February 21, 2017

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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  • http://www.compellingmeetings.com/ Warren Levy

    Chris,

    In an article I wrote, I suggested looking at thought leadership by examining whether you’re putting more emphasis on thought or leadership. I’d argue that we’ve put too much emphasis on sharing expertise and perhaps new ideas. I’m not sure how much leadership that involves. The strongest thought leaders are activists — not only offering expertise and new ideas, but also working with others to make things happen.

    Thanks for your great blog.

    Best wishes,

    Warren

  • http://www.compellingmeetings.com Warren Levy

    Chris,

    In an article I wrote, I suggested looking at thought leadership by examining whether you’re putting more emphasis on thought or leadership. I’d argue that we’ve put too much emphasis on sharing expertise and perhaps new ideas. I’m not sure how much leadership that involves. The strongest thought leaders are activists — not only offering expertise and new ideas, but also working with others to make things happen.

    Thanks for your great blog.

    Best wishes,

    Warren

  • http://www.silverpop.com/blogs/demand-generation/ Adam Needles

    Great post, Chris.

    I think the key call-out that the Gartner definition misses is the idea that content must be aligned to the buying cycle … and must substantively support engagement. As you say, it’s not just a glorified white paper. It’s information that powers decision-making.

    The more we get this, the more we will be successful with idea marketing.

  • http://www.lastinglinks.com/ Robert Dunford

    As Levy wrote yesterday, thought leadership is “working with others to make things happen.” Let the consultants squabble as they may. Let the rest of us, however, stay focused on the basics of how to most effectively band together to address the problems of the audiences we serve.

  • http://twitter.com/tdparker Tim D Parker

    Couldn't agree more Chris. If it's about positioning the offering, it isn't thought leadership, it's promotion. Not because I say so, but because several studies on what business decision makers value say so. Other research shows that the overwhelming majority of readers will go straight to the next Google search result as soon as you ask them to fill in a form to get your thought leadership. So I imagine a nominal fee would kill interest stone dead. Did Gartner pull these conclusions out of thin air?

  • http://www.dancecommunications.com jimpennypacker

    Chris,

    I still like the term thought leadership marketing. Everything you've said in describing idea marketing is what I think of as thought leadership marketing. Just because Gartner published a poorly thought out press release (and, yes, their use of acronyms is reason enough to dismiss what they have to say), we shouldn't give up on a concept that just starting to get some traction. Let's fight to clearly define thought leadership marketing and make it a staple of marketing tactics.

    I also like Warren's reference to thought leaders as activists. Having a strong point of view and actively engaging with the marketplace are keys to the success of thought leadership marketing.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Jim,

    I agree that quality is what’s needed, but I still think we could use a refresh on the terminology to shake up people’s thinking. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Hi Jim,

    I agree that quality is what’s needed, but I still think we could use a refresh on the terminology to shake up people’s thinking. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Good research perspective, Tim. I agree that we need to rethink the price we make people pay for our content. See my previous post for my thoughts on that. Thanks!

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Good research perspective, Tim. I agree that we need to rethink the price we make people pay for our content. See my previous post for my thoughts on that. Thanks!

  • http://winningthoughtleadership.wordpress.com/ Mark Delfeld

    Great article Chris. It definitely got me thinking. My only immediate reaction is more to the Gartner definition.

    I for one am not fond of linking thought leadership to strictly to a marketing sphere. I don’t have a mouthful of a definition, but I loosely link it to how the industry (not just the company disseminating the thought leadership) can meet their highest priority needs (by themselves and with the help of vendor solutions). And when I say meet, I don’t mean immediately. Instead, the discussions of thought leadership should talk about what is being solved today and how, as well as what is not by solved, and why.

    Answering that last why question is the domain of thought leadership. More likely than not, these most pressing issues are being discussed in the boardrooms of progressive companies in the industry. That’s why it takes courage to be a thought leader. In some sense, a thought leader is laying out there for everyone to see.

  • http://winningthoughtleadership.wordpress.com/ Mark Delfeld

    Great article Chris. It definitely got me thinking. My only immediate reaction is more to the Gartner definition.

