January 23, 2018

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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The 2 questions on every buyer’s mind

At any moment in time, C-level executives are looking for answers to two questions:

What should I be doing right now?

What should I be preparing to do in the future?

We need to create a mix of these two types of thought leadership content to maintain strong relationships with their target audiences. Here’s why: Marketers who do this are more successful. In ITSMA’s Thought Leadership Survey, marketers with formal thought leadership processes segment their ideas this way 95% of the time. And those marketers tell us that they are much more satisfied with the quality of the ideas from their SMEs than marketers who have ad hoc processes for thought leadership development and dissemination. Among those who parse ideas, most split the pie in half between two types of ideas:

  • Aspirational. These are the ideas that prompt buyers to think about change. Assuming that you’ve done the necessary research to understand your target audience, that change can be on a personal, organizational, or industry level. These ideas aren’t necessarily about predicting the future or painting a picture of how it will look. Often, they focus on a catalyst for change that may not be obvious. Consultant Fred Reichheld didn’t invent the concept of customer loyalty, but by identifying the marker for it, he changed how many companies approach managing customer loyalty. These kinds of ideas are generally most useful at the Epiphany Stage of the buying process, when buyers are casting about for ideas but haven’t formulated any specific plans.
  • Practical. If these ideas were offered up at a newspaper’s editorial meeting, they’d go in the news hole. They identify a current trend, say a regulatory change, and offer perspective on what the trend means and how companies should react. An excellent, though controversial, example of this is the McKinsey article I wrote about a few weeks ago, about how US health care reform will affect employee benefits. Another great aspect of that piece is that when you click through to the article, you’ll see an aspirational piece positioned next to it entitled “Redesigning Employee Benefits,” which advocates taking a product development approach to the employee benefits process. Practical ideas tend to be more useful to buyers who are in the later stages of the buying process, when they have a more concrete idea of what they want to do but are looking for insight into how to do it.

What’s unspoken here is that you need to develop thought leadership that is appropriate to each stage of the buying process so that buyers (and salespeople) can get the right information at the right time. For example, buyers who are in the Epiphany Stage are looking for new ideas and industry news, while buyers who are actively getting ready to buy and are creating a short list of providers will be looking for case studies that profile how their peers have generated business results. Marketing and sales must 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. For example, IBM creates specific versions of its thought leadership materials for salespeople to use during their discussions with customers.

Do you segment your thought leadership content?

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How to get employees involved in social media: focus on ideas

Many marketers involved in social media management tell me that they struggle to get their subject matter experts engaged in social media. But focusing solely on engagement is the wrong goal. What we should be talking about instead is getting those experts involved in creating ideas.

In an interview this week with Stephanie Tilton (thanks, Stephanie!) on the Savvy B2B Marketing Blog entitled How to Gain Real Traction with Thought Leadership, I talk about how marketers need to create an idea network within their organizations to spur their subject matter experts to start thinking.
Create an idea network as the basis for social media
Marketers need to facilitate a process for internal development of ideas and for external feedback. The combination of internal and external creation and feedback creates friction and competition. Experts need to defend their ideas, get input and collaboration from others, and compete for attention. Here are some examples of how this can work:


  • Knowledge share sessions
  • Awards programs
  • Primary and secondary research
  • Competitive intelligence


  • Customer councils
  • Collaboration with academics and analysts
  • Partnership with trade associations

Creating an idea network helps demonstrate the importance of ideas to the organization. Many companies take it a step farther by making idea development part of employees’ annual goals. The high-end consulting firms like McKinsey have done this for years. Ideas are baked into the culture. To rise in the firm, consultants know they need to come up with good ideas and try to get them published.

Marketers need to help create that culture in the company by facilitating the idea process. Companies need to create a platform—and an expectation—that enables subject matter experts to be thinking all the time.

When ideas are an expectation, social media participation is easier
When employees know that they are expected to be thinking—and getting that thinking out into the market—engagement in social media participation becomes easier. They have something to talk about! Social media becomes a great test bed for testing ideas and getting feedback. It also becomes a way to slice up big ideas into more consumable pieces.

