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Thought Leadership Thought Leadership

 A How To Approach

5 Step Plan To Thought Leadership

IT buyers are changing both their information sourcing and their buying preferences. Clearly they are increasing their sources of information and socializing their purchase decisions. With increased frequency, they are turning to online resources and social media channels in order to acquire first-hand, candid information from peers and influencers.

Successful companies understand the changes in IT buyer dynamics – and the methods available, including thought leadership, to capitalize on these new opportunities. They know that thought leadership is not a passing fad and to the contrary believe it may be the most important marketing asset in their portfolio.

Defining thought leadership is one thing, contextualizing this elusive ambition and successfully achieving thought leadership recognition and benefits are quite another.

Thought leaders lead with their thoughts. To garner attention and credibility, their thoughts are original or innovative, or at least demonstrate evolutionary thinking. The power of thought leadership lies in the engagement and reaction of target audiences. Participants view thought leaders as innovative, refreshing and filling a void in their lives in a way nobody else does. They respect and reward thought leaders with their praise, referrals, loyalty and purchase power. Thought leaders trump their competitors by shifting from product to partner, from company to personal aspiration and from price to customer value and ironically, most competitors never see it coming until it's too late.

It's also important to recognize that thought leadership is a business strategy which seeks to be different, rather than better. Being different is a more sustainable strategy and provides customers with unique value they cannot get elsewhere.

The 5 Step Plan

  1. Articulate your thought. Thought leaders must have a compelling thought to lead. Original thoughts are often the most gripping, however, it's also possible to augment an existing thought into a new direction. Surprisingly this first step is where many thought leadership programs fail – as they begin with a promotional effort which publicizes a person or company instead of advocating a compelling thought. This gaffe results in a marketing campaign, not a thought leadership program, and will not achieve thought leadership benefits.

  2. Define your space. It's critical that your thought resonate with a community which you seek to cultivate – probably your customers and company target market. It's equally important that your thought fulfills a passion for both your customers and yourself. If you're unclear on the characteristics of your social customer, a deeper dive will be required to firmly understand their business problems, issues, ideals, aspirations and persona. An additional round of customer research may be required to make sure your idea taps into the hot buttons of your target audience. Once you self identify with the specific issues and opportunities facing your audience you are better able to articulate your thought to your customers' needs while linking your company's solutions in creative fashion.

    You will also want to research the space to understand where competitors may overlap, extend or compliment your designated thought category. And as a word of caution, don't try to compete in a topic already owned by a competitor as your efforts will deliver minimal payback and you won't secure the differentiation necessary to win customers. Even in crowded technology markets, new or niche white spaces, green fields and market voids exist and can be capitalized upon.

  3. Develop Your Online Presence. Create a blog to build an online presence, distribute content and develop relationships. Content quality is key, so blog posts, articles, white papers or research must educate, engage or entertain your community. Good content will attract followers and provide you the opportunity to build online relationships. These relationships will produce referrals and viral propagation of your content for a continued snow ball effect.

    Thought leaders tend to be prolific writers – sometimes with the aid of the marketing department or an outside agency. It is through your sharing of valuable content that you create a coveted connection with your community. You must commit to communicating on a regular basis. This is the step where most thought leadership programs fail. To avoid failure, content must be both remarkable and frequent. Content is remarkable if it is remarked upon. Remarks may take the forms of reader comments or viral propagation such as re-tweets, mentions, reader forwards and inbound links. Creating remarkable content is the subject of another Vantive Media white paper.

    While there is no consensus for frequency, creating content less than weekly will likely fail to attract followers and thwart a successful program. Recasting content in multiple forms is generally acceptable. Many C-level executives prefer to consume their content as video webcasts or audio podcasts while many traditional IT leaders prefer white papers and marketers often favor blog posts.

    Remember that thought leaders engage in dialogue, not monologue. Leveraging social media channels will provide content producers with interactive feedback and collaboration to continually refine their ideas and concepts. Also remember that content must be free of product pitches and focus on the issues and resolutions which matter to the target audience. Lastly, content that is free of registration will attract a wider audience in a shorter time frame.

