(This post first appeared on Marketing Profs Daily Fix on 11.25.09.)
There’s a lot of talk about thought leadership marketing these days, and not a lot of agreement on exactly what it is. At the Bloom Group we define it as “Publishing informative material on a complex issue to position a company as an expert in its field.” Not because it’s catchy, obviously, but because research shows that’s what business readers want. A 2007 survey for instance, found that nearly three quarters of readers search for white papers to help them solve a current problem and they most value those with educational content that helps them do that.
There is a lot of advice on how to write white papers, but it rarely addresses the creation of the core idea, which is generally presumed to exist. But advice like “Break up the gray space with diagrams” isn’t going to help much if the recommendations are unconvincing, or have already been made elsewhere.
The available advice for developing thought leadership concepts rarely addresses the business reader’s need for a solution to an immediate, complex problem. A typical suggestion is “Begin by creating a big picture idea with relevance to many. Look outward, not inward.” Curious, when there isn’t any research to indicate that business readers particularly value an idea about a big picture. If you look at the most popular IT white paper downloads, for instance, you’ll see that they are almost invariably practical, and not necessarily expansive. A white paper on the application of Business Intelligence in Financial Services is an example. The topic is specialized and the audience isn’t broad, but it explains to executives a complex and relevant issue and how to profit from it. It still gets many downloads 18 months after it was published and it positions the author as an expert, which—from the marketers’ perspective—is the point.
Anyone capable of creating a “big picture idea with relevance to many” out of thin air should seriously consider giving up real work and sell rarified concepts for high prices instead. The rest of us need a process. The one we use has five steps for creating compelling content, all of which go before writing a report or article.
- Develop the initial argument: Start with a draft of the problem and the solution. The story will change as you develop it, but a draft provides a good basis for refining it as you go.
- Gather the evidence: Readers need proof that other companies have solved the problem in the manner you prescribe. A company with significant preexisting experience or research on an issue will already have content that its marketers can tap for thought leadership material. Often, especially if it is pushing into a new area, it won’t. In that case you will need to conduct original research (case studies, lab research or surveys, for instance) to substantiate and adjust the prescriptions.
- Analyze and synthesize: New insights only emerge through a process of analysis and synthesis. Analysis involves studying and mining the data, looking for patterns and important findings. Synthesis refines and combines them into new insights.
- Create frameworks: At the heart of any compelling point of view lie one or more frameworks that capture the issue and describe how to address it. The white paper above has several, including a high-level technical architecture for Business Intelligence. Good frameworks make a point of view memorable and help it last; the SWOT analysis framework and Kotler’s 4Ps of Marketing are two that have endured for decades.
- Craft and refine the outline: Draft and collaboratively refine a detailed outline of the report.
- Write the report: Finally with the finished outline in hand, create a full report, articles, a slide presentation and/or series of blog posts, from the core material.
The power in thought leadership marketing comes from the point of view, not the pen. Unfortunately, too many companies regard thought leadership initiatives as writing assignments, producing well-written, but lightweight copy.
Does your company’s thought leadership fall into this category? If so, can you fix it?