What do you think? How are you getting subject matter experts to engage in social media?

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The prerequisite to effective social media: the idea organization

At the first of ITSMA’s series of road shows this week in Silicon Valley this week (there’s still time to sign up for New York and Boston next week!) I confirmed something I’ve been hearing in my research on idea marketing over the past month: idea marketing requires a deep commitment not just from marketing but from the entire organization.

Eric Wittlake makes this point in a blog post this week and I heartily agree.

But then this got me to thinking, without a commitment to ideas throughout the organization, all these dollars we’re starting to spend on social media will be wasted.

In other words, unless we become idea organizations, we’re not going to have much to say to customers, prospects, and influencers in social media.

What do I mean by an idea organization? Let’s look at some attributes I’m seeing I’m my research:

  • Show commitment to idea development from the top. Some management consulting companies have the commitment to ideas baked into the culture—you simply will not survive as a consultant if you do not create ideas that lead to new IP. For everyone else, a visible commitment from the CEO and other top leaders signals that ideas, not just offerings, are part of all subject matter experts’ jobs.
  • Appeal to their egos. Recognition from peers means a lot to subject matter experts. Some companies get pretty formal about this, creating invitation-only SME councils with entry requirements. For example, one company required that its council members hold at least one patent before they’d be invited.
  • Make ideas part of individual expectations. I’m hearing B2B companies tell me that they are starting to make idea development part of the yearly goals of their subject matter experts. Few go so far as to specify the number of ideas or idea-based content that these people are expected to produce each year, but they have made idea development a part of the yearly review discussion.
  • Give them the tools to think. We’re seeing some companies develop some creative tools for fostering idea development. One company has created an internal portal where project members submit ideas that are vetted and voted on by the project customers. The winning ideas are implemented.
  • Make it competitive. Some companies have companywide competitions for the best ideas or the best white paper. This process is usually facilitated by marketing.
  • Make it visible. You’ll never create an idea organization if ideas are developed in secret. Think about it: if employees aren’t comfortable sharing their ideas with each other, how will they ever be comfortable talking about them in social media? Collaboration—both internally and externally—will help embed idea development into the culture.

Can you start to see that by creating these idea development processes, it becomes much easier for companies to engage in social media conversations that will impress customers and influencers?

What do you think? How are you creating an idea organization?

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Stop doing PR. Start doing visibility.

Thanks for the great comments on last week’s post, “Is the Era of PR Over.” Okay, so if the traditional model for PR is failing, what do we do instead?

Most journalists have discovered social media as an important research tool. And research shows that even the stodgiest C-level executive does at least three web searches per day.

That’s why increasingly, PR is going to become a matter of simply allowing your subject matter experts to be found rather than enlisting armies of PR people to try to force journalists and customers to find those subject matter experts.

I’m not saying we fire all PR people. Every company needs a guard dog or two to be around in case of a PR disaster. But it does mean removing PR people from their traditional role as gate keepers between subject matter experts and influencers and customers. And it means taking the conversation out of the hands of PR people and putting it into the hands of subject matter experts, influencers, and customers.

Think of the traditional PR process as a supply chain with four steps:

  1. Subject matter expert identification and preparation. PR works to identify people in the organization who would be good representatives of the company, its value, and its offerings. Those people may receive media training, presentation and speaking training, etc. to prepare them to be public representatives of the company.
  2. Outreach. PR creates a communications campaign with press releases, calling and emailing influencers, etc.
  3. Gatekeeper. PR schedules interviews between the subject matter experts and the influencers and tries to influence the interaction to put the company and its offerings in the best light.
  4. Placement. PR tries to influence the placement of subject matter experts, content, and interviews in third-party channels (articles, conference and trade show speaking engagements, etc.)

Here’s a new that model cuts out the two middle steps and rethinks the first and last steps.

