Ideas that Sell: Does Thought Leadership Really Drive Revenue?

Over the past year, content marketing and thought leadership have become popular catch-phrases. Try typing “#content marketing” into a Twitter Search and see how many results you get; this past Friday, the topic generated nearly 50 tweets in the span of an hour.

For B2B marketers – especially those of us who work with consulting firms, accounting firms and IT service providers – thought leadership is nothing new. We’ve been using content (e.g., trend reports, market analyses, by-lined articles, podcasts, books and e-books, microsites) for years to build differentiation and visibility.

In the offline world, proprietary content has always been a valuable sales tool to start conversations, build credibility and open doors. In the online world, it has become a cornerstone of brand positioning and engagement.

Earlier this month, Gartner Group issued a news release on the benefits of Thought Leadership Marketing. In it, Gartner refers to the growing discipline of Thought Leadership Marketing (TLM), which analyst Rolf Jester defines as “giving away a little valuable intellectual property to establish your potential usefulness to [a] client in the expectation that the client will use your expertise and services.”

According to Gartner, Thought Leadership is a company’s sampling program. Just as packaged goods companies encourage customers to “try before they buy” by giving away samples, so too do thought leaders write articles and blog posts, give speeches, host webinars and participate in online forums. By so doing, they give customers a chance to sample their expertise. They offer a taste of the individual and/or institutional knowledge that they build into every product and service.

On its own, sampling is a valuable tool. It builds credibility and helps reduce the risk of buying – especially when what’s being sold is an intangible such as advisory services, analytics or protection products. But thought leadership marketing has additional advantages, which is why it’s also gaining popularity among a broad range of B2B and B2C companies (e.g.,  banks, consumer health companies, product companies, pharmaceutical/device manufacturers and retailers to name a few).

Among the top five benefits:

  1. Credibility: Thought leadership demonstrates your thinking and expertise. It’s a chance to showcase the “4 Ps” of Thought Leadership– i.e., predictive thinking, prescriptive advice and provocative yet prudent points of view. By offering up information, insights and ideas, you position yourself (and your company) as a trusted resource.
  2. Efficiency: Most companies sell more than one product or service. Typically, thought leadership cuts across products to address issues that impact multiple customer groups – issues such as regulatory change, demographic trends and emerging technologies. As a result, a single piece of content can generate visibility, awareness and engagement for several products. In one-on-one meetings and conferences, sales professionals can use findings from reports and studies as door openers with clients. And, marketers can repurpose the same content (in the form of reports, transcripts, articles, media quotes, videos) to drive online traffic to company websites and microsites.
  3. Engagement & Differentiation. Traditional marketing approaches are losing their impact. As a result, marketers are turning to thought leadership as a way to differentiate their products and services. Companies motivate customers with ideas and information. They start a dialogue in which they “engage with” prospects vs. “selling at” them.
  4. Searchability. Good content increases find-ability. As more companies launch mircosites and digital information hubs, the battle for readers/fans has become fierce. Search engine optimization (SEO) and link acquisition help you build a fan pipeline.
  5. Spreadability. Content and ideas are the raw material of social marketing. Nowadays, it only takes 10 fans (as Seth Godin reminds us) to make ideas and points-of-view spread. “Those ten people need what you have to sell, or want it.…If they love it, they’ll each find you ten more people (or a hundred or a thousand or perhaps just three).”   Social networks are tailor-made for sharing content. Good ideas – i.e., blog posts, articles, videos, analyses – spread broadly and quickly.

Of course, ideas – like most things – vary in quality.  Some are insightful and game-changing.  Others are inconsequential. As more companies scramble to develop Thought Leadership, the playing field becomes increasingly competitive and the bar for originality rises. Sampling programs only work, after all, when quality levels are high.

For companies that meet (or exceed) the bar for high-quality content, Thought Leadership Marketing is an approach that sells.

Is your company using Thought Leadership to drive revenue? If so, what’s working well? What’s holding you back?

To reach Meg:
Phone:  212.840.0095
Twitter: @megwildrick
LinkedIn: Meg Wildrick