Thought Leadership and the Buying Cycle
At a recent marketing meet-up, thought leadership was a hot topic of conversation. Amidst the canapés, glasses of white wine, and the exchange of business cards, talk of thought leadership came up frequently. What struck me was the level of interest for including thought leadership as a key marketing tactic. Some of those gathered worked for organizations on the cutting edge of emerging technology. Others were marketers working for established companies in mature industries. Regardless, most of the marketers I spoke with planned to include thought leadership in their 2010 marketing plans. Those with a clear understanding of how thought leadership fits into the buying cycle have the opportunity to succeed. The others will soon be in search of the next bandwagon upon which to jump.
Marketing consulting firms, professors, and authors all publish models of the customer sales cycle. Whatever model you subscribe to, most have certain elements in common. However, what’s often undervalued in these models is the issue of market maturity. Industries transition through phases: from radical new concept; through paradigm differentiation; to the point an established market develops and offerings are seen as commodities. An analysis of the environment in which the business operates is central to delivery of an effective thought leadership program. Whether the subject is cloud computing or cloud-soft tissues, thought leadership can help differentiate a business from the competition. The key is identifying an approach that sets an organization apart from competitors while building a stronger bond in the supplier-customer relationship.
As a “pull” tactic, thought leadership or knowledge leadership is most applicable early in the sales cycle when building awareness. It also plays a role in helping organizations maintain customer loyalty. Thought leadership marketing is about conveying the image of market leadership. It should take a strong position on where markets, technology, or regulatory requirements are heading. It’s not necessary that the organization be the market sales leader. Rather, it’s about exhibiting a depth of understanding and generously offering original insight.
As a marketing tactic, thought leadership must be inexorably tied to an organization’s competence and how it plans to differentiate itself from the competition. A solid thought-leadership program has a number of essential characteristics.
• Unique Voice – Take a stand with a clearly defined message. Demonstrate you are the leader and expert in a given field. Break new ground with ideas that challenge the status quo, creating opportunity for prospects and customers to take a new look at your organization.
• Extend Your Reach – Take on public speaking opportunities, start a newsletter, author a blog, get published. True independent thought leadership is not about publishing ideas exclusively on your company website. It’s about creating a uniquely defined, forceful, and compelling vision so your ideas are sought out and published on someone else’s website.
• Inform, Don’t Sell – While thought leadership must support an organization’s overall marketing direction, it should generously provide insights from which others can benefit. Challenge your audience to think outside the box by presenting useful information. Invite others into the conversation. Be willing to test your ideas and assumptions, especially by extending your reach through social media.
• Long Term View – As a marketing tactic, thought leadership is not about filling the sales funnel for the upcoming quarter. It’s about building relationships and moving from being seen as only a supplier, to being seen as a trusted advisor. Thought leadership is not a form of marketing collateral. It’s a long-term strategy whose results are best measured over time.
As a marketing tactic, thought leadership can be applied in both B2B and B2C marketing. But, thought leadership is not for every organization. Taking a unique stand and openly sharing intellectual property goes against some organization’s culture. However, for those organizations seeking an effective pull tactic to balance the marketing investment in standard push marketing techniques, a thought-leadership program offers a unique longer-term return on investment.