B2B Thought Leadership? Not So Much . . .

What does it take to become a thought leader in your market?  

Deep understanding of what inspires your customers (or keeps them awake at night), executive commitment, companywide involvement, and authentic generosity. 

Unfortunately, most business-to-business (B2B) marketers fall short when they publish promotional content or threadbare case studies masquerading as thought leadership.

At least that's what I found when researching my latest — and first — publication since returning to Forrester. (Please take a look and rate/share what you think!)

Great marketing content can fuel your company's demand generation engine. It can boost your brand's visibility to key audiences and bump aside competitors. Most of all, it attracts buyers interested in the types of challenges your company can solve. Because, as successful marketing execs know, business buyers don't buy your products and services; they buy into your approach to solving their problems.

Thought leadership is different. And it's rare.

It sits at the pinnacle of good market-facing content production but takes the long view toward the business results it produces. When successful, it engages buyers in an exchange of ideas that delivers value to both sides — buyers and sellers — while positioning your firm as a trusted source of great information. And the market, not your marketing department, tells you when your stuff reaches true thought-leading status.

One of my favorite examples of great thought leadership comes from TEDMED. (Disclosure: In 2011, I managed the Xerox sponsorship for TEDMED, so I admit to having both background and bias on this topic.)

Last year, TEDMED asked conference delegates and the broader healthcare community to select a list of complex, persistent problems with medical and nonmedical causes that affect millions of lives and the well-being of our nation. The resulting list of 20 Great Challenges of Health and Medicine are knotty problems that require cross-disciplinary discussion. TEDMED and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsored a year-long dialog around these challenges involving doctors, scientists, researchers, technology innovators, business and government leaders, patients, legal experts, and the media. TEDMED used digital technology like Google Hangouts, video, and Twitter to open this discussion to the world and get a broad national debate started around what it would take to solve big issues like reducing childhood obesity, dealing with the caregiver crisis, and eliminating medical errors. They will share outcomes of this discussion during their Washington D.C. conference in two weeks

I like the 20 Great Challenges because it shows the power technology brings to raising awareness — and engaging a huge community in a value-based exchange of ideas — around important issues of broad concern. Imagine what it would require in cost and resources to bring these many people together in person to debate these issues. It's a great example of both thought leadership and the power of digital to disrupt the status quo. It also shows TEDMED's commitment to imagining the future of health and medicine today and to making the world healthier. I believe that's true thought leadership. What do you think?


Thought leadership is cliche

Thought leadership(TL) has become a cliche. Everyone would like to do it, but no one really knows what sort of "animal" that is - my biased thought; but everyone feels they have it.

TL is different for different people.

TL is a cliche

Yatin, I agree that the term is overused. Marketing departments christen too much cruddy content with the "thought leadership" title and it gives a bad name to the really good stuff. I'm hoping folks heed the advice in the report and focus on buyer issues first and generously give advice, information, and help on how to address those pressing issues. Thanks for reading.

You are right. Focus on

You are right. Focus on customer is key!

I have heard of folks getting into meeting rooms and say "let's do some thought leadership"

Leadership First

The TEDMED story shows that leadership comes first. Then the thoughts come out of good leadership. Not to say that a brilliant idea can't come from a single genius who happens to work for your company, but it's more likely the result of combining the work of several minds.

Leadership before the Thought

Scott - absolutely right! The companies that I see getting this right make thought leadership behavior and activity a requirement across the firm, not just marketing. And you don't have to be a designated thought leader at your company to talk about provocative ideas in your customer conversations.

PS: I think we attended Stanford at the same time...

Hey Laura, I get that Thought

Hey Laura,
I get that Thought Leadership is essentially customer centric and as an organization one should look to create great content that helps a consumer in any way possible. What I don't understand is how can I convince Top Management that the dollars I spend in creating content are being returned to the organization manifold. So far, we've just been able to measure the social metrics and leads generated from the website. Is there something else that we should be looking at?

Value of content marketing

Aditi, thanks for the question. Thought leadership is about influence. A good PR firm can help you figure out how to demonstrate where the content you produce gets picked up across the industry. The main difference today is that the potential sources of this influence is much more digital and widespread than the sources were 12 to 15 years ago.

Frankly, if you can't get your top management to buy into the fact that you need to DISTINGUISH your approach to solving business problems from your competition, then you have bigger problems. Especially in the Services industry, your marketing has to talk specifically about how you solve specific business problems.

Your point of view and approach can only be seen through the content you deliver to the market. What could be more important to your marketing investment than that?

Content marketing as a way of creating thought leadership

Interesting thoughts on a subject that I believe will experience a revival thanks to the shift in marketing focus from towards substance, or content, as some call it.

I would like to hear your thoughts on the relationship between thought leadership and content marketing. After reading you report "Nurture Thought Leadership To Nurture
Your Brand", I realized our views on the relationship between content marketing and thought leadership differ a bit.

In my world content marketing actions are planned and executed in order to build a position as thought leader. The content in the pyramid picture above (except for thought leadership), are all vehicles and ways to create a desired position, which in my world is thought leadership. This would imply that actions are content marketing, but the target position is thought leadership.

Content marketing as way to create thought leadership...

Tom, thank you for thoughtful comment. I agree that marketers should plan and execute content marketing actions to build a position as a thought leader. But not all content will become thought leading. The market determines what is thought leadership, not the marketer.

The problem I see is that marketers get caught up in the need to produce more content and they can't "see the forest for the trees." Rather than boring product information and timeworn case studies, they need to produce content that is interesting, informative, educational and even entertaining. Not all of it needs to build a position as a thought leader. Thought leadership and brand are inter-related, but not completely overlapping.

The goal of content marketing is to engage potential buyers (and current customers) and get them involved in your approach to solving business problems. If you focus on that goal then your content marketing will be relevant to buyers, reinforce your brand as a real business solution, and help create your desired position in the market.

Thought leadership is that rare form of content that captivates the market. It changes their frame of reference and thinking about problems and solutions. It goes beyond your company and includes best practices that even your competition can't deny. This is difficult to achieve, but should be what great content marketing programs aspire to achieve.