The Marketing Strategist:

Engaging Customers in Thought Leadership Development: Research Initiative

September 29, 2016

  • Featured Article


Marketers routinely use customer data and examples to build credibility with their thought leadership. We highlight survey results, success stories, and lessons learned as evidence and texture in our articles, reports, and other content. For the most part, though, we’re still creating thought leadership for our customers, not with them.

The most recent group of thought leadership program submissions to ITSMA’s Marketing Excellence Awards drove this point home for me—and helped inspire a new research initiative on creating thought leadership with customers, not just for them.

Many of the submissions were indeed excellent (pardon the pun). They demonstrated a high degree of program innovation, rigor, and results in areas as varied as digital business transformation, the future of air and ground transportation, robotics, and health care. They used creative formats across a multitude of channels to reach customers with new ideas and approaches.

With few exceptions, however, they relied on a fairly traditional approach to the R&D side of the process: Internal subject matter experts analyze the results from surveys, interviews, and field experience to create new points of view. Marketers often bring in third party experts and analysts to help shape the ideas but customers rarely have an organized role.

Bringing Customers into the R&D Process

From a customer perspective, the bar for effective thought leadership these days is extremely high. As shown in ITSMA’s latest How Buyers Consume Information Study, customers expect content that is practical, business-focused, unbiased, results-oriented, innovative, and, of course, directly relevant to their business and industry.

In this context, it certainly would seem that engaging customers early in the process could only help.

Our new research initiative will explore at least three areas in which greater customer collaboration can lead to more effective programs:

  • Defining the issues agenda: Selecting the right issues
  • Conducting the research: Defining the questions and collecting the most relevant data
  • Developing new points of view: Analyzing the research and articulating new business strategies and recommendations

For many companies, there are a variety of opportunities already at hand to do this: customer councils and advisory boards, strategic account programs, executive-level briefings and events, university partnerships, industry associations, and more.

One clear challenge is organizational—creating effective methods to involve the right customers at the right times in the process.

You have a great customer council, but how should you tie that to developing your issues agenda? You have a strong key account program, but where should you intervene to collect new types of data? You’re running executive briefings, but how can you use them to test and refine new points of view?

Perhaps most important, how do you make the case for adding yet another layer of investment (time and perhaps money) to an already difficult process? It’s hard enough getting our own SMEs involved! Now we’re supposed to get customers more involved, too?

Our research will dig into these questions and more as we identify new approaches and best practices for engaging customers in thought leadership development. We’ll share findings as we go, including in our web briefing on December 13.

Have your own ideas or examples? We’d love to get your perspective. Contact me at


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