    I for one am not fond of linking thought leadership to strictly to a marketing sphere. I don’t have a mouthful of a definition, but I loosely link it to how the industry (not just the company disseminating the thought leadership) can meet their highest priority needs (by themselves and with the help of vendor solutions). And when I say meet, I don’t mean immediately. Instead, the discussions of thought leadership should talk about what is being solved today and how, as well as what is not by solved, and why.

    Answering that last why question is the domain of thought leadership. More likely than not, these most pressing issues are being discussed in the boardrooms of progressive companies in the industry. That’s why it takes courage to be a thought leader. In some sense, a thought leader is laying out there for everyone to see.

  • http://thanhdlu.com/ Thanh Lu

    I always wonder what comes out of this new dynamic of mass idea marketing? Ideas are quick to formulate but actions are delayed by light years because first the mind has to belief the ideas before actions are constructed from the new sets of beliefs.

  • http://thanhdlu.com Thanh Lu

    I always wonder what comes out of this new dynamic of mass idea marketing? Ideas are quick to formulate but actions are delayed by light years because first the mind has to belief the ideas before actions are constructed from the new sets of beliefs.

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  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Thanh,

    Good point. There is usually a lag between idea formulation and adoption. But I think that marketers benefit from being ahead of their customers. It is better to have to do the work to pull customers along to the future than to respond to complaints from them about not moving fast enough. I think it’s also important to get validation from third-party sources (analysts, journalists, bloggers) for your ideas. This external validation shrinks the gap between formulation and adoption.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Hi Thanh,

    Good point. There is usually a lag between idea formulation and adoption. But I think that marketers benefit from being ahead of their customers. It is better to have to do the work to pull customers along to the future than to respond to complaints from them about not moving fast enough. I think it’s also important to get validation from third-party sources (analysts, journalists, bloggers) for your ideas. This external validation shrinks the gap between formulation and adoption.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Mark,

    Great point. Thought leadership is more than marketing. Indeed, marketing can’t pull it off unless the culture of the company is willing to take risks in letting its employees think ahead (and make mistakes) and be supported for doing so. Thanks!

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com Chris Koch

    Hi Mark,

    Great point. Thought leadership is more than marketing. Indeed, marketing can’t pull it off unless the culture of the company is willing to take risks in letting its employees think ahead (and make mistakes) and be supported for doing so. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/danavan Dana VanDen Heuvel

    Chris,

    Great assessment of the Garter piece. Personally, I ignored it as 'late to the party', but to say that Gartner should be dismissed or that their definition of TLM (I've been using that since 2006…can't see why that's new to them) should go unchallenged is short sighted, so thanks for putting your best thinking into this.

    A few thoughts…for what they're worth.

    1. I disagree 100% on 'idea marketing vs. thought leadership marketing'. I'm frankly not sold on thought leadership marketing, but I've tested many of the terms (edu-marketing, knowledge marketing, value-forward market, TLM, IM, and so on) and TLM is what resonates and I'm not convinced yet that IM is a better descriptor of what the rest of your blog post advocates we should be doing in this space of thought leadership marketing. I personally don't feel that idea marketing really captures the full scope of the idea. IMHO, all marketing stems from ideas (as does all innovation) and to give the lowly (though powerful) concept of the 'idea' the keyword that we're going to hang out hat on seems…a bit empty.

    2. The Gartner definition is simplistic. Say nothing for mapping content to the sale cycle, it's “giving information” to “stimulate demand” minimizes that TLM/IM really does for an organization. It also discounts the element of culture, content creation (marketer as publisher) and enterprise expression of subject matter expertise… Why they bothered to release this press release is beyond me. It added no value to furthering the conversation on TLM save for getting us fired up against it…

    3. When I first say your 'thought leadership is dead' title, it struck me as coming from the crowd (which I know you're not from) of “oh, yeah, more buzzwords…heard it too much…please stop the buzzwords…”. That view is one that I cringe when I see perpetuated, as I feel we have so far to go on thought leadership. Certainly it is an organized discipline, but I'll tell you, it's no different a concept than social media for my clients in that many of us are on the cusp of making headway here…and nowhere near mastery. To shoot down the concept as senseless buzzwords closes the mind to the real possibility of thought leadership and minimizes the often fundamental shift in how some organizations go to market. In my experience, thought leadership or an 'altruism before capitalism' approach to going to market…leading with ideas, information, value and education…in exchange for awareness, trust, credibility and ultimately commerce…is a transformational experience for some organizations (like ERP or Re-engineering was) that ultimately leads them to be more successful marketers.

