“The Double-Edged Sword of Thought Leadership” – Karl Hellman, Mark Blessington and Christian Sarkar
The American Marketing Association recently cited a survey by Edelman and LinkedIn, which described what we call the double-edged sword of thought leadership. On the one hand, 90 percent of CXO’s cited the importance of thought leadership materials when evaluating potential partners. On the other, the vast majority of materials they receive diminish their opinions of potential partners. Ouch: damned if you do and damned if you don’t!
This article focuses on what it takes to position you in the 14 percent bucket: generating thought leadership content that is consistently assessed as highly valuable by your customers and prospects.
The Definition of Thought Leadership
When the late Joel Kurtzman invented the phrase “thought leader,” here’s what he had in mind:
To be truly competitive, C.E.O.’s and their top leadership teams must not only outexecute their rivals, they must also outthink them. The team at the top must understand the dynamics of the business environment better than any of their challengers and they must use that understanding to craft strategies, create internal structures and governance relationships sufficient to excel in the markets and marketplaces of the world. They must also continually find new ways to add value. In this era of hyper-competition, fast-paced change and continuous reorganization, excellence is not in the wrists, it is a mental game.
For Kurtzman, the thought leader is someone who had ideas “that merited attention.”
Some firms focus on building the company’s reputation for thought leadership. For example, McKinsey and IBM emphasize the company rather than specific individuals when presenting their thought leadership content. In contrast, Bain and Company, Deloitte, and GE often spotlight the intellectual prowess of specific individuals. Either approach works with generating insightful content, but chasing both strategies simultaneously runs the risk of failure due to a dilution of resources and effort.
Assessing the Quality of Thought Leadership
Why does so much of what the industry calls thought-leadership fall short?
The seven primary criteria we use to assess the quality of of thought leadership are:
- Do You Solve a Problem? Does the article create line of sight between the company’s solutions and improved customer revenue or profit? This type of value-added content is greatly enhanced by company-sponsored research or buttressed with third-party statistics or case studies. The key point here is that when people visit your site, they are looking for insight about how your company can help them find a solution to their problems in order to improve revenues, profits, returns, and so on.
- Is it Original? Thought-leadership implies leading with ideas. Does your thought leadership deliver genuinely new insights and ways of understanding a problem or situation?
- Socially Important? Does your content help the company reach other stakeholders such as employees, social communities, or broader cultural or political issues it seeks to engage with. This type of content often has an emotional component, but a tie to financial relevance is a strong plus.
- Deliver on the Title? The toughest thing in thought leadership is to generate content that thoroughly tackles the subject. Companies often struggle with “giving away the store” or “handing our secrets to the competition,” so they hold back their best ideas when publishing content. The better mantra is “give tremendous value if you want a tremendous reputation for thought leadership.” The truth about thought leadership is that it is a constant challenge. You can’t rest on your laurels for long. The thought leadership you have today will be tomorrow’s old news, so cash in before someone scoops you. Another way of saying this: If you want to be among the 14 percent of firms who generate great content, then you never, never want to hear “Where’s the beef?” in reference to your material.
- Informative Graphics? Graphics can range from eye-catching, to highlighting a particular point, to pulling the whole story together. All three work, so choose what best fits your article. To create a personal touch, use a photo. To create some eye candy, emphasize a particular point in the article with graphics. If you have a deep piece, an integrative graphic might be useful. As a rule, though, always have some graphics or a video.
- Backed with Evidence? is your thought leadership point-of-view supported by data and other reputable citations?
- Offer a Path to More? This is where you monetize value added, thought leadership content. Have a clear idea of where you want the reader to go while you are writing the article. Do you have a product or service offering that relates to the article? Then provide a link to that landing page, or offer a download of a sec sheet or whitepaper. It is also useful to provide easy site navigation to similar content, related case studies, etc. One thing not to do, however, is pester the reader. Just because they read an article does not mean they now welcome a sales call or emails. This topic, of course, branches off to a related issue, which is the buyer’s journey and how to use martech to build short-term and long-term trust and profitable relationships from site traffic.
Encouraging Potential Thought Leaders
To conclude, we would like to discuss a few considerations that relate to thought leadership content overall. One pertains to the mix of macro and micro topics. The Marketing Journal publishes a wide range of marketing articles that are relevant to CEOs, CMOs, marketing directors, product managers, and so on. About three-quarters of the material is for CMOs, and one quarter is for the rest of the marketing department.
The second is motivating employees to generate thought leadership content. Article writing takes time and dedicated blocks of concentration – rare commodities in today’s 24×7 work world. Significant bursts of motivation are required to overcome these significant barriers. Here are some techniques that work:
- Posts by the C-Suite: Perhaps the most important motivator is to lead by example: The C-suite publishes high quality material. The signal is loud and clear that thought leadership is important, and it needs to be executed with high quality.
- Thought Leadership Recognition: Recognition for posting important articles is also powerful. Maybe the CMO distributes an email every 3 or 6 months listing the top performing articles on the company site.
- Performance Reviews: It is also possible to add a thought leadership “bonus” component to annual performance reviews for key individuals who are capable of being published . This can help set expectations for the year, and encourage conversations about progress-to-date and how to close quality or quantity gaps.
A Note About Marketing Journal
The three of us curate and manage this site, The Marketing Journal, one of the highest-rated independent marketing sites. We regularly review readership patterns on our site.
Overall, the top 10 articles in terms of pageviews on MarketingJournal over the last 1.5 years fall into one or more of the following three categories.
The first characteristic is tricky; it is hard to predict what’s hot and what’s not. Keyword search hits for top articles do not provide an answer. For example, the top-viewed article had the lowest keyword hit rate. We generate insight about what is hot by conducting ecosystem analyses on specific subjects. These studies map topics, authors and sites, show interconnections among them, and assist in generating better predictions of what might go viral.
Short of an ecosystem study, our general guidance here is to pick topics and article keywords that are most pertinent to particular segments of your world. Then go for it.
Digging deeper, rather than chase potentially hot topics, we advise you to err on the side of covering important topics. For The Marketing Journal, if a compelling case can be made that the proposed topic is important to marketing and the article adds insight to the topic, then we publish it. So, if you can add insight on an important and relevant subject in your industry, then you will be proud to have it on your site. It is an additional bonus if it goes viral.
The second category, posting well-known thought leaders, is addressed by firms in two ways: hire them or grow them. The first approach can be quick but expensive, and there is the risk of the “body rejecting the transplant.” The second takes more time, effort and patience but can create more enthusiasm for thought leadership across the firm. When you organically develop your thought leaders, you can generate more content, and the resulting articles can be more diverse and interesting.
Of course, not everyone can be or should be a thought-leader.
Dr. Karl Hellman is Managing Director of Consentric Marketing. Karl is the author of The Customer Learning Curve (with Ardis Burst, 2004) and his clients include best-in-class companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, UPS, and Coca Cola.
Mark Blessington is a Partner at Consentric Marketing. He has three decades of experience in marketing and sales consulting to many of the world’s largest corporations, and is the author of over 40 articles and four books.
Christian Sarkar is the editor of this site.