In a previous post, I laid out four stages that professional services and other B2B firms go through in becoming thought leaders (Stone Age, Medieval, Industrial and Post-Industrial). Each stage reflects varying levels of sophistication in the way a firm develops and markets its expertise. Because thought leadership marketing is a relatively new marketing discipline, it's no surprise to me that many firms are in the Stone Age and Medieval eras.
Yet I believe there’s a fifth era now upon us. Call it the Information Age, for lack of a better term. New tools and approaches for developing expertise are evolving right before our eyes. And so are new methods and tools for marketing that expertise (which we wrote about last year here).
When I say approaches and tools for “developing” expertise, I mean the ways a firm’s subject experts create and codify their knowledge. Some firms reflect on the work they’ve done for clients and capture it in articles, presentations, etc. Others conduct primary research to learn from organizations that have solved the issue (i.e., best-practice case study research). Some combine best-practice research with their own client experience, which to me is the best method.
B2B companies that conduct primary research have a growing number of online options today in collecting best practice and other primary research data:
- Participant recruitment: Getting best-practice companies to join in thought leadership R&D is never easy. But it’s essential. We don’t see syndicated research studies (i.e., those that formalize recruitment) or good old-fashioned participant recruiters who man the phones looking for research participants going away soon. But there are other methods for identifying and getting managers to participate. They include public social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook (especially LinkedIn groups where professionals discuss issues of mutual interest). And, increasingly, gated online communities.
- Data collection: It used to be that the tools for conducting best-practice research were the good old-fashioned telephone, tape recorder and in-person interview. But technology is beginning to help case study researchers do things better and faster. They include online videochats (which can help build essential trust in interviews) and social media tools such as Quora (which allow many people to chime in an issue and decide whose input is most useful). Still, we see nothing replacing one-on-one discussions with managers who have illuminating stories to tell.
Those who can figure out how to use social media and other online technologies to conduct seminal thought leadership R&D – to identify companies with leading practices, secure discussions with key principals in those firms, and analyze disparate data – will gain enormous advantage in the game of thought leadership.