B2B: Why Thought-Leadership Falls Short

Thought LeadershipWhen 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…

The Research

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 C2T

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 C2T

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.

Therefore, instead of pursuing thought leadership to earn credibility, be credible in demonstrating you understand your audience. C2T

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.’

Three questions that must be answered before a prospect will buy – Why Change? Why Now? Why you? C2T

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.

In Summary…

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.

Disruption

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 | Repeatable SuccessJeff 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.

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#SMM: Stop Talking, Start Learning

Stop TalkingThe chorus to the Lifehouse song, “Nobody Listen,” describes many marketer’s approach to Content and Social Media Marketing these days…“Everybody talk, but nobody listen.”

The amount of content produced is staggering. According to Gary Vaynerchuk, New York Times best-selling author, he cites that there is more content produced in 48 hours than what has been produced from the beginning of time to 2003.

The strategy of just ‘being present’ in content and on social media has not worked, and will not work.

Change Your Social Media Strategy

If you are finding your engagement to be low in social channels with the content you are sharing, it’s time for a different approach.

As Marketers, we are all susceptible to becoming enamored with our own point of view, and as a result, we end up doing all the talking. When people don’t listen, we talk louder. In marketing, “talking louder” takes many forms, such as email blasts, Facebook posts, Tweets. This even shows up in our retargeting efforts.

These approaches are what I refer to as Bumper-Sticker Marketing. The premise of  the ‘bumper-sticker marketer’ is that it is one way communication that shouts a point of view, but fails to engage others in meaningful ways, and certainly fails to persuade.

One of the common struggles I hear relative to producing content is lack of ideas for what content to produce next. If you find yourself struggling with what to talk about, you may not be as close to your customers as you think you are.

If that’s the case, time for a change in your social media strategy, which will benefit you in your content strategy as well.

Listen to Learn

Assuming you know where your customers are spending their time on Social Media, pay attention to what they are talking about. Listen for the key words and phrases they use to describe their problems, concerns, and struggles.

We are listening and learning so that we can speak their language, rather than trying to get them to understand our own language.

One strategy I use, that may be helpful to others is to do the following. Use your favorite social monitoring tool(s) to identify the keywords your customers use to search your competitors sites.

Additionally, I look at large, non-industry sites like Reddit or Mashable, then filter down to the category in my field/industry to see what people are searching for and talking about.

For example, if I filter by Internet and Telecom, I find the top trending words in their keyword cloud are ‘web2.0,’ ‘blog,’ and ‘social networking.’ (See below).

Word Cloud

This 60-second process gave me three different topics from which I can produce content about that will be relevant to my audience. When content is relevant and valuable, your audience is more likely to engage. What’s more is I now know the specific words to build my SEO strategies around with HREF, H1 tags, etc.

Looking for keywords is one thing, but remember, we want to understand our customer’s concerns and speak their language. Therefore, I take the keywords of interest listed above and search conversations in Twitter and Facebook to try to ascertain what their intent is behind their searches.

In searching #web2.0 this morning, for example, I quickly learn that areas of interest to multiple groups is measurement, collaboration and applicability to SMB.

Take the time to listen and learn for a better content and social media strategy. As my mom used to say…”Talk less, listen more!”


Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff 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.

Guilty of Bumper Sticker Marketing?

Bumper Sticker Marketing

I was speaking with a CFO this week about his organization’s content marketing strategies and the role of social media, as his impressions of Social Media in marketing was that it has little to no business impact.

He cited some Gallup statistics from a recent Wall Street Journal article as proof points for his belief that it’s not all that it is cracked up to be:

    • 94% use Social Media to connect with friends and family Tweet: 94% of people use Social Media to connect with friends and family | http://ctt.ec/3t0F5+ | #marketing #socialmedia #content
    • 62% say Social Media had no influence on their buying decisions Tweet: 62% say Social Media had no influence on their buying decisions | http://ctt.ec/Vu4ca+ | #marketing #socialmedia #content
    • 30% say Social Media had some influence on their buying decisions Tweet: 30% say Social Media had some influence on their buying decisions | http://ctt.ec/ai4oc+ | #marketing #socialmedia #content
    • Brands reached only 6.5% of their fans with Facebook posts in March Tweet: Brands reach only 6.5% of their fans with Facebook posts | http://ctt.ec/3BUYt+ | #marketing #socialmedia #content

Are the numbers wrong? I don’t think so. At a glance, many might be quick to agree with this CFO, that Social Media is ineffective with regard to having direct business impact. Perhaps there is a different explanation for the numbers.

The Problem isn’t Social Media…

Simply looking at the first statistic cited above starts to hint at the problem when we consider why 94% of people [not consumers], use social media.

If 94% of people use Social Media to connect with family and friends, are marketers using Social consistent with people’s usage?

Both, Marketing and Sales have been guilty of looking at these huge pools of people in social arenas as prospects, and leading with their products and/or solutions in highly intrusive and interruptive ways. This problem isn’t limited just to Social Media.

Bumper Sticker Marketing

When we look at our content marketing strategy as a whole (inclusive of print, online, mobile, social, etc.), we have a specific ‘end’ in mind – drive a profitable customer action. But too often, we start with our own end in mind…“drive a profitable customer action”…rather than starting with your target audience’s end in mind.

I call this bumper sticker marketing. Similar to the picture above, we shout our own point of view, trying to call attention to ourselves, our products, solutions, etc., irrespective of what the end-user really wants or needs.

Furthermore, similar to bumper stickers, our marketing too often is a one way “push” message, that fails to truly engage with others. As a result, Marketers fall into the trap of heeding partial advice from content strategists, by delivering content more frequently and consistently. Frequency and consistency is the easy part.

The more difficult [but responsible] purpose of content marketing, according to Joe Pulizzi, is described as follows:

Content marketing’s purpose is to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior.

A few key words to pay attention to in his description are, relevant, valuable,  and changing or enhancing…behavior.

Food for Thought…

When was the last time you read a bumper sticker and subsequently changed your behaviors or beliefs as a result of reading the sticker? For example, when you see the mini-van proclaiming, “My child is an Honor Student,” do you believe your child is inferior? Of course not. Similarly, do bumper-stickers change your:

      • Political affiliations or votes?
      • Religious beliefs?
      • Moral convictions?

Probably not. That said, how might this apply to your own marketing approach? Are you trying to change someone’s beliefs or behaviors through one-way marketing?

We ALL are susceptible to being a bumper sticker marketer, unless we are intentional in determining who we are bringing value to in our marketing. Change your aim to change your results.

For more articles on similar topics, feel free to follow me on Twitter 


Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff 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.