  1. Visibility. This is the new primary role for PR. Beyond discovering and prepping spokespeople for the company, PR becomes responsible for making them nodes on the online network that can be easily found by influencers and customers. Examples of how you do this are:
    • Make them visible on social networks. Make sure they have business profiles on the different networks (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.). Push them to get lots of peer and customer recommendations and connections. Also push them to join relevant groups and contribute to those groups.
    • Encourage them to blog. The best way to get press and influencer attention these days is to write smart things that are easily discoverable. If your subject matter experts don’t want to write, use other types of media to populate the blog such as videos and podcasts. Or interview them and ghost write the posts. Just don’t MSE (Make S**t Up). The thinking has to be from the mind of the subject matter expert, not the ghost writer. And the subject matter experts must make themselves available to respond to comments in the blog.
    • Get them twittering. Twitter’s viral relationship model means that your subject matter experts can build up their networks of influence much faster than through a press release.
  2. Facilitation. In France, the concierge is a combination building superintendent and busybody. They get a small apartment on the first floor of the building with a direct view of the building’s front door and the lobby (I’ve even seen two-way mirrors on their apartment doors!). Consequently, they know everybody’s business but don’t intervene unless asked. This is the new role of placement PR. You monitor everything your subject matter experts, customers, and influencers do and say, but you stay out of the conversations themselves. Don’t require them to come to you before scheduling interviews or responding to customers and influencers through social media. You can’t do what one B2B company did: require that subject matter experts submit tweets to PR for approval two weeks in advance of posting. I don’t have to explain why that’s ridiculous, do I?

What do you think? Is this the new model for PR? What would you add or change?

P.S. Valeria Maltoni, who writes the excellent blog Conversation Agent, offered an interesting vision for PR last week that you should check out.

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Six ways that marketing needs to lead the organization in social media

Social media creates the need for marketing to lead within the organization.

At least that’s the conclusion we reached at ITSMA recently when we did our social media survey (there’s a free summary if you’re interested).

Now what do we mean when we say that? We mean that within the organization the leadership of social media is falling to marketing. We think that’s because social media is seen primarily as a tool for marketing. Therefore, the marketing group is becoming the default center of social media, right?

I’m really excited about this because it’s rare for a function like marketing to get an opportunity to lead the entire organization. But think about it. Marketers are the not the only ones who are going to be doing social media. Our subject matter experts (SMEs) are talking to customers. We’re seeing HR departments using social media for recruiting. We’re seeing companies use social media to bring customers into the product and service development processes to collaborate on new ideas and improvements. We’re seeing companies use social media for customer support. (Shameless plug here: My favorite B2B blogger Paul Dunay is going to talk about how Avaya uses social media for customer support at ITSMA’s Marketing Leadership Forum on May 25-26.) The entire organization needs to get involved in social media and marketing needs to lead that effort.

I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised and I have to admit a little shocked when we discovered that many marketers seem to get this intuitively—67% of marketers said they are taking on the responsibility of identifying the appropriate subject matter experts and assigning them to engage with their target audience and influencers in the online conversations that are happening out there.

But if marketing is truly going to be the catalyst for social media in the organization, many things are going to need to change. To be a leader, you have to have your own house in order. That means that marketers need to integrate social media with the larger marketing and business strategies. That’s why at ITSMA we’re calling 2010 The Year of Marketing Transformation (sound the bugles!—a little portentous, I know, but we really believe it and the data really shows it). And social media is the main driver behind the need for this transformation. We don’t think marketing can afford to continue doing more with less. With marketing budgets as percent of revenue being an all-time low — less than 1% — social media can’t just be another add-on to everything else that marketing is already doing.

Remember that marketing can’t do this alone. Social media gives us the opportunity to bring the rest of the organization into our efforts. But to do this effectively, we have to define new processes, roles and competencies for marketing and we have to play a large role in leading social media for others inside the organization.

So in our research and our discussions with members and influencers on social media, we’ve identified six major areas that marketers need to focus on to lead the rest of the organization effectively.

