Establishing your company as a thought leader provides benefits beyond what a marketing or advertising program can deliver on its own. Yes, thought leadership is a buzzword. But as with many buzzwords, there is relevance behind the concept; there are persuasive reasons to pursue it.
Thought leadership means having a reputation in the market as a company with unique, innovative, and important ideas about your industry, the forces shaping it, the challenges confronting it, and the future awaiting it. While thought leadership is not a strategic objective on its own, it supports and fulfills other objectives such as lead generation, growth of market share, increase of share price—or all of these simultaneously.
For example, one of the primary motivators in business-to-business purchase decisions is the fear of making the wrong choice. Thought leaders can ease that fear in prospective customers by raising their level of comfort. Thought leaders are perceived as experts—and businesses want to hire experts. Working with thought leaders lowers the risk of making the wrong decision.
It Starts with a Point of View
The first step in establishing your company as a thought leader is to develop a unique point of view. You can’t simply parrot what others are saying about your industry and market; there’s nothing special or worth paying attention to in that. You must have an angle—or point of view—that brings something new to the discussion.
Understanding and developing your thought leadership point of view can often be accomplished by answering a series of questions. While an executive brainstorming session might suffice, you may want to get input from employees and customers, or other industry experts and analysts if you have relationships with them.
Ultimately, your thought leadership point of view comes down to distilling the answers to seven key questions. Here are seven questions that help establish a point of view:
1. What is your company’s position on how your industry is changing?
2. What new challenges will your customers face in the next 1-3 years?
3. How is technological advancement shaping your industry?
4. What innovations do you see on the horizon?
5. What is your company’s approach to helping the marketplace understand and overcome challenges?
6. What differentiates your company’s market position from others?
7. What can your company do in the market that other companies cannot?
Your answers to these questions will likely overlap. However, from this common ground you will begin to identify your unique point of view. Hopefully, others will adopt your point of view over time, coming to see the industry as you do, approaching and solving challenges the way you recommend. But when you are first setting out to establish thought leadership, your point of view belongs to your company and your company alone.
Now may be a good time to remind you that your point of view may not be unassailable. In fact, it can’t be. Otherwise you’re saying the same thing as everyone else. You need an edge, but nothing too extreme. Your point of view must be respected and you must back it up. When you go about developing your company’s thought leadership point of view, seek a position that embraces these four characteristics:
- New—such as a new way to think about an industry issue, or a new solution to an emerging or existing problem.
- Relevant—your point of view should be relevant to a market need or challenge.
- Valid—you should be able to back up your point of view, either with empirical evidence, research data, or customer case studies.
- Practical—building a position of thought leadership is not the same as having a grandiose vision of the future of your industry. Thought leadership must be practical and realistic. You must talk about ideas and strategies that can be implemented.
Combine new, relevant, valid, and practical and you can establish a thought leadership point of view that motivates people to follow you and take actions that you recommend.
Supporting Your Newfound Thought Leadership
Once you have a point of view established for your thought leadership initiative, you will need to develop content to support it. The content should be educational in nature, offering your audience helpful advice and guidance on solving the challenges and addressing issues that are important to them. Your thought leadership content should not be sales-oriented in any way. You’re trying to build trust and gain the confidence of your audience—not sell them something.
And it is very important to stay up-to-date on what other thought leaders in your industry are talking about. One of the first questions you may be asked is: “How does your position compare to company X’s position?” In other words, know your thought leadership competition. It will help shape your future positions.
Finally, positioning your company as a thought leader requires a long-term commitment. Unlike marketing campaigns that often have an established beginning and end, thought leadership is an ongoing process. It takes time for the word to spread and your reputation to grow. And by tracking and measuring the results of your thought leadership efforts, you will discover what type of content your audience finds most relevant. You can use this data to help guide future content creation and media choices.
About the Author: Chris Chariton is Vice President of Supplier Marketing and Marketing Services for GlobalSpec, the leading specialized vertical search, information services, e-publishing and online events company serving the engineering, technical and industrial communities. Chariton oversees many of the company’s marketing initiatives including e-mail marketing, demand generation and social media, public relations and advertising, and product management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.