First up, just to get it out of the way, I’m going to lay out my bona fides on this topic. In 2006 I started a specialist consulting firm with no funding and no partners in a new space that most people had never heard of: social media. I had no marketing budget and I needed clients. I (along with many of my peers at the time) used what is now called thought leadership marketing to create valuable content, raise our profiles and generate leads. The company I started with nothing in 2006 went on to employ dozens of people and deliver multimillion dollar annual revenues for over seven years because of the thinking we did and the ideas we shared.
Therefore, I think it’s fair to say I know something about thought leadership marketing.
Today I see large companies (including my own current employer, SAP) identifying the obvious value of earning attention by creating compelling, relevant content. The genius of thought leadership marketing is that by positioning yourself as a leader in that particular area, you can effectively “own” it as the expert brand with the best thinking, the best ideas and, of course, the best products or solutions. GE, as an example, has done this well with the Internet of Things.
So what are people doing wrong? Pretty much the same thing they did wrong with social media. What we in the industry referred to as “build it and they will come” – simply, creating elaborate new web communities (that mostly end up dying) instead of using simple platforms to publish your own thoughtful content and joining conversations that already exist.
I firmly believe this is a comfort zone thing – everyone knows how to build a website, but very few people feel at ease engaging in existing conversations and publicly expressing (and debating) their POV as a representative of their company. It’s also, truthfully, a digital agency business model thing: there’s lots of money to be made in website builds and buying media to drive traffic, much less in helping skilled client staff share their views online.
So what do firms need to stop doing? You need to stop building online thought leadership “hubs” or “communities” on new patches of real estate. Media companies, staffed entirely with content experts, struggle with creating compelling engagement on their existing online properties – brands that create net-new space in this model are mostly hopeless at it. (I also think brands tend to measure success with a very low bar. We should be comparing ourselves to media – that is, after all, our true competition for attention online.)
You need to start identifying your internal thought leaders and follow the model that has worked so many times in the past – get them writing, syndicate their content, get them speaking at conferences (where many industries are sorely under-represented), engaging as themselves online where the important conversations are already happening. Corporately, you can create valuable content and background material that adds to these conversations, and share it.
Yes, all of this is harder – but it actually works. Death to the thought leadership website – long live actual thought leadership.