If your product or service is truly one-of-a-kind and in demand, congratulations. For you, the name of the game is to practice mistake-free marketing. If, on the other hand, your offer is only slightly differentiated – especially within a crowded market – it can be a never-ending challenge to stand out.
Retweeting, liking and referencing the thoughts of others, especially those who command massive online audiences, isn’t a bad start. But it’s not thought leadership. True thought leadership is available in only a few flavors including original insights (notice I didn’t say content, because that isn’t, ipso facto, valuable), “relatable stories” and strong arguments made boldly and publicly. There may be others, but let’s focus on these three.
Original insights are rarely found in Trojan horse content forms (white papers, blogs, contributed articles) that surreptitiously conceal your customer value proposition or core product/service messaging. While you’ll certainly write pieces that contain facts about what you do and why you believe it’s important, these shouldn’t be your primary contributions to thought leadership. An original insight is fresh, honest, useful, provocative and, most of all, consumable.
For years, we’ve helped clients discover original insights through audience research. We don’t necessarily survey a customer base looking for product/service validation, but instead we look for new problem definitions and challenge gaps that are rarely exposed unless the research is blinded and objective. The results never fail to surprise. In fact, nearly every study we’ve fielded for a client has uncovered powerful insights that never make it externally – they are, instead, used to shape product, marketing or recruiting strategies.
The insights that are appropriate for external audiences become fodder for earned, owned and paid media campaigns. Top insights anchor pitches to media, contributed articles, blogs, social posts and lead generation campaigns. The data-driven insights have a good shelf life, but we don’t recommend “repurposing” them too long in a dynamic market where problem definitions and gaps are constantly evolving. True leadership requires a longer-term commitment to original insights others are unwilling to make. But the payoff is measurable.
Relatable stories are hard to come by, require discipline to develop and retain value for only so long. This means you must be in a constant search for them. As with original insights, there’s an evolution to how audiences define and solve problems. A healthcare IT challenge from 2017 may be described and handled quite differently only one year later. Your stories must capture the reasons for the evolution and, with honesty, may need to reposition the offering accordingly.
Audiences want to learn, and they don’t expect solutions to be panaceas. That’s why we favor a journalistic style. Quotes from customers aren’t overly composed and, in fact, we’d prefer to pull in non-customers too, including outside experts, to ensure authenticity and improve resonance. There mustn’t be a fine line between story and endorsement – save those “money quotes” for marketing collateral and instead demand more relatability from at least 20 percent of the stories you tell through earned, owned and paid media.
Strong arguments made boldly and publicly are just what they seem: There’s potential for high risk and reward. If, for example, an issue related to drug pricing, the Affordable Care Act or net neutrality is raging on Capitol Hill, there’s a deep pool for those willing to dive in. From tweets and LinkedIn posts to op-eds, blog posts and amicus briefs, there are many ways to help shape the contours of an issue and put your thoughts into a dynamic news cycle. But you cannot simply dip your toes in: there’s much less reward for the timid or simply tempestuous. You’ll need a plan, a willingness to stay active and engaged and an intrepid leadership team.
Recently our client’s decision to actively engage in a major policy issue required constant social media monitoring and hourly engagement that proceeded over multiple weekends. But the communications were decisive and consistent, yet fluid, reflecting an honest commitment to achieve a favorable resolution. Being bold and public – and staying the course, even over a major holiday – left little doubt that our client’s intention was to dive in and help shape policy, not simply benefit from gratuitous cheering poolside.
Thought leadership isn’t a new concept, but its legs are tired. There are simply too many marginally differentiated companies generating “content” without testing the leadership bona fides. Becoming a genuine thought leader is hard. It can’t be taken (or stolen away); it must be earned through investment of time and resources that not all companies are willing to make. For those that do, however, the benefits to reputation and, eventually, consistent lead flow far outweigh the costs.
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