  • Research. We have to figure who we want our SMEs to talk to so they don’t waste their efforts.
  • Ideas and content. We need to create an idea engine within the organization to help SMEs come up with things to Twitter and blog about.
  • New roles. We’re seeing a role that is sort of a director of ideas and content emerge. Someone who helps identify smart ideas and people within the organization and makes decisions about how to develop them. We’re also seeing directors of community—Jeremiah Owyang tracks these people on his blog.
  • Governance. Social media policies are the foundation of social media governance. And even small companies can benefit from having a social media council. Listen to IBM’s Sandy Carter talk about how she set up a social media council in her group at IBM.
  • Training. We shouldn’t just turn employees loose without helping them learn about the tools. But we also need to teach them about the strategies for using those tools. Telstra has a cool example of social media training that anyone can watch.

What do you think? What have I left out here? Anything to add?

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How to establish a voice of authority in a blog

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how to get others to blog. But it’s not enough just to support bloggers. For them to be successful, we need to help them establish their voices in a blog.

The way that we establish trust and relationships with buyers is through authority. We want readers of our SMEs’ blogs to see them as experts. But you can’t establish that authority by putting a link to their LinkedIn profile on the blog. You have to establish authority through the writing voice that your SMEs use in their blogs.

It would be wonderful if your bloggers were the only experts writing about their fields. If that’s the case, great. Stop reading. But most likely, there are already other experts out there who are more expert and write better than your SMEs. In this case, just showing how smart they are won’t cut it. SMEs need an angle. Here are a few to consider:

  • Lead a niche. Pick a subject that few others have staked out. SMEs with deep expertise in a particular niche can build a strong and loyal following—if not necessarily huge blog traffic.
  • Show your age. A former colleague that I really admire managed to mention his 30 year experience in marketing into the first minute of conversation with anyone new. The voice of experience is powerful.
  • Be timely. Being the first with the latest news builds authority.
  • Have the data. This is how analysts (like me) establish their authority. They can make assertions based on what everyone is doing—not just what they themselves think.
  • Aggregator. If your SME is a person who loves to collect information, then becoming an aggregator is a route to trust. People know that they can count on this person to provide or link to the most insightful information in the topic area—no matter where it first appeared.
  • Futurist. Some SMEs are always looking to see what happens next. If they are focused on developing new offerings, for example, this is a natural voice for them.
  • Iconoclast. SMEs can construct a great voice around questioning existing practices and trends. But be careful; these SMEs need to have thick skins and handle negative comments constructively.

What suggestions do you have for establishing a voice of authority in a blog? Let’s get a conversation going.

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How to build emotional engagement in B2B marketing

I got a really interesting question last week through my Skribit box: How do you use emotional engagement when talking about dry technology?

This may be the ultimate question in B2B, especially as we struggle to integrate social media into the overall marketing mix.

Let’s face it, even if it was possible to curl up in front of the fire with a glass of wine and our B2B products and services, no one would do it. Most of the things we sell are about as emotive as army ants.

That’s why I’m going to answer the question (and invite accusations of copping out) by saying that we shouldn’t try to use our dry technologies as the basis for emotional engagement.

We have to stop torturing ourselves trying to write interesting things about our dry technology. That’s what has led to the horrific vocabulary of mindless marketing speak that makes us utter things like “demonstrable value” with straight faces while deluding ourselves that it leaves an impression on customers. (Hey, it was the best thing we came up with at the meeting, so why wouldn’t customers like it, too!?)

Where are thepeople and the stories?
Journalism has long understood that people respond to other people and to stories. Those two things are built into the process. You get fired if you don’t interview people and feature them in your story. And you never get any interesting assignments if you aren’t able to communicate information through a narrative structure—a story with a number of star characters and a beginning, middle, and end.

It’s the same in B2B. It’s why our latest ITSMA marketing budget survey shows (free summary available)that thought leadership has risen to a higher priority level than in any recent year. Ideas can create an emotional connection. Okay, so it’s not big emotion, but it hits some buttons:

  • Gratitude. This company understands my pain
  • Loyalty. I may need to keep an eye on these guys in case they say something else that moves me.
  • Respect. These guys are smart.
Press photo of Sockington.
Image via Wikipedia

But for all of these things to hit, customers need to be able to connect them to people. Social media offers some new ways for us to build emotional connections with customers by connecting them with other people and their stories. (Ever wonder why Sockington is so popular? Even making a cat more like a person works.) Blogs let us feature our subject matter experts (SMEs) not just as brainiacs but as people that customers can eventually feel comfortable reaching out to directly. Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. all do that, too.

