These were some of the questions asked recently at the #profschat back on September 16th by @MProfsEvents and the good folks @MarketingProfs.

During the one-hour “tweetchat” that occurs every Friday from 12-1pm EST, there was a great dialogue on the definition, the need and the value of Thought Leadership.

If you write a personal blog or help manage your company’s blog, you already know the value that blogging can provide as a tool for Thought Leadership.

I’ve been discussing the need for Content Strategy in B2B Marketing for some time now. But here I will share some of the insights from the discussion as well as 5 steps to create thought leadership that drives real results…

What is Thought Leadership?

To me, Thought Leadership is all about having the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your buyers. It can also include your unique perspective on hot topics relevant for your customers. The key here is that the agenda is set by your audience. They determine what is important.

It can be difficult to give up this control over to your buyers. But the fact is that they already have the control. And we can all benefit when we allow our audience to set the agenda and then just go with it.

Why is Thought Leadership important?

Thought leadership is important for both B2C and B2B companies but I think it is especially important in B2B. This is because of the complexity of the decision-making process in B2B environments and the large number of people involved. Thought leadership content can help anyone involved in the business decision making process to gain alignment across their company regarding the problems they are facing. It can help them to “name” the problem.

For us marketers, Thought Leadership allows us to define the category of our solution. As I said during the tweetchat, “branding is all about being associated with the questions” our buyers are asking.

Where does Thought Leadership come from?

Thought Leadership can come from any source – executives, customers, product managers, designers, customer service reps, sales people. We all have knowledge, experience and a point of view.  But ultimately, thought leaders need to inspire our buyers to act – to take the next step in their journey. Of course, the challenge is in the telling!

What are the benefits of Thought Leadership?

The benefits of Thought leadership start with brand affinity. By communicating thought leadership you become part of the conversation, early in the buying journey. You allow your audience to get to know you.

Thought Leadership can drive engagement with larger numbers of potential customers. It’s easy to quantify the number of people searching on your product’s category terms than on your product names. Speak to those folks in the early stages and you will see the contribution of conversion to real revenue directly from your website sky rocket.

Ultimately, Thought Leadership is one of the outcomes of a Content Strategy. And content is bigger than marketing. Leaders are everywhere. Expose your thought leaders and you begin the process of becoming a social business – real people with real faces talking to real customers and buyers.

How do you create Thought Leadership that drives real results?

According to MarketingProf’s Megan Leap, here are 5 ideas for creating thought leadership content that drives sales:

  1. Conduct and share research: she says “providing research allows your company to become a source of information and online content.”
  2. Entertain and Delight: Megan advises marketers to “inject personality and humor into your content. Prospects will be more likely to remember you, and, when they do decide to evaluate solutions, you’ll be top of mind.”
  3. Interview the Product Team: to develop trust in your organization and provide some of the interesting back story on products.
  4. Invite Customers to Participate: I love the idea of interviewing customers to create content.
  5. Remove the curtain between thought leaders and customers: as Megan says, “nothing says “I’m a leader” better than having a few dozen people seek your advice in a group setting.”

Now tell me what do you think? What does Thought Leadership mean to you?

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About Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is the Vice President of Global Marketing for SAP where he leads content strategy and serves as the managing editor of the company’s award-winning Business Innovation thought leadership blog site. He is also the author of B2B Marketing Insider, a contributor to Forbes and a frequent speaker at industry events covering topics such as marketing strategy, social business, content marketing, digital marketing, social media and personal branding.  Follow Michael on Twitter (@BrennerMichael)LinkedInFacebook and Google+ and Subscribe to B2B Marketing Insider by Email

17 Comments

  1. Phillip Barnes said…

    I’m finding that becoming a thought leader is easier for us social media marketers when we take on the role of facilitator within our organizations. Even in smaller businesses, there are people on your team who just know so much about the company, the products and the market and connecting that insight with customers is where the biggest payoffs occur.

    It also turns out that partnering with synergistic companies on co-written content can be a huge boost to both companies in enhancing the thought leadership status of each.

    • Michael Brenner said…

      I agree Phillip. Moderating and facilitating is a big part of it, and I especially like your point of the connection with customers. Partnering is a great way to show thought leadership. It accepts that your company will never be 100% of any solution and one perspective is never enough to provide our customers with the holistic point of view they need to drive their business.

  2. Eric Wittlake said…

    Hi Michael,

    I like your approach to defining thought leadership around questions. Very nice. I would go further and say it also includes defining or asking the next set of industry questions as well, not only answering questions but helping to define the next set of questions asked. This hits the “leadership” aspect.

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe Megan’s five points necessarily create this kind of content. Instead, for most marketers the first four points are great for content marketing execution, but activity like this is why I said Thought Leadership Marketing is an Oxymoron (link: http://digitalb2b.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/thought-leadership-marketing-oxymoron/ ).

    To me, being a thought leader requires having your own perspective (answers to questions), understanding the breadth of the environment (no categoy exists in a vacuum) and having a recognized and valued forward-looking perspective. Content marketers looking to establish real thought leadership positions need to consider how their content communicates or validates their forward-looking perspective. I believe most of the content produced by companies following the plan above will support the buying process, but will not provide a true thought leadership position.

    Again, really like your approach to defining thought leadership and some of the benefits, including affinity. I’m just not convinced that the ideas for thought leadership content will establish thought leadership for your readers.

    Would love to hear your perspective, particulary with the benefit of the inside view you have of SAP and its thought leadership initiatives.

    • Michael Brenner said…

      Eric, thanks for the always provocative and interesting points of view…I think the goal of the content is be part of the conversation. And then you earn the trust and even the right to state your point of view. I do not think you can start with your “opinion” or your “thought leadership” without first asking the right questions and helping your buyers to gain an understanding of and alignment around the problem.

      That’s why I made the point that though leadership is in inspiring the action to take the next step and seek the answers. Now I agree that a company also needs to be part of the answer and have the knowledge and expertise to answer the question. But I think too many marketers skip this difficult first step and then lose the ability to earn the stage time to answer. That’s why I think Megan’s 5 points are exactly what is needed and are not often part of the content strategy.

  3. Excellent tips! I work primarily with B2B companies in the tech sector. I’m going to send them this post asap! Right on.

  4. Tony Zambito said…

    Michael,

    Very good article once again. Having the answers to the biggest questions on the mind of buyers is a nice definition. I also believe having the courage to say you don’t have the answers yet but are working on them is thought leadership as well. I also like what Eric had to say and your response about being part of the conversation. And that is the whole point – engaging buyers in conversation brings you to top of mind.

    Great stuff!
    Tony Zambito

    • Michael Brenner said…

      Tony,

      Great point! Many people confused the term “thought leadership” with self-pronounced thought leaders. I am speaking all about content and about answering these questions. And you are so right on to say that leaders don’t always have the answers. And it is the whole point to just get into the conversation.

      Thanks again for your support!

      Best, Michael

  5. ken rutsky said…

    Have done quite a bit of work on this topic. There are tools and models to do this (capture thought leadership). My collaborators and I have developed a full curriculum and set of approaches to this. See my infograhic here for a peek:

    http://visual.ly/igniting-content-marketing-thought-leadership

    Happy to discuss!!!

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  7. Kevin Cain said…

    Great post. Here are some other thoughts on what thought leadership is and isn’t!

    http://blog.openviewpartners.com/what-is-thought-leadership-is-your-content-supporting-or-sinking-your-efforts/

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