  4. Extend Your Reach. Conversations that have some connection with your thought leadership topic are occurring online. Join several of these blogs or communities with the goal of being one of the most valued contributors in at least half of them. Regularly connecting with other thought leaders and advancing their causes will trigger reciprocity and pay big dividends to your own cause.

  5. Continually Promote. Thought leaders must continually demonstrate clear and unequivocal commitment, passion and emotion in their support and pursuit as evangelist. They recognize they're not just participants in the conversation but they're driving the conversation. Promotional activities should further be about communicating with, rather than to, your audience. The frequency and strength of the promotion strategy will demonstrate the programs authenticity and advise customers whether your thought leadership pursuit is a mission purpose or more of a marketing checkbox.

    Technology marketers will leverage a combination of traditional and social media marketing channels to gain initial interest. Once you've posted a new blog entry, tweet its title and link, update your Facebook and LinkedIn status with its headline and subtlety announce it on other relevant social networks. Once readers are attracted to an online location, newsletter sign-ups, RSS or other subscription tools are the best mechanisms to keep them engaged and coming back. The obvious privacy and no spam recommendations are even more amplified when distributing content with this type of program.

    Other promotional techniques may include:
    • Ever increasing types of content, such as research documents, surveys, white papers, case studies, videos, etc.;
    • Content syndication – getting your content published on leading media sites;
    • Community events – online or offline;
    • Affiliations with other credible organizations and thought leaders;
    • Online or offline public speaking engagements;
    • Award receipts and recognition;
    • Search engine optimization (SEO).

Results

What gets measured gets done. Key performance metrics and milestones must be used to gauge progress. Common performance metrics may include:

  • The volume, tone, quality and sentiment of community feedback and user generated content;
  • The amount of content virally propagated online by readers;
  • The volume and trend of followers and in-community new introductions;
  • The volume, quality and trending of new prospect acquisitions;
  • The number and broadcast strength of media mentions, citations and coverage; and/or
  • The volume of referrals, word of mouth promotions and similar lead sourcing originating from content and community.

Without a personal brand, you're easily replaceable. And without a unique thought to champion and define your brand, you merely try to look indispensable, rather than be indispensable.

While measurable financial results are the clear indicators of success, thought leaders will experience an early indicator to their success. Just prior to gaining traction and creating a sustainable program, prospects and customers will engage and make comments such as 'This guy gets it' or 'They understand my business'. In fact, if you fail to hear these types of comments, go back to the listening phase and reevaluate your messaging.

Thought leaders employ frequent and multiple methods to truly understand their customers and then add value to their customers' lives beyond selling them a product or service. Many of the best thought leaders such as Microsoft, Oracle, Sun and others failed to get their programs right the first (or second) time. Unless you are either brilliant or lucky, tenacity and continuous learning will be required to achieve sustained success and lucrative payback.

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READER COMMENTS

By Derek Petri
We're a small software company that frequently loses sale opportunities to much larger competitors based on brand and company visibility. Any suggestions - including or not including thought leadership - in how we can improve our position, within a reasonable budget, to increase our sales win rate?

Response: This is a common situation for which there are several avenues to explore. Consider the following five responses to your situation.

  1. Implement a thought leadership program. Reference our suggested sequential approach to achieving thought leadership position as a how-to guide. Fortunately, market leaders are often not thought leaders. Earning the thought leader designation in your market will separate your company from its larger competitors and provide you a powerful inroad to new prospects and even your larger competitors' customers.
  2. Leverage public relations (PR) to expand your brand. This type of effort would probably involve implementing print media and social media techniques. Giving media sources what they need to satisfy their readers can provide a quick visibility impact for your organization.
  3. Leverage alliances to promote team strength. Consider technology partners such as Microsoft or Oracle, system integrators or ISV partnerships.
  4. Improve your company story. Few organizations do a compelling job at articulating their company story in a way that compels prospects to want to be a part of your journey. Prospects like underdog or up-and-comer players that can tell a credible story.
  5. Consider adjusting your business strategy. It may be time to stop trying to be better than your larger competitors and figure out how to be different. Think about taking your product deep into a niche, look for white spaces, consider vertical markets, evaluate different geographies or find specialized fit where you can provide unique solutions.