But let’s not get too hung up on social media. This has to permeate all that we do. It’s why those expensive private events work so well.

What do you think? How do you use emotional engagement when talking about dry technology?

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How to get others to blog

One of the biggest challenges for B2B social media marketers isn’t creating content, it’s helping others create content.

Marketing is the default head of social media management in most companies. And while marketers can create some social media content, they can (and should) rely on their subject matter experts (SMEs) to create most of the stuff that’s going to build trust and relationships with customers.

At our two ITSMA briefings this week in Boston and Washington on social media, (we have two more coming up in New York and Santa Clara, CA that you can attend), marketers offered up a common complaint: They have a hard time getting their SMEs to start contributing (and keep contributing) content.

It’s no surprise. Creating content such as blogs is hard. That’s why marketers have to step in and help out. Here are some ways to do it:

Send them what interests you. If you’re in tune with your SMEs, then what interests you should interest them (at least from a business perspective—no need to go nuts and take up golf). Set up an RSS feed of key news sources and bloggers and forward the good stuff to your SMEs.

Get ideas from customers. When blogger’s block sets in at IBM, bloggers can get inspiration through software that lets customers suggest the topics they’d like to see covered. (Okay, so you need to work for IBM to access it, but Skribit is available to the rest of us.)

Filter research. Customer research can provide tons of fodder for content, but you can’t just dump it on SMEs unfiltered. Pick some key themes and ask them to comment on them.

Incite them. If you see a controversial assertion or question somewhere, forward it to your SMEs and ask them to craft a thoughtful (not attacking) response and link to the original through their content.

Interview them. If your star SMEs are struggling to come up with ideas for starting a blog or for keeping one going, start thinking of yourself as a reporter. These people are your beat. You don’t have to write their posts for them, but you must interview them regularly to find out what they are hearing from customers and what trends they are seeing in the market. Just as reporters take the heat for missing a story or failing to file regularly, you have to take on the responsibility for making sure these people keep posting regularly by checking in with them regularly and getting them talking. Record the interviews and get them transcribed. Then take a look at the transcript and highlight the sections that you think would be interesting for them to write about.

Have regular pitch meetings. Very few writers are able to get their best thoughts out on paper without some help. That’s why magazines and newspapers have pitch meetings, where writers blurt out their rough ideas and get feedback from others on how to turn those ideas into cogent stories. This all happens before the writing begins. When you check in with your bloggers, ask them to talk through their ideas before they start writing. It will improve the quality of their posts and it will also help you keep them focused on the issues that matter most to your business.

Create an editorial calendar. Companies have strategies and goals. Marketers should use them to help inspire their content creators. Pick topics that matter to your customers and your business and ask your SMEs to create content for those topics. Create an editorial calendar with a new topic at least each quarter (e.g., sustainability or cloud computing). Then make a plan for hitting those topics in as many different types of content as possible (blog posts, conference presentations, videos, etc.) so that buyers can consume the information in any form they choose. And target that content to all of the stages of the buying process so that anyone encountering your content will find something that speaks to them personally.

Hire a content director. Have you noticed what’s been happening to the media lately? There are many unemployed journalists and editors out there. Hire one to help your SMEs develop and disseminate their ideas. Journalists are trained to separate the compelling ideas from the chaff and develop them with supporting evidence and case examples.

Buddy them up. If your SMEs refuse to go solo because they think it will be too much work, find them a partner or partners to share the load.

Write for them. If all else fails, you can interview them and use the transcript to write something yourself. Just don’t relieve the SMEs of the responsibility for feeding you the ideas and thinking.

What have I left out? How do you encourage your content creators?

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