When it comes to thought leadership, an image like the one to the left often comes to mind for people. The recent thinking goes something like the following…
Customers want to be presented with new ideas and learn from thought leading subject matter experts before making a purchase. As they are educated by the SME, they are gradually sold.
But is thought-leadership enough? I would maintain that it threatens to be an expensive path for free consulting. Allow me to explain…
A few years ago, ITSMA conducted research finding that 57% of B2B buyers would like to see thought-leadership from sales reps. The conclusion they had drawn, like for so many others, was that if buyers want thought leadership, sales and marketing must give it to them. Important to note is ITSMA’s official definition of thought leadership is as follows:
“Ideas that educate customers and prospects about important business and technology issues and help them solve those issues—without selling.” – ITSMA
More recently, Omobono joined forces with the Business Marketing Association to research marketer’s top priorities. The results showed that not only did ‘Strengthening Thought Leadership’ rank as a Top 3 priority at 63%, 8% higher than ‘Deepening Customer Relationships,’ and 19% higher than ‘Raising Brand Awareness,’ but it ranked as marketer’s first priority.
The focus and emphasis on thought leadership is not surprising, and can be a good thing. That is, if thought leadership is the goal and your sales and marketing model is to offer free consulting and therefore derive no commercial benefit. Tweet This
For the CMO and CSO, this is an unaffordable luxury as accountability to the board and stockholders would never permit such an expensive endeavor with no associated RO[M]I.
Standing in contrast is the work and research conducted by CEB, which shows that ‘thought-leadership’ is several steps removed from meeting the criteria that results in having commercial impact. Let’s look at their definitions for each of the five areas in their hierarchy of messaging.
Hierarchy of Messaging
- General Information – General Information is simply information that covers generally just about everything. It’s that overwhelming flood of information out there, that we spend more time filtering out rather than taking in.
- Accepted Information – Accepted Information is credible, it’s relevant, but often, it’s not terribly interesting. It doesn’t necessarily teach anything new. An example might be, “90% of CIOs are concerned about what cloud computing means for their organization.”
- Thought Leadership – Thought Leadership is interesting, newsworthy, incremental information that customers themselves likely couldn’t have discovered on their own. So, unlike accepted information, thought leadership provides new perspectives or new data that teaches, and doesn’t just confirm.
- Insight – Insight is designed to disrupt the customer’s view of their business. It juxtaposes the cost of current behavior against the potential of an alternate action. This breaks the customer’s frame of mind.
- Commercial Insight – Commercial Insight has the highest bar, and ensures we are not simply providing free consulting to customers. It’s Insight that meets the “frame-breaking” bar but simultaneously leads the customer specifically back to us as the sole supplier, enabling them to actually take action on that Insight.
In light of the definitions, let’s now go back to the originally cited research from ITSMA to understand why giving buyers what they want (‘thought leadership’) is bad for business. There are three perspectives to consider:
Three Limitations of Thought Leadership
1. The Buyer’s Objective with Thought Leadership
From the buyer’s perspective, they truly want to understand trends and conditions that may impact them or their business negatively. But, they don’t care where it comes from, nor if it results in a sale for you or credibility for your brand. That was never their aim, as they care about protecting the interests of their business first and foremost…and that is perfectly reasonable. Therefore, the goal of the buyer(s) is to become as informed as (s)he can so that the best decision can be made when selecting between suppliers.
“Thought Leadership is largely focused on presenting a new idea rather than undermining an existing one.” – CEB Tweet This
According to CEB, when it comes to thought leadership, “the real limitation is it doesn’t necessarily drive action. That’s because most thought leadership is largely focused on presenting a new idea rather than undermining an existing one. Thought leadership often has little lasting impact for this reason. It fails to disrupt the customer’s thinking.”
2. The Marketer’s Objective with Thought Leadership
For marketers, of key interest is creating disproportionate mind-share for the brand, which requires establishing credibility, which leads to engagement and subsequently, reliance upon the brand. According to the study, thought leadership is seen by marketers…AND BUYERS…as a way to do so.
I am not claiming the research is wrong. But I am suggesting the conclusions drawn from the research are not only off-base, but potentially detrimental to the marketer’s stated goals that led them to pursue thought leadership in the first place.
As marketers, we can often fall into the trap of inserting ourselves [or our brands] into the center of the story. For example, the term ‘thought-leader,’ puts the person delivering the ‘thought’ at center stage. What we all have learned over the years, however, is that the only way to change a customer’s behavior, is to stop telling our own story to build credibility, but instead, tell theirs and help them see themselves in the story.
3. The Sales Rep’s Objective with Thought Leadership
While marketers certainly have their own challenges of getting attention and responses, given the rise in popularity of content marketing, sales reps too, have some tough sledding to get responses to their emails and phone calls.
Reading the research from ITSMA, reps are left with the natural, but wrong conclusion that if buyers want thought leadership, they should provide it to them. The problem with this approach is that sales reps can tend to overlook one very important element.
In their pursuit to provide thought leadership, their point of view, insight, etc., no matter how profound, fails to lead uniquely and specifically back to them as the sole supplier in a way that enables the buyer to take action. The following article discusses more on this concept here (Where are you Leading?).
In other words, the thought leadership merely provides the buyers with a perspective that could apply to any number of suppliers. This results in the buyer determining that their choices of suppliers are relatively equal, so they look for a tie-breaker. Too often, that tie-breaker becomes ‘price.’
To change this outcome, I will refer to a friend of mine, Bob Apollo. He argues in his article, that there are three primary questions that need to be answered before customers will buy from you, Why Change? Why Now? Why You?
Regarding the order of the questions, both Bob and I would contend that the order of the questions [as written] is paramount as well. Reversing the order, as so many have done for years, merely results in prospects remaining with the status quo 60% of the time.
While demonstrating thought leadership is certainly better than simply offering general or accepted information, as we see it still pales in comparison to the kind of insight that is frame-breaking and provokes an action that leads distinctly and uniquely to your solution.
With that said, let me provide a different picture of what sales and marketers need to be doing to provide the most value for a customer.
I love what this picture represents. By virtue of the fish (i.e., Marketer, Sales Rep, Content, etc.) swimming against the flow, others can’t help but redirect their path (i.e., Thinking) to adjust for the disruption to their current path (i.e., Status Quo).
As for thought leadership, presenting new ideas that others have never heard before often produces a pattern like the first picture. What that picture doesn’t represent, however, is how long they stay on that path. The hope or belief is that they remain on that path to purchase. But thought leadership does not require them to purchase your product to still value you as a thought leader (i.e., Free Consultant).
Therefore, to avoid this, whether you are producing content, a campaign, or delivering messaging to prospects as a sales rep, ask yourself the following questions about what your message delivers.
Does your message:
- Break the customer’s frame of mind about what they have been doing?
- Juxtapose the cost of current behavior against the potential of an alternate action?
- Lead the customer specifically back to you as the sole supplier?
- Enable them to actually take action on that Insight?
Answering “no” to any of those questions puts you at risk of providing free consulting for your competitors.
Jeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.