Thought Leadership Marketing: Creating the edge for knowledge-intensive firms

“Thought leadership” is a powerful communications tool that US, global and Indian enterprises are increasingly using to differentiate themselves with prospects and customers and generate new revenue. It’s a powerful branding tool, we can call it Intellectual branding

Companies used to consider advertising and media relations as primary tools for creating a brand image for the company. Today pretty pictures and messages “are not enough to create a brand.

Thought leadership marketing as the new tool for branding is gaining ground because business executives today are increasingly up to date with the latest technology and no longer expect vendors or solution providers to provide that for them. Instead, they seek experts who can help them battle the direct and indirect forces in the market that are pressuring them, forces I believe will only increase in the future.

The IT Services Marketing Association, a trade group based in Massachusetts, surveyed companies to determine what factors caused their customers to select them. Ninety-seven percent said thought leadership contributed to their companies winning business. According to its study, “When done well, thought leadership can help differentiate a company from its competitors, drive business through use in targeted campaigns, and stimulate dialogue with customers and prospects.

Four steps to create thought leadership marketing

What exactly is thought leadership? it’s a big idea, a new idea, a strong point of view, or an insight into future trends

So, how can companies use thought leadership marketing to win new business? Thought leadership marketing is more than having experts write thought-provoking papers and presenting them at conferences. Today executives need to treat thought leadership marketing as a full-fledged program designed to showcase their knowledge externally through the involvement of all the stakeholders in the ecosystem.

Companies can do that in four steps. They are:

1.Define and understand your company’s thought leadership ecosystem.

  • Customers
  • Academics
  • Alliance partners
  • Analysts
  • Industry bodies
  • Employees

Each stakeholder acts as both a contributor and a recipient of the knowledge base they are creating. Together they create the thought leadership platform.

For example, customers can provide insights into the company’s products or services. They can tell you trends they see in the industry. They will tell you where they want you to invest in new products or services. University professors study technology, industries, and geographies. They may be the ones to define the next big thing.

Similarly, analysts also typically spot trends.They also evaluate companies on various parameters, so they can tell you how to improve your image in the eyes of your clients to win new business.

An amalgamation of all these aspects together forms the nucleus of an effective thought leadership marketing program.

2. Recognize thought leadership is a process that requires a structured approach.

First, companies must identify “the pulse of the market.” What are the trends? What are customer concerns? What solutions do they need?

Second, companies must identify the correct source to study the issue and provide insights. Third, they have to come up with a defining and differentiated point of view.

One way to do this is to set up a dedicated council that does nothing but focus on thought leadership issues. The council can comprise of domain and technology experts from the organization, to address the needs of customers. It can specifically look at innovative strategies that will help them gain competitive advantage in the market. The Council, in collaboration with leading academic institutions and industry bodies and other stakeholders in the thought leadership ecosystem, can study market trends to equip organizations with insights that facilitate their IT and business strategies.

3. Identify and design a communications strategy.

Once the process is in place, companies need to clearly articulate the core message. This is critical as it clearly differentiates the route the company is taking vis-a-vis its competition. Like conventional branding, thought leadership marketing also focuses on themes or messages. However, in thought leadership marketing companies use solid research to craft them, which creates a stronger impact compared to a conventional ad campaign.

The next step identifies the various channels the marketing team will use to reach out and collaborate with the thought leaders in the ecosystem. Like conventional marketers use billboards, newspaper ads, journal ads, TV commercials, and Web content, to name a few, as channels for promotion branding, thought leadership marketing also adopts some innovative channels.

For example, some innovative thought leadership marketing channels could be “Expert Speak Series,” inviting professors to hold seminars , share views and best practices that can help in the company’s strategy formulation.

Create an awards program focused on a theme. The first can be an internal awards program to encourage thought leadership around innovation programs within the organization. The second award was an external awards program where the company can partner with industry groups to recognize innovations from different companies globally.

Establish a Speakers Bureau that can book speakers at events to present their viewpoint. Again, the key aspect is this is part of a structured program.

4. Define the metrics so you know if the program is successful. If not, the metrics will tell you how to fix it

The goal of the metrics program is to determine if the program is effective or not. One way is to engage a third party to measure the quality of the message, the effectiveness of the channels adopted, and the skills of the leadership.

For example, the firm can check out the Web site, rated the speakers, track media mentions for the research published, tabulate the number of leads generated, and monitor the quality of the research. This helps the chief marketing officer know if the program is having a business impact.

The hallmark of a thought leadership initiative is that while it can take many forms – from a single white paper to a year-long integrated digital and print content development program – it delivers relevant insights that directly address the challenges that your prospects and customers face. This immediately separates your organization from those simply selling products and services.

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