Driving commercial success through the power of ideas
Content marketing may be all the rage, but only thought leadership offers B2B brands an opportunity to create a long-term platform for owned, earned and paid media success. Linstock’s Simon Maule describes what it takes to be a thought leader and sets out the key steps.
Media ‘big bang’
The ‘big bang’ in media sources has transformed corporate communications. The BBC, Financial Times and The Telegraph remain important, but the old hegemony of traditional media titles has been well and truly broken by organisations communicating directly with customers, partners and employees.
Channel your inner Murdoch
It seems as if everyone is in the business of content marketing. Everyone is a channel in their own right, chancing their arm at becoming a publisher. Some creative brands in the consumer space have taken full advantage. Red Bull is ubiquitous for its social media and high-adrenaline activities, while fashion retailer Net-a-Porter’s print magazine competes with Vogue for earnest fashionistas. But so far, fewer business-to-business (B2B) brands have taken the plunge into publishing.
Some have built editorial teams to write articles and blogs. They offer news and opinion like traditional media titles. Others are scouring the web to curate material from other sources, acting like news agencies. But the best are developing original evidence-led content, using it across a wide range of owned, earned and paid channels, moving industry debate in new directions and driving sales leads as a consequence. This is thought leadership.
Differentiating high-end services
A thought leadership approach works well for firms that have a difficult time differentiating themselves on the basis of their product or service. Financial, professional and related business services fit into this category. Try removing the brand name from the web text of many law, recruitment or accountancy firms (and PR firms for that matter). Can you still tell which individual business relates to which website? Probably not. The essence of the services provided is largely the same. The real value comes from the collective insight and ideas of the people delivering those services. EY, Clifford Chance and Grant Thornton are just three firms seeking to exploit that value through their corporate communications.
Grant Thornton’s international research into women in business, for example, has made them a ‘go to’ source on a topic that is high on the business and media agenda. Their annual reports exploring the issue are downloaded tens of thousands of times and are powerful engagement tools. Taking a thought leadership route with original research packaged in a practical way demonstrates the quality of their thinking and the power of their ideas.
The science of thought leadership
Not every B2B brand taking a content-led approach sets out to be a thought leader, of course. We find that brands typically adopt one of four positions for B2B communications, and occasionally a combination. The four-approach diagram (see above right) shows how the position depends on a fine balance between two factors: the extent to which a business curates or originates content, and the degree to which its marketing is led by presumption and is essentially reactive or is proactive and driven by new evidence.
Is your business ready for thought leadership?
The diagram sets out some of the rewards thought leadership can deliver. It allows you to focus on the future and showcase new ideas that are based on solid evidence. It is a way to define your brand on your terms, rather than simply associate it with the thinking of others. It also enhances corporate reputation, not just the standing of your senior thinkers. But that doesn’t mean thought leadership is right for everyone.
At its purest, thought leadership is driven by original thinking, typified by organisations searching for insights and answers to challenging issues. It means investing in research that may or may not lead to the conclusions you want or expect. Although some thought leadership work is more concerned with gap-spotting than questioning accepted theories or underlying assumptions, this also requires the brand to take a bold position rather than hide behind caveats. Either way, there are risks involved and a robust methodology is critical to produce credible, compelling and engaging material that will resonate with customers and partners.
Before you embark on a thought leadership project, consider the following questions:
- What are the commercial objectives?
- How much risk are you willing to take? Is your business bold enough to challenge the status quo?
- Are your sales, marketing and communications functions sufficiently integrated to apply your thought leadership content seamlessly across owned, earned and paid channels?
- Are you clear about who you are targeting? What do they want to hear about that also fits with your expertise?
- What is your call to action? How will you draw in clients to improve existing relationships and start new ones?
- Are you prepared to share findings and insights – to give something away?
- Can you collaborate with clients or partners to strengthen relationships from the start?
- Secrets to success
To be effective, thought leadership needs to be:
Authentic: you must be able to walk the talk or disgruntled employees and sceptical customers will be quick to point out inconsistencies. Similarly, claims must be backed up by robust and reliable evidence.
Compelling: worthy research is all well and good, but it needs to be presented well. Good storytelling distinguishes a dusty old white paper from an effective sales and marketing tool, which could be a research report, video, infographic or interactive presentation.
Findable: thought leaders need followers, so your material must be easy to find. Creative distribution, good SEO and effective use of earned, owned and paid-for media all help you get the recognition you deserve.
Lead the debate and benefit accordingly
At a time when content is critical to brand success, thought leadership can lift you above the noise. For organisations selling high-end services, it is a particularly effective way to differentiate your brand and achieve commercial goals. Whether brands opt for a low-risk gap-spotting exercise or a high-risk paradigm shift, a robust methodology and systematic approach is a must for thought leadership projects. Although ‘analyst’, ‘observer’ and ‘commentator’ approaches to B2B communications help brands raise awareness and engage in debate, thought leaders are setting the terms of that debate and benefiting accordingly.