The Making of Thought Leadership

The Making of Thought Leadership
Have you been asked to create thought leadership content? Do you have executives willing to be the spokespeople for this program, and the resources to support and augment them? Then let’s take a look at what thought leadership means, and how your organization can develop content to support your objectives.

Thought Leadership is Provocative

Effective thought leadership is an ongoing program to provoke discussions with customers or other key stakeholders. This is where I get a little blunt; if your executives are not willing to be provocative and challenging in their public communications, to participate in ongoing discussions, and able to handle a wide range of feedback, then you should be looking at some other type of content program.

If you have the necessary support; what is the objective, what problem do your customers have, or what perception are you trying to change? Thought leadership is not your marketing messaging or sales pitch. If your organization is truly innovative and approaching solutions in an atypical fashion, then these thoughts could be built from some of your key differentiators. They could start out as well-informed opinions from someone in the organization, such as an executive or key contributor, or proposed by one of your leading customers or suppliers. Or you could develop them like you do other marketing messaging, with a review of external content, strength and weakness evaluations, competitive intelligence, and customer feedback.

Cisco Systems has long had a thought leadership program to encourage conversation about networking and its value to an organization beyond basic plumbing. Senior executives use their public and private forums to engage on the topics, often without ever straying into a product pitch. Some of the thought leadership ideas are driven from the top down, others inspired by external research partners, or developed by internal teams. Leaders are willing to be provocative enough to be noteworthy and newsworthy when necessary and to listen to others to make it an actual conversation.

Thought Leadership is Credible

No matter how you come up with them, these ideas form the kernel of your thought leadership campaign. The next step is developing supporting details for different types of engagements. You need to substantiate your key assertions, provide background material for those interested in exploring further, and be able to debate the most challenging or contentious aspects. Anything that keeps the conversation going with customers, but also press, analysts, and other relevant industry participants.

Building depth and credibility is a long-term activity that is beyond the resources of any single group, so it is vital to develop internal and external partnerships that can actively participate. Engineering and product teams can provide valuable data for analysis (remember your data privacy training!). Sales teams can spark customer conversations and report back their feedback. Academics can do deeper research and provide additional validation and credibility.

McAfee supports its cybersecurity position with detailed research into vulnerabilities, exploits, and threats, and encourages contribution to and participation with other researchers. Data from products and services is collected and analyzed to provide snapshots and trending information on what is happening in the wild. Regular surveys generate insights about customer usage and industry trends. Alerts, blogs, articles, and detailed threat reports keep the conversation active with multiple audiences.

Thought Leadership is Open

Open means multiple things in this context. Thought leadership content is only of value if people can engage with it, so the materials should be freely available. They should be clearly written to enable participation by the widest possible audience. Communicating in the language of your audience is important, and you will often find that your most valuable pieces are finely targeted, aiming at a specific industry, region, or job title.

Provoking discussion is the goal, not delivering lectures, so the materials should be welcoming not condescending. The thought leadership team, including the executives who are usually the leading edge, must be open to feedback, and have sufficient humility to listen to alternative opinions. Small moderated discussion forums with customers are a great way to simultaneously disseminate concepts, gather feedback, and incubate the next round of ideas. External partners, for example academic researchers, should be able to participate and comment without unnecessary limitations or censorship.

Part of Adobe’s approach is that the innovators and thought leaders are their customers. They use their own blogs, summits, and other vehicles to showcase how companies in a wide range of industries are delivering exceptional customer experiences. While these may sometimes include Adobe product info, they also provide valuable information and inspiration to others looking to enhance their own creative activities with a combination of data and design.

Thought Leadership is Powerful

These are just a few of many examples of powerful thought leadership activities. One of my favorite comments about thought leadership content was from a salesperson who grumbled that the material was only going to get him five minutes with the CEO. The sales director promptly asked him how much time he was currently getting at that level (the answer was none). This is the power of effective thought leadership; opening doors and starting conversations that are otherwise unattainable.

By Douglas Frosst, ETMG Writer

Douglas Frosst
Douglas started out as a programmer, but crossed over to the dark side
(marketing) after 10 years because he happened to be wearing a suit
when they needed someone to present to a customer. An incorrigible
geek, he can often be found helping friends and family with their electronics,
which they find frustrating as all devices appear to be afraid of him and work
properly when he is around. He tries to fit in writing and other work around
his travel and sports, which include scuba diving, skiing, and refereeing soccer.