The Marketing Strategist:

How to Focus Thought Leadership on Customers' Needs

January 13, 2011

Thought leadership can be a waste of time and money if you’re trying to look smart in an area that customers no longer care about. GE Healthcare had long focused on helping make hospitals more efficient (along with most of its competitors). But then the company decided to do some in-depth research with customers to see if the priority on efficiency was still valid. It wasn’t, said Bret Barczak, CMO, Service and Solutions, GE Healthcare. Instead, the research revealed that hospital leaders were desperate for creative ways to grow and that few of GE’s competitors were focusing on that need. So GE targeted its thought leadership strategy on growth. Finding the right subject matter is important, but if you want customers to consume your thought leadership, you must know them and the ways they like to interact and consume content. Here, GE’s research revealed some challenges. The target audience—high-level hospital administrators—is nearly all older, white males. Digital and social media do not interest them at all. But they do like to network with each other. Though they tend to change jobs frequently, the administrators rarely leave the field and they form long-term relationships with peers through third-party meetings. With this knowledge, GE created a thought leadership strategy based on four pillars:
  • Marketable people. The research showed that GE’s target audience trusts its peer network more than anything else. Personal referrals are key. So GE developed a strategy to highlight its top subject matter experts to create a peer relationship with customers.
  • Proprietary content. GE’s target customers said that deep knowledge of the subject matter was one of the most important factors in choosing a provider. So GE focused on creating unique content that displayed the company’s deep knowledge in specific specialty areas.
  • Demonstrated success. GE’s customers want to see proof that the provider has done similar work with another customer that they recognize. In-depth case studies are critically important.
  • Multitouch distribution. GE’s research found that its customers don’t have a strong preference for any single thought leadership delivery channel (white papers, events, etc.). So it was important to disseminate the thought leadership content through multiple channels to ensure that customers would see it.
The results of the effort so far have been a clear increase in the sales funnel and increased awareness for GE Healthcare and its subject matter experts, said Barczak. Give It Away to Win The Grateful Dead didn’t have much to do with B2B, but the band understood an important aspect of thought leadership marketing: give it away. Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot quoted Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow in a way that makes Barlow sound like a CMO: “The best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away. If I give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced. That was the value proposition with the Dead.” The Grateful Dead built a following not by selling records but by letting concert-goers create bootleg tapes of the band’s concerts and passing them on to their friends. The internet is capable of doing for thought leadership marketers what bootleg tapes did for the Grateful Dead. “Create remarkable content and make it freely available,” said Halligan. “Each piece of content attracts links, ranks in Google, can get tweeted. Content behaves like compounding interest.” And that’s why, as unlikely as it seems, B2B marketers can learn some key lessons from the Grateful Dead. The band embraced new technologies early to create competitive advantage. It cut out the middleman and went directly to the customer. But most of all, it had great content.

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