the human side here, but I really believe that it’s the human side that makes a technology implementation effective.

Chris Koch: Meanwhile, all we keep hearing about is RSS and other technologies.

Steve Mann: Yeah, I mean if you think about it, if the goal of SAP’s social media strategy is to create increased collaboration and intimacy between individuals, well, what I am asking of these individuals?

I am asking them to become more social and frankly you either are social, or you are a little bit social, or you are not social at all…it is who you are. So all you can do is give them the tools and techniques to be social in the workforce, but that means you need to manage them differently, you need to lead them differently and you need to set expectations differently.

Chris Koch: Can existing communities and social media tools like Facebook be substitutes for building your own tools?

Steve Mann: Well, I think that if you are a brand that will resonate well with the demographics of Facebook, then you can go ahead and generate a Facebook page and you should try to use the social ads and infrastructure that Facebook or MySpace provides to do that.

Marketing has gone from a mass volume broadcast one side suite or a message platform to a one-on-one, word of mouth, referral based marketing model. We have actually gone back in time to the 1600s and the 1700s, as Seth Godin characterizes it. Facebook and MySpace provide excellent environments for trusted referral marketing and that is why we have talked so much today about this notion of creating compelling content in communities where the supplier can step out of the way and connect prospects to the customer. Because at end of the day that is trusted referral marketing, it’s one-on-one marketing, and there is no more powerful type of marketing than that.

Chris Koch: What lessons would you recommend that B2B marketers take to heart from what the B2C is doing in social media these days?

Steve Mann: Oh! Good question. All I would say is that it goes to that notion of trusted referral marking and that B2C marketers and B2C tactics in general have infiltrated the B2B space.

So those customers who used to do a search on Google and used to talk to other people and check out the reputations of folks recommending a book or a soft drink, well you know what, those same people are using those same tactics in a B2B environment. And so those same environments where powerful B2C communication takes place are also ripe and right for B2Bs.

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