I hate to dampen any firm’s enthusiasm about investing in thought leadership. We believe B2B firms that bring superior expertise to solving their customers’ problems (not just superior products and services) will be the ones that thrive.
Yet it’s easy for B2B companies (and particularly their CMOs) to become giddy about thought leadership and then watch the rug get pulled out from under them. A downturn forces them to gut the thought leadership budget. Salespeople pay little attention to thought leadership marketing campaigns that generate leads. And (worst of all), the professionals who deliver the firm’s expertise (consultants, accountants, lawyers, architects, bankers, VCs, and so on) behave as if there’s little to learn from new research or a codification of some innovative firm practices.
Without strong pull from the top – a deep understanding by the people who run the firm on what thought leadership is and how it can propel the firm – thought leadership investments will not go very far. And I’m aware of few B2B chief executives other than those running consulting firms (and just some of these) or research companies who view thought leadership as vital to success.
As I mentioned, one of seven elements of a sound thought leadership strategy is “strategy alignment.” An ugly and nebulous term, indeed. So what do we mean? It begins with people at the top recognizing investments to make their firm the premier expert in its domains as essential to executing the business strategy.
In many companies, this connection is tenuous. But I’ve seen other companies that do this well. Here’s what they do:
- They use metrics that resonate at the top: e.g., number of prospect inquiries, leads and revenue. One of our clients showed senior management the result of a thought leadership marketing campaign using the following indicators: attendees at a symposium (about 160), number of requests for their white paper (more than 350) and names of the requestors (many Fortune 500 companies), and number of discussions asked for by prospective clients (14). Our client also used indirect metrics of market interest (indirect in that these numbers don’t directly indicate buyers are at hand): news coverage and website visitors, to name two. Nice, but not as interesting as the metrics closer to money.
- They talk CEO-speak, not marketing-speak. All of us in marketing easily forget how the shorthand we’ve adopted goes over the heads of the people who run companies. The CMO says, “Our last thought leadership campaign generated 1,000 unique viewers, 100 downloads, and 150 retweets.” “Huh?” says your CEO. OK, let me phrase that again. “Our last thought leadership campaign brought 1,000 people to our website on a day when we typically get 100. The people who downloaded our research report – 100 in all – were CFOs, CMOs and chief R&D officers at companies with average revenue of $12 billion. We know that because we went to the Fortune 500 list and other sources and did the calculations. Of those 100 who downloaded the report, 18 asked to talk to the authors of the research. And of these 18, four have already asked for a proposal, the average value of which is $250,000. And 150 people who use the social media tool Twitter liked our study enough to recommend it to the 52,000 people who follow them on Twitter. And we found that 10 of those 150 who recommended our study on Twitter were stock analysts and reporters from the Times and the Journal.” See the difference in those messages? Communicating effectively about thought leadership requires explaining everything, not taking for granted the terms we all are familiar with.
- They explain clearly how thought leadership can help the firm accomplish much more than just getting the market to recognize it as an expert on some issue (although that, of course, is a sizable benefit). They lay out how thought leadership could help the company a) sell more services and products, b) increase profitability, c) attract talent and d) create new services. Here’s how I would explain those four potential benefits: a) thought leadership can help your firm sell more services and products because an increasing number of potential customers believe you know the most about how to solve their problem; b) thought leadership enables you to raise prices because your expertise is viewed as superior and well worth the premium (every consulting firm with a hot concept should hike its rates), c) thought leadership can become a magnet to college graduates and established professionals who are looking to get on board a company with a hot concept (many consulting firms can attest to this too); and d) thought leadership provides a company with greater ability to scale expertise that it previously had not codified. In other words, you take the best practices you identified in your research, have people who love creating methodology turn them into methods and training and development curricula, and then put your people through extensive training and development so they can learn how to do it too.
I see these three elements as essential to making thought leadership truly matter at the top of your company. You need metrics that matter, language your CEO knows well, and clear explanations about how investing in thought leadership will help deliver what he wants to achieve.
How have you pitched thought leadership to the people who run your firm? Is it working? Why or why not?