B-to-b marketing leaders are striving to position their companies as thought leaders. And why not? If you do not have a truly disruptive technology, product, service or idea (in which case you actually are a thought leader), being seen as a thought leader gives your company strategic differentiation. It helps you stand out from the cacophony of messages that your customers must sift through to find you. Given the complexities that b-to-b buyers face when making decisions about sophisticated solutions, your thought leadership might just be the most important part of your marketing program. It becomes part of your brand value. It converts you from a commodity supplier into a trusted adviser who can lead customers to achievement of their vision. But ...
Your thought leadership only matters if people read it, see it or hear it.
If every vendor in every market segment is pumping out brilliant thought-leadership content, they will collectively create a “tragedy of the commons” dilemma. On the off chance that this did not capture your imagination—as it did mine—in a university economics class, the tragedy of the commons refers to the depletion of a shared resource by individuals in a community acting in their self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group's long-term best interests.
This particular example of thought leadership was published in 1968 by an ecologist named Garrett Hardin. Hardin got the metaphor from medieval land tenure in Europe, where herders shared a common parcel of land on which they were each entitled to let their cattle graze. It was, of course, in each herder's interest to put all the new cattle he acquired on to the land, even if the quality of the common was damaged for all as a result of overgrazing. Hardin presented this as an ethical dilemma, but it's a reality for the modern b-to-b marketer. The common is your audience, and your audience is overgrazing.
You need to market thought leadership like a product.
I joked with a client a few months ago that its thought leadership program needed a PR campaign. Then I came to see that it did—along with a marketing program, a sales enablement program and a road map. Your thought-leadership program (TLP) must be tweeted, pinned, Facebooked, webinared and seminared. It must get coverage in the vertical industry and business media. Here are some suggestions:
Amplify your TLP's voice with focus. Build your TLP as a complete intellectual platform under some big idea and “roll it out” in serial form over the next 12 months.
Target industry influencers to get your TLP in play socially.
Institutionalize your TLP in ongoing client promotional events by creating easily executed marketing programs for your field marketers. For example: Build a webinar kit for “a key TLP idea.” Include the presentation, the speaker notes, the webinar invite. Create a library of interactive emails that sales reps can easily use to introduce a piece (or body) of content to an executive with whom they have not spoken before.
Find a champion in each geo/market to evangelize the TLP. Create a community around this core to keep the evangelists energized.
Create sales tools such as a cool tablet-based app that allows sales reps to rather safely explore topics and send some “thought-provoking idea pieces' to follow up with executives.
As b-to-b vendors relentlessly move up the values food chain to escape commoditization, they end up commoditizing each layer through which they pass. In this scorched-earth progression, they've commoditized “leading edge,” “product,” “system” and “solution.” The next layer to commoditize will be ideas, as they all start competing on content management and thought-leadership programs. Take action now to make sure you get your thought-leadership program in play to make a difference to your brand.
Lori Wizdo is a principal analyst at Forrester Research. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.