By Adrianne Parker
It seems the most difficult of your 5 step plan is step 1. We've been racking our brains to develop an original thought however haven't yet been successful. Does a thought leadership thought or topic have to be original?

Response: Original thoughts provide the best opportunity to capitalize on thought leadership benefits, however, as you have experienced they are very difficult to discover. In the absence of an original thought, explore adapting an existing thought for new and unique value or put a thought into a new context and take that thought to new levels. Many times thought leaders advocate positions that stand in stark contrast to the norm or challenge the assumptions of the consensus. Regardless, it's important that you develop a unique point of view, something that is distinctively yours to say and that you advance your thought.

 

By Tom P
There are no more original thoughts.

Response: Possibly, however, within the technology industry constant innovation spawns new opportunities for new (possibly original) thoughts.

 

By Lenny Hartfeld
Well done. I think your article lays out the road map to achieve true thought leadership. One question – I'm tired of the endless self proclaimed thought leaders which are nothing more than self promoters – how do you know if you cross the line from thought leader to self promoter?

Response: Self promoters are not always overt. However, we've all seen them, usually briefly as we quickly recognize their self obsession and we move on. Surprisingly, self-promoters often don't see themselves in the light that most others see them. The simple rule is to promote a thought or idea. Once you pass that line of debarkation and begin promoting yourself you're living in a fantasy world. If others turn to you as the source for your thought topic, or you become the go-to source, you're doing something right.

 

By Ahmed Hasama
OMG, you're so on the money. Self promotes are often legends in their own minds. They write about themselves on their blog pages or websites, describing themselves as proclaimed experts in the third person as though somebody else were writing. There seems to be a link between the number of unemployed marketing and IT workers and self proclaimed thought leaders who are nothing more than shameless self promoters. They attempt to fake it in order to make it.

Response: Self promotion does not achieve thought leadership. Without clear focus on the thought topic, the promoter comes across as pretentious and celebrity seeking.

 

By George Gallagher
I'm a marketer trying to make my CEO a thought leader. He wholeheartedly blesses the program however it's proving overly difficult and he lacks enthusiasm and finds it difficult to commit the needed time. Any advice?

Response: If he lacks enthusiasm I suggest you find a new thought or a new sponsor. Enthusiasm, passion, natural curiosity, perpetual learning and domain expertise are key components of a successful thought leader. Sufficient time is always a constraint. Few business leaders have enough time to get their things done, however, thought leaders continually invest in learning more about their topic. They are inexhaustible readers, want to know everything about their topic and they subscribe to many sources of information in their quest. Thought leaders are also accessible to their audiences' inquiries, questions and comments. They know these conversations help hone their ideas and spread their messages. Your company's thought leadership program must be of a priority to warrant this level of time commitment, or you're probably wasting your time.

 

By Jim Clemins
I consider myself an expert in my industry, however, I'm not a great communicator. Does this hinder my ability to be a thought leader?

Response: Expertise is not enough for thought leadership. Thought leaders are experts in their domains AND drive their new ideas forward. While you don't need to be a skilled orator, you do need to engage in conversations, although not necessarily verbal. I know several thought leaders who don't speak well in public however have matured their online communication skills and have grown to become both comfortable and conversant.

 

By Gustavo Correa
What the difference between building your brand and building thought leader positioning?

Response: Brand – crafts a company image related to company competitive advantages, company delivery, assurance, etc. – something attributable to the company's core capabilities and how the company is viewed by the public at large. Thought leader - an innovator, evolutionary thinker and proponent of a topic important to your customers' everyday lives, separate from the company image itself, as well as from the company's products or services.

Send comments to blog[at]Vantivemedia.com.

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