Using Thought Leadership to Stand Out in a Sea of Sameness

IBM’s thought leadership initiatives set the gold standard. Here's what the IBM Institute for Business Value recommends other companies do to raise their game.

by ITSMA Staff

January 14, 2016

Marketing with thought leadership is mandatory. If you aren’t investing big time, then you are missing out. According to ITSMA’s latest research, 79% of buyers said that thought leadership significantly influenced their views of providers, and 75% said it played an important role in determining who made it onto their shortlist. Unfortunately, many companies struggle to create content that stands out in a sea of sameness. Because ITSMA is often asked about how to tackle this challenge, we invited Eric Lesser, research director of the IBM Institute for Business Value, to speak at ITSMA’s Marketing Vision Conference in November 2015.

IBM is a thought leadership juggernaut and Lesser leads a team of superstars. Thought leadership at IBM builds on robust research, grabs your attention, and prompts action. Moreover, it’s well utilized internally by the sales force and subject matter experts. Lesser had advised conference attendees to follow these steps:

  1. Focus on relevant topics.
  2. Collaborate externally.
  3. Conduct research and then use it.
  4. Measure thought leadership’s impact.

Focus on Relevant Topics

B2B companies struggle to create relevant content that differentiates them. The solution is to identify what interests readers and give them actionable steps or tools. According to Lesser, “It’s about having a rigor and a unique point of view so that what you have is both defensible and compelling to people.”

IBM’s Global C-suite Study asks over 5,000 business leaders what concerns them the most. According to the report, executives are most troubled by the “Uber syndrome”: when competition comes seemingly out of nowhere and flattens them. The report discusses how businesses are predicting trends and preparing to prosper in this age of disruption. At the end of the day, Lesser explained, “readers are looking for trusted and reputable sources where they are getting not only something of value from their 15 minutes of reading but also something that they can do something about.”

Collaborate Externally

Your clients can be your best content creators. Strive to involve them in different ways. On some occasions, go to clients for ideas or as part of the ongoing work that you are doing with them. Other times, bring them in to jointly conduct the research with them, so you can collaborate and share lessons along the way.

As Lesser pointed out, “There are lots of different touch points that you can share with them in the thought leadership journey, everything from idea generation to testing, from data collection all the way through the rollout that will touch those different client points.”

IBM uses its global sales force to interview clients for its C-suite studies. Being closest to the client, salespeople are best able to foster a close rapport with clients as they collect the data. Because their conversations build on clients’ interests, when IBM is ready to follow up with the results, the conversations are more meaningful and productive.

Conduct Research and Then Use It

According to Lesser, “You can come up with the greatest insights in the world, but if the field isn’t prepared to address it with their clients, then you have sub-optimized your investment.” Salespeople and subject matter experts (SMEs) must be enabled to use the thought leadership. They need tools to help engage in substantive conversations with their clients, which, said Lesser, are not always easy conversations to have. Therefore training must be more than a passive roadshow. The field needs interactive experiences that allow them to practice and ask questions and to learn from the answers.

Some people do better with infographics, while others want highly detailed reports, so IBM provides its salespeople and SMEs with a variety of materials and formats. Lesser said, “You have different learning styles; you have cultural differences when you’re dealing with global audiences, so multiple kinds of materials are essential.”

Measure Thought Leadership’s Impact

ITSMA members frequently asked us which metrics they should be tracking. With thought leadership the challenge goes beyond what to measure to also include how to measure. Measuring thought leadership involves personalization—knowing your market and following up. It’s not about developing materials and then throwing them to the field. As Lesser described it, “Measuring the success of thought leadership comes by working with the leaders of various practices and divisions and being in constant contact with what’s going on in the market. It’s not perfect, it’s not a science, but there is recognition.”

Most of us appreciate these cornerstones of successful thought leadership, but we don’t always think them through or fashion a comprehensive plan. When B2B companies rush to create thought leadership, much of it is not very exciting, enticing, relevant, actionable, or measurable. It’s tough to put your thumb on what will be well received, but taking the time to formulate a plan will enhance program effectiveness.

ITSMA can help. In addition to conducting numerous studies and interviews, accessing best practices, and evaluating programs, ITSMA collaborated with a group of B2B thought leadership superstars to develop a Thought Leadership Maturity Model and accompanying Assessment. Companies can use the Model and Assessment to gauge thought leadership program progress and identify the key steps needed for advancement. Read “Mastering Thought Leadership: A Guide to Glide” for more information.

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Using Thought Leadership to Stand Out in a Sea of Sameness

IBM’s thought leadership initiatives set the gold standard. Here's what the IBM Institute for Business Value recommends other companies do to raise their game.