The Marketing Strategist:
Enabling Thought Leadership in the Field: IBM’s Engagement Strategy
As B2B marketers turn up the crank on thought leadership content, the battle for customer mindshare gets ever more challenging.
The good news, according to ITSMA’s 2018 How Executives Engage study, is that almost two-thirds of senior-level buyers give high marks to solution providers for quality content. The bad news, however, is that it’s getting harder and harder for them to separate the most relevant signals from the near-deafening noise of white papers, videos, webcasts, and infographics bombarding them from every direction.
The reality for marketers is that producing quality content has become table stakes – necessary, but not sufficient to stand out from the crowd. What really separates the most effective thought leadership programs, as ITSMA’s 2018 Thought Leadership Study shows, is field enablement: Equipping client-facing staff to personalize the insight and bring ideas to life through briefings, events, and relationship programs with customers and prospects.
IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV)
IBM’s internal think tank, the Institute for Business Value, provides a great example of a holistic approach equipping the field to deliver thought leadership ideas and content.
The IBV, established in 2001, includes about 60 business consultants and experts focused on bringing research and insight to market across a wide range of topics and formats. IBM’s massive C-suite studies are the most well-known outputs of the IBV, but the program extends far beyond those foundational initiatives (see the ITSMA case study, Making Thought Leadership Matter, for background on the C-suite studies).
The current research agenda covers 14 industries, nine “hot topics” (AI, blockchain, cloud, IoT, etc.), and six business roles and functions (CEO/Strategy, CMO/Marketing and Digital Experience, etc.), with publication of at least two studies every week.
Enabling the field
The IBV typically receives high marks for content quality from outside reviewers, but what really sets IBM apart is the team’s comprehensive approach to packaging their research and equipping the field to use the material.
From the packaging perspective, each IBV study comes with a full suite of materials, including:
- Executive report
- 10-slide summary presentation
- 25-slide executive presentation
- 50-slide research presentation (often with industry and/or regional versions)
- E-cards with key findings, links, and contacts
- Social materials (ready-t0-tweet messages and graphics, infographics, blog elements)
At the same time, the team creates a set of enablement materials, including training sessions, author contacts, links to relevant solutions, and local adaptations and translations. As Spencer Lin, Global Chemicals & Petroleum and Industrial Products Lead and Global CFO Lead at the IBV, noted recently, “It’s very important to train our staff, the IBMers, to use the materials with clients, and we’re happy to support them in client briefings, training sessions, conferences, and more.”
A recent study on digital supply chain for the chemicals industry provides a good example of enablement in action. As Lin explained, “One of the enablement efforts was an internal webinar to provide insights on the study, some specific client case study examples, and the solutions we have at IBM to help our clients. These types of webinars help the field to see that the study is not just a piece of content, but how it fits in the grand scheme of what we’re doing with our clients.”
The IBV team further supports the field with a multichannel activation program for each study, focused especially on LinkedIn, Twitter, the IBV newsletter, and a mobile app, as well as support for press releases, media interviews, analyst reviews, public events, and broader marketing and employee recruitment campaigns.
Finally, the team manages a benchmark wizard tool that makes it easy for field people to create custom content with performance benchmark data by industry or role for specific client opportunities. It’s a powerful tool connecting thought leadership directly to sales, according to Lin. “I was a consultant in a prior life leading finance transformation projects and we’d use this data to show the opportunity to improve performance. Whether it was through better data, common processes, or common technology, we could show the value to the organization of moving toward the benchmark. So we use these in proposals and to help frame opportunities for clients.”
From publication to engagement
The key for the IBV, and for all teams looking to maximize thought leadership impact, is to focus on the outcomes directly with target clients and prospects. Ultimately, for the IBV, the primary objective is client engagement, not just publication and reach. “For us, it’s about taking content to clients, using it in proposals and deliverables,” Lin explained. “It’s about expanding and strengthening client relationships and developing new opportunities.”
Many thought leadership programs focus primarily on elevating the company’s reputation and showcasing their expertise across broad markets and audience groups. But the most effective programs, as documented in ITSMA’s recent review, emphasize all three strategic R’s in marketing: Reputation, Relationships, and Revenue. And taking the comprehensive approach demonstrated by the IBV, they are much more effective in the latter two: Building client relationships and using thought leadership to accelerate revenue.