Tag Archives: Forrester Research

Thought Leadership Merchandising: Rising Above the Noise

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Thought Leadership Programs Must be Accountable for Business Outcomes

Thought Leadership is one of the most widely used terms in B2B marketing.  But there’s a range of opinion regarding what Thought Leadership is, and fuzzy expectations with respect to its tangible benefits.

Researching the term “Thought Leadership” yields everything from a sterile Wikipedia definition, to blog posts featuring marketing insights similar to this online gem:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur, an employee, or a student – your ability to become a thought leader will catapult your success.  A great way to accomplish this, is on LinkedIn.” And we wonder why the marketing discipline is held in such low regard.

Broadly, if Thought Leadership is a marketing strategy that leverages intellectual capital to engage target audiences, then there are two critical components and issues:

  1. Content — What qualifies as legitimate and effective Thought Leadership?
  2. Application — How should the content be applied to drive tangible business outcomes?

A coherent and concise description of bona fide Thought Leadership content is contained within a checklist (shown below) developed by Jeff Ernst, VP of Marketing at Forrester Research, who broadly describes the strategy as “expressing a viewpoint that influences others…” as a means to “generate conversations that build trusting relationships over time.”

It’s important to note that Thought Leadership should not be limited to pushing one’s own viewpoint. True Thought Leaders are those individuals or organizations that define what topics or issues are important, and also provide opinions on those topics (other than their own) that are worth listening to. Thought Leaders seek to manage, rather than control, the conversation.

For example, rather than featuring a message from your CEO in each issue of the company’s quarterly newsletter, consider publishing guest commentaries (not promotional messages) from clients, prospects, referral sources and recognized opinion leaders in your discipline. In return, you’ll gain higher readership levels, greater credibility and top-of-mind awareness, and the likelihood that the client / prospect will distinguish your brand from competitors.

Merchandising Strategy Precedes Content Development

To the consternation of CXOs, some marketers employ Thought Leadership as though it embodied some mystical higher purpose; as a tactic that’s not held accountable for increasing leads, clients or revenue. Apparently through marketing osmosis, a brilliant OpEd piece in the Wall Street Journal or a rousing keynote presentation at an industry conference will somehow bolster a company’s balance sheet. All too often, Thought Leadership’s only benefit involves corporate egos.

Proper application of Thought Leadership-based content begins with development of a content merchandising strategy, involving two basic questions:

  • What measurable outcomes do we want our Thought Leadership to achieve (other than having people think we’re smart)?
  • How will we apply our Thought Leadership content (other than dropping it on our website) to achieve those measurable outcomes?

Creating any Thought Leadership content before fully addressing these two questions is akin to building a large sailboat in your basement. It may be a beautiful work of art, but you will never sail it around the lake.

Ultimately, the most effective merchandising of B2B Thought Leadership content yields credibility tools that:

–        support your company’s value proposition,

–        deliver an inherent 3rd party endorsement,

–        can be presented in a non-self-serving manner,

–        contain content that has a very long shelf life,

–        integrate seamlessly into your firm’s sales process,

–        engage target audiences in conversations that build relationships, and

–        drive tangible business results.

In fact, the acid test of effective Thought Leadership should not be based on your CEO’s level of satisfaction in seeing her byline in print. Instead, you’ll know that your Thought Leadership is effective when the head of sales or new business development is nipping at your heels regarding the campaign’s progress.

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White Papers are Not Dead. They’re on Life Support.

Have Marketers Killed This B2B Golden Goose?

Have Marketers Killed This B2B Golden Goose?

The original purpose of white papers as a B2B marketing tactic was to produce objective information, packaged as quasi-academic research, that might validate a company’s or product’s value proposition. White paper sponsors sought to educate, inform, raise comfort levels and eventually initiate sales conversations with prospective customers.

White papers gained significant adoption as a content marketing tool concurrent with the rapid growth of new technologies that often required explanation or context for non-technical buyers. Over time, however, the market education function was largely assumed by research firms such as Gartner and Forrester, whose opinions carry greater credibility than self-publishers of white papers.

Unfortunately, what began as a legitimate and sometimes helpful marketing tactic has morphed into poorly disguised sales promotion, packaged in a plain vanilla wrapper. The evolution of white papers from bona fide content into self-serving advertorials has been validated by vertical industry trade publications, in which companies, for a fee, are permitted to “feature” their white papers in a special section. White papers jumped the shark when they became paid content.

The outcome of widespread abuse of white papers – driven by marketers grasping for new ways to put lipstick on a pig, or too lazy to produce rigorous research that might empower customers to draw their own conclusions – is that the tactic has lost its franchise as an effective B2B marketing asset class. Increasingly, prospective customers do not believe white papers will be helpful or credible, and as a result, they no longer play a critical role in their decision-making process for purchasing products or services.

Some B2B publications, marketing consulting firms and other 3rd parties with a vested interest in promoting the use of white papers are capable of citing surveys, focus group results and case studies to support the tactic as an effective lead generation and lead nurturing device. And there are still many companies that produce legitimate white papers containing helpful, objective information.

But despite this quantitative evidence and the best efforts of producers of high quality content, B2B customers are avoiding white papers in greater numbers, not only because they are no longer viewed as credible, but also because marketers have erected too many registration barriers that restrict online access to content. Marketers, in turn, are finding white papers to be far less effective as a demand generation tool. Marketers may not have killed the white paper goose, but the tactic is certainly on life support, and is producing far fewer golden eggs.

So if diminished impact is the new white paper reality, then how do companies leverage whatever B2B marketing benefits this traditional tactic may still be capable of delivering? Here are few suggestions:

Repackage the Content: One of my grandmother’s favorite expressions was, “If you fly with the crows, you’ll be shot at.” If you’ve produced credible content, avoid guilt by association with self-serving white papers by publishing it with a different label. Executive Review? Research Report? Market Analysis? Blue Paper?

Scrap the Traditional Format: Regardless of the credibility issue, people simply have too much to read. Instead, produce a video or slideshare version of your white paper content. There’s a greater likelihood that interested parties will sit still for a 3-minute video production than invest 20 minutes laboring over a written white paper. Or create a visual version to serve as a “highlights” teaser that incents readership of the written version.

Grow a Set: Instead of producing the white paper in-house or hiring a freelance writer, engage a well-known, respected industry source to research and produce your white paper…and (here’s the tough part) give that writer complete editorial control. The report may take some shots that you don’t like, but the conclusions will be highly credible and your brand will gain a reputation as a company that can withstand scrutiny.

Slice and Dice Content: Rather than jamming your white paper content into a single masterpiece, allocate and publish the findings as a series of blog post installments. This method will increase readership and also produce multiple opportunities to communicate with target audiences, versus once-and-done publication of your white paper.

Kill Registration Hurdles: Your competitors will always find a way to get a copy of your white paper. Stop acting as though your white paper contains the formula for cold fusion, and use it to generate appreciation of your company’s intellectual capital by all interested parties, including competitors. As B2B internet protocol has evolved, people are far less inclined to provide contact information in exchange for what may be worthless content. Increasingly, registration barriers lose more leads than they generate.

White paper supporters need only be patient. Similar to other B2B marketing tactics that have fallen out of favor through over-use or abuse, the utility of white papers may eventually be fully restored. Even snail mail, long declared dead as a marketing channel, is now enjoying a resurgence as an effective means to cut through the clutter of email.

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