    Thanks again for taking on the Gartner piece. Always appreciate your insights!

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Thanks for some great insights, Dana. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the value of idea as a term for this. In my view, most marketing stems from information, not ideas–i.e., how should we describe our products and services using the information we have? The transformation, as you so aptly put it, is to see that leading with ideas builds “awareness, trust, credibility and ultimately commerce” in a way that information can't. I hope these discussions help marketers see that, regardless of what we call it. Thanks!

  • http://www.thoughtleadershipstrategy.net/ Craig Badings

    Chris, as I pointed out in a thought leadership forum when you first posted about the Gartner definition, I think the fundamental mistake in Gartners definition is that thought leadership or ideas marketing as you call it should never as its premise rely on selling people a service or product. Rather it should be on how you establish meaningful relationships built on trust.

    Trust is the key and it is too easily be broken if the audience perceives that you are trying to ‘sell’ them something.

    Thought leadership should never overtly sell – rather it is about authentic communication and through this, adding insights and value to your audience beyond selling to them. From that stems trust and loyalty.

    That aside I think you have an interesting perspective on ideas marketing but I do think that tryng to change the term is much like many PR practioners over the years trying to change the name from Public Relations to something else. Thought leadership is what it is.
    Cheers

  • gilpress

    I would go one step further and argue that what you call “idea marketing” IS marketing. The best definition of marketing I ever heard was “Marketing is the selling of ideas.” What we call product and service marketing is an integral part of the selling process and should be considered a sales force function.

    Gartner’s definition of TLM is not only narrow (specifically the words “to create awareness of the outcome that your service can deliver”) but contradicts the advice they give in the same paper (e.g., TLM supporting “the brand over the long term”) and some of the examples of TLM they discuss.

  • http://writingblog.ventajamarketing.com/ John White

    I have no problem with “thought leadership.” Here's why.

    The only people I ever hear utter that phrase are execs, as in “We've got hot stuff nobody else has, and we need to demonstrate some thought leadership around it to amaze our friends and confound our enemies.”

    Generally, that means that they are ready to invest in a marketing campaign on the topic. The first deliverable is usually content, and most of us marketers are able to steer that conversation ably.

    I tell them that we can't deliberately lead other people's thought, but we can show that our thought happens to be in the lead.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi John,

    I'm thrilled that you work with such enlightened executives! Wish they could all be like that. 😉

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Craig,

    Relationships and trust. You've really hit on the key themes for engaging in thought leadership–especially in the age of social media. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

  • http://twitter.com/carolharnett Carol Harnett

    Dear Chris,

    I just came across this piece via a Twitter post by John Sviolka. The timing couldn't have been better.

    I just reviewed a white paper for a friend whose company is trying to release and promote a new market-leading product. The white paper was actually a marketing brochure and the true thought leadership they exhibited to develop this product was buried somewhere in Section 5 of the “white paper.”

    I like this concept of idea marketing. Its adoption could do wonders in the industry where I consult.

    Best wishes,
    Carol

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Hi Carol,
    How often have we seen that?! Companies think they can't possibly succeed without flogging their products and services (much better for getting internal approval for the white paper). But in fact it pisses off readers and loses them. Hope your clients listen. Thanks for the comment!
    Chris

  • http://www.thougthleadershipselling.com Sdiorio

    Chris,

    This is a really good examination of what thought leadership marketing means in a practical sense, beyond the buzzword. In particular, it translates it into a business case that folks outside the IT industry can understand and put to work.

  • http://www.christopherakoch.com/ Chris Koch

    Thanks for the kudos!

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