Research shows that B2B decision makers actually rate thought leadership as more important than marketers did, according to the 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study. Other key takeaways from this study include:
- B2B decision makers are willing to pay a premium to work with companies who have used thought leadership to establish a clear vision for the future.
- Decision makers are spending more time reading thought leadership each year. Most read thought leadership content for at least an hour per week.
- Buyers demand vision and substance. Most decision makers are disappointed by a lack of high-quality thought leadership, having gained value from it only half of the time.
As a marketer, you’re probably no stranger to others telling you to publish more thought leadership content. But endorsing thought leadership is the easy part. Actually creating and executing a thought leadership strategy capable of driving results requires critical thinking, collaboration, and focus.
Thought Leadership: A Mini Primer
While there are several suitable definitions, we’ve previously described thought leadership strategy as that which “leverages the knowledge and experience in your organization to answer your audience’s questions – especially those they haven’t thought to ask yet.” Here are three basic approaches to creating thought leadership:
- Industry – The knowledge your organization shares about news and trends.
- Product – Every company knows its own products best. That’s a given. Product thought leadership is about employing this product expertise in the context of helping people to solve real-world problems.
- Organizational – Occurs when an organization takes a strong point of view on how it conducts business, or by how it treats employees or other stakeholders.
To get a better feel for what B2B thought leadership looks like in practice, I encourage you to check out these examples of effective thought leadership on LinkedIn.
Thought leadership is especially important during times of crisis and disruption because, as people search for answers on how to deal with their changing circumstances, it only fuels the demand for thought leadership-style content. We’ve seen this recently in how COVID-19 has impacted marketing strategies: More than half of marketers (53%) say they’re increasing the prevalence of thought leadership in their content strategies.
Build Your Thought Leadership Strategy in Five Steps
Now that we understand what thought leadership is and what it looks like, let’s talk about how to create a strategy for it. While brands can exhibit thought leadership in unique and infinite ways – people continue to invent burgers – all teams can use the high-level process below to ensure their thought leadership kitchen is adequately stocked and prepped for success.
Step 1: Align on Your Brand’s Perspective and Priorities
What does your brand stand for? Together, what do you aim to achieve in the months and years ahead?
Content marketing is a team effort. When team members run different plays or say conflicting things, it’s a bad look that erodes confidence, not just among audience members, but marketing team members as well.
Conversely, when every aspect of the content strategy aligns with, and can be tied back to, a logical, believable, and inspiring narrative, audience members can more easily follow and immerse themselves in your story with little effort. What’s more, with a strong sense of the brand’s perspective and what matters most, marketing team members are simply more empowered to impress the right people and drive results.
We’re also painfully aware by now that markets and conditions can change almost instantaneously. As such, consensus won’t last unless it’s continually addressed, so it’s essential that you discuss your organizational perspective and priorities regularly. Get feedback, encourage discussion, and position leadership to play an interactive, enduring role in your organizational alignment process.
Questions to ask:
- When people think about our brand, what should immediately come to mind?
- Where is our industry heading? Where and how will we serve our market(s) five years from now?
- What’s special and unique about our brand? What truly differentiates our products and services from similar offerings?
Step 2: Determine Your Thought Leadership Goals
We all want our thought leadership strategy to contribute toward increased trust and, ultimately, increased revenue. In this regard, every B2B marketer shares the same macro goals. For the most part though, that’s where the similarities end.
Customer acquisition strategies vary widely, so it’s important to evaluate your organizational perspective and priorities within the context of your own acquisition strategy and your own buyers’ journeys. Hopefully these already mesh with each other. If not, now’s the time to align the two.
Questions to ask:
- Among our audience, which behaviors are most indicative of increased trust?
- Which metrics should we elevate in importance and evangelize across the organization?
- How can we empower team members to more easily choose the best objective(s) and tracking mechanisms for new content initiatives? Or to think of it another way: How can we make our thought leadership strategy self-sustaining rather than heavily reliant on oversight?
Step 3: Identify the Tactics and Channels You Plan to Use
How and where do you plan to distribute your thought leadership content? Which topics do you plan to cover and what’s your cadence for doing so? How can you incorporate third-party perspectives to bolster your narrative?
Decision fatigue is real, and with so many options at our disposal, marketers are especially prone to it. That’s why it’s so important to map out which paths you intend to take, and which ones you intend to ignore. At first, this may feel like you’re limiting yourself. In reality though, you’re actually liberating your brain from needing to consider superfluous options at every turn.
This isn’t to say you can’t experiment or shake up your marketing mix. Identifying your tactics and channels is more about executing your plan with precision and making sure experimentation is performed purposefully.
Think about it this way: The more intimately you know the channels and tactics you’re using, and why you’re using them, the better equipped you are to optimize your content for engagement.
For example, if LinkedIn is integral to your marketing mix, then you’ll want to make sure your content plays well in a professional setting.
What does that mean?
LinkedIn’s Keith Richey sums it up nicely: “Compared to other networks, LinkedIn is distinct in its purpose. It’s a destination for people to find information, explore content, and connect with others, and these activities all take place in a professional context. For the most part, LinkedIn members are seeking to grow their careers and become more successful.
Whichever channels you use, your content will be more relevant, digestible, shareable, and actionable when you account for the inherent context of each particular one.
Questions to ask:
- How many tactics and channels can we reasonably expect to use without straining resources and sacrificing quality?
- How can we 80/20 our mix? Should certain tactics or channels merit much greater investment than others?
- How can we adjust our content (new and existing) to better match the context of the specific channels we’re using?
Step 4: Activate Employees and Company Leaders
Yes, we engage with brands, but we generally prefer to engage with other people. We also tend to trust people over brands. For these reasons, it’s critical that your thought leadership strategy includes a plan for making sure employees and company leaders are actively participating in both the creation and promotion of thought leadership content.
The key is to be considerate of others’ time and motivations. A common mistake most of us make is that we expect our organizational peers to participate just because there’s an initiative and we’re all on the same team. In reality though, behavioral change probably won’t happen unless there’s a clear benefit tied to the request.
Ultimately, when colleagues participate enthusiastically and sustainably, it’s because they have compelling reasons for doing so. Because of this, it’s important to market your internal employee activation initiative with the same scrutiny and vigor you’d apply to a customer-facing campaign. One could easily argue that the employee activation campaign will have more to do with the long-term success of your thought leadership strategy than any other campaign.
There’s also the matter of decomplicating this whole process. Aim to make ongoing tasks and actions ridiculously simple and intrinsically strategic. An employee advocacy platform can make it much easier for employees and company leaders to contribute meaningfully. At the same time, it gives marketers an intuitive way to track and manage everything.
Questions to ask:
- Which leaders and employees are most critical to getting others on board?
- How can we build better working relationships with the experts within our organization? Where do our experts’ goals intersect with our broader thought leadership goals?
- How can we make sure we’re continuously providing employees and leaders with content they’re proud to share?
Step 5: Engage, Learn, Adjust
Or in other words, what’s your plan for gathering critical feedback and adjusting your strategy as needed? Thought leadership is about staying ahead of the game. As such, your thought leadership strategy can be a lot of things, but what it can’t be is stagnant.
Questions to ask:
- How can we get better feedback about our content than we’re currently getting? What else should we be tracking? Who else should we be engaging regularly for feedback
- What’s our process for packaging up what we’ve learned and disseminating it to the people who need to know?
- How can we make it easier for community members to provide candid feedback about what’s working for them and what’s not?
Just like thought leadership strategies vary from company to company, so too will the above process. You’ll want to make sure your team addresses all five steps, but beyond that, everything else can and should be tailored to your organization.