May 23, 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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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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3 ways to link marketing to revenue without metrics

I’m looking forward to our annual ITSMA spring road trip. This time, I’ll be speaking about how to tie thought leadership to revenue, starting in Santa Clara, CA next Wednesday, and in New York and Newton, MA the following week. Hope you can join us.

Now, you may think that because I’m using revenue and thought leadership together in the same sentence that I’m going to reveal some secret way to measure the link between the white paper you published last month and the complex solution sale you make six months from now. Alas, no such magic metric exists.

We’re focusing on the wrong things
In fact, our most recent thought leadership survey found that few marketers are measuring much besides consumption of their marketing content. I’m not saying that you should stop measuring consumption; but it’s clear that those kinds of metrics don’t give business people the answers they’re looking for when they ask about the value of marketing. They want more strategic answers, such as whether marketing is increasing the velocity of contacts through the buying process and reducing the time and effort that salespeople need to expend in making a sale.

If you have the ability to measure those two things, then great. But if you don’t, there are still ways to make sure that those things are happening. Here are three ways to do it:

  • Connect ideas to offerings. Too much of our content just tries to look and sound smart—great focus on ideas, but no real connection to how our companies can solve the problem. At the other end of the spectrum are the brochures that masquerade as idea marketing by making the offering descriptions longer and the production values higher. One great way to connect ideas to offerings is to create a business theme—think IBM’s Smarter Planet or Cognizant’s Future of Work. Both of these themes give subject matter experts and marketers plenty of leeway to focus on ideas while maintaining a link to the company strategy and its offerings.
  • Use ideas to attract and nurture leads. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m constantly beating the drum of integrating content with an automated lead management process. A lead management process gives you the ability to get the right content to the right people at the time they need it.
  • Train salespeople to use and talk about ideas. Creating good idea-based marketing content is hard and takes a long time if done right. That’s why the urge to start drinking kicks in about the time the white paper finally hits the website. But hold the beverages. Most salespeople don’t know what to do with a 20-page white paper. Marketers tell me that if they can get salespeople to even send the thing to prospects and customers they’re happy. We need to do much more than that. We need to create talking points for salespeople to use when communicating to customers and prospects, and we need to find ways to integrate salespeople into the content development and dissemination processes from the start.

How do you link content to revenue? Please give me your thoughts. Hope to meet you live, in-person soon!

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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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