The Marketing Strategist:

The Six Pillars of a Successful Thought Leadership Strategy

May 17, 2012

By now you know that thought leadership is becoming critical to buyers. In ITSMA’s recent How Customers Choose survey, when we asked buyers about the importance of thought leadership in creating their short lists, an incredible 88% said it was important or critical—a dramatic increase from 2010.

So how should marketers respond to this new appetite for information? Contrary to what you may have heard, the answer is not to just hire a bunch of out-of-work journalists to interview your subject matter experts (SMEs) and pump out copy.

That may be part of the process, but it puts the starting point in the wrong place. Starting with whatever happens to be in the minds of your SMEs may be an ego stroke for them, but it will do little to advance the goals behind all of this effort: to build your company’s reputation, relationships, and revenue.

To accomplish these goals, you need an earlier start. Companies must put more effort into the development of ideas—which comes long before you interview your SMEs and start the process of writing and filming. You need a process for determining which of the many ideas floating inside your SMEs’ heads are worth pursuing and whether those ideas match up to your customers’ needs and your abilities to deliver. You need to develop research and proof points for those ideas. Then you can start to write them up.

It’s clear from our research that process leads to success in thought leadership. ITSMA’s thought leadership survey found that companies with formal development and dissemination processes are more satisfied with the quality of ideas from their thought leaders and are more likely to have the business’s critical support and involvement in idea development.

After all, marketing can’t do thought leadership alone—this is what leads to warmed-over brochures that masquerade as thought leadership.

In our research with marketers on thought leadership and social media, one theme has stood out consistently: Success requires a deep commitment not just from marketing but from the entire company. This led us to explore the concept of the idea organization and develop a model of the components required both inside and outside of marketing to successfully develop and disseminate ideas. From our research, we came up with six important areas of focus:

  • Idea culture. Marketing can’t create thought leadership on its own. If it does, the output will be promotion, not thought leadership. Marketing must get the buy-in, support, and commitment of executives and subject matter experts to become part of the idea-generating and dissemination process.
  • Business themes. Marketers have a crucial role to play in making sure that thought leadership relates to what customers need and what the company does. Business themes are clear, succinct expressions of issues that are relevant to customers and prospects and link back to a company’s strategy. ITSMA research has found that business themes give thought leadership programs a deeper level of connection to target audiences’ needs and goals and give employees a clear, simple way to understand the strategy and goals of the company.
  • Research. With research, ideas become fact based and therefore much more credible. Research has particularly long mileage online, where people are hungry for facts and stats that cut through the haze of uninformed opinion.
  • Idea development and dissemination engine. With a stable of willing and able contributors, marketers can create a thought leadership supply chain that balances idea development with dissemination. ITSMA research shows that marketers are beginning to put more effort and budget into the development side of the supply chain. When we surveyed marketers in 2007, 70% of the thought leadership budget went to dissemination; when we surveyed them again in 2010, the proportion was roughly split.
  • Thought leadership center of expertise. ITSMA research shows that B2B companies are creating marketing centers of expertise for thought leadership and social media. In our survey, 56% said they have a central group or center of expertise for packaging thought leadership. Though specialty strategy consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain have had these groups for decades, more mainstream B2B companies are now making the same kind of thought leadership marketing transformation.
  • Metrics. Influencing the buyer is everything in thought leadership. But influence is a murky term when it comes to metrics. We need to break it down into more concrete terms. At ITSMA, we categorize thought leadership influence in three ways:
    • Reputation
    • Relationships
    • Revenue

To learn how to use these six pillars in your thought leadership strategy, read the ITSMA Special Report Thought Leadership Marketing: How to Build Relationships and Revenue Through Ideas.

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