Using Thought Leadership to Gain a Competitive Edge in 2013

The Confederation of British Industry predicted this month that UK GDP will grow by 1.4% in 2013 and although the UK is officially out of recession and this figure is positive, no economists are predicting huge growth for 2013. This means that business owners will have to continue working hard to engage customers in an uncertain market. The key to business success in 2013 will be to use thought leadership to win over customers.

Consumers in both the B2B and B2C markets are increasingly sophisticated when it comes to their buying decisions. Companies that can demonstrate they understand their customer’s needs and aspirations; and that they are truly knowledgeable about the market they operate in, will ensure that they stand out from their competitors.

The secret weapon in many marketers’ armoury across a wide range of market segments is ‘thought leadership’ which is a marketing tool companies are increasingly using to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Thought leadership in the B2B context is about businesses demonstrating that they have deep understanding and unique insights into both their own markets, and the needs of their customers, in order to position themselves as the ‘experts’ in their chosen field.

Why is thought leadership important?

Thought leadership is increasingly important because B2B buyers today have more information sources than ever before thanks to the internet and don’t need, or want to engage with suppliers simply to learn about products. As a result, many sales teams don’t get the opportunity to speak to a customer until late in the customer’s decision-making process, with limited opportunity to influence the customer’s thinking or decision criteria. Recent research, published in Harvard Business Review, revealed that on average nearly 60% of a B2B purchase decision is made before a customer even speaks to potential suppliers.

However B2B buyers are still looking for ‘trusted advisors’ who can help them understand the bigger picture and navigate the mass of available options open to them, and they are willing to engage with suppliers that may challenge their existing thinking, and bring new ideas and insights to the table. So B2B suppliers are increasingly investing in thought leadership initiatives – to demonstrate their own unique insight and opinion, and help them open the door to those hard-to-reach decision-makers and influencers.

One reason that thought leadership plays a more important role within B2B than B2C is the complexity of the decision-making process and the fact that multiple stakeholders will often have an influence on the decision. Relevant thought leadership content can help a customer gain alignment internally regarding the problems they are facing and understand the responses they should be considering.

The thought leadership provider benefits through raising their profile with a broader group of decision-makers and influencers, being perceived as a supplier that can add value, and helping to shape the debate in a way that makes their particular solution more relevant and desirable.

Thought leadership also plays an important role when a company is seeking to promote new and disruptive products that may require buyers to think differently about the challenges they face and the options available to them. The objective of thought leadership in this context is to change the buyer’s frame of reference for their purchase decision in ways that will create an opportunity for the new product.

For example, when salesforce.com first introduced its ground-breaking, web-based CRM product in 1999, as well as convincing potential buyers that its product had the features they needed, it also needed to persuade them that using software you accessed via the web rather than installing on your own machines, was actually a good idea.

A lot of salesforce.com’s early communications efforts were focused on changing the way that people thought about software, and promoting the concept of ‘Software-as-a-Service’ (SaaS). Now salesforce.com is the world’s largest CRM company, with revenues of $2.5bn, and SaaS is well on its way to becoming the dominant software model.

The components and structure of thought leadership

The ultimate objective of thought leadership is to gain a competitive advantage, increasing growth and ultimately sales. A well designed thought leadership programme which is fully integrated into the broader marketing plans of an organisation can deliver benefits in multiple ways including brand awareness, competitive positioning, broadening their contact base, lead generation and even employee recruitment and engagement.

A successful thought leadership programme usually consists of the following core elements:

  • Clear point of view – based on analysis of the issues impacting their target audience businesses should decide which topics they want to position themselves as thought leaders on. The point of view needs to be relevant and interesting to the target audience, distinctive and insightful as well as credible, connected to the overall marketing strategy and provide customers with some kind of ‘actionable’ advice on what they can do to overcome the challenge posed.
  • Content creation – the creation of thought leadership content can come from a variety of sources such as utilising internal knowledge and expertise, commissioning primary research, or acting as a ‘facilitator’ of a debate involving external experts, and benefiting from the association with them and the subject matter.
  • Content dissemination – content disseminated can take a variety of forms, including white papers, blogs, research reports, articles, social media posts, speaking opportunities, seminars, videos, roundtables, ‘how to’ guides, useful tools and templates etc. A well-designed thought leadership programme will use a combination of vehicles to reach the target audience. As with any communications activity, the dissemination needs to be well targeted and selective, with proper consideration given to context, choice of media, timing etc.
  • Demand generation process – while a thought leadership programme has a role to play in building brand awareness and competitive positioning, generating new contacts and leads should be a key objective. You need to consider what actions you want your target audience to take, in order to convert interest in your opinions and insights, into genuine sales opportunities, such as inviting people to a seminar to gain further insight into the topic.
  • Internal awareness and education – ensuring employees are equipped to be thought leadership ambassadors for the company is crucial. This is particularly important in a customer-facing role. There’s no point generating sales opportunities off the back of some insightful thought leadership, if the salesperson that sits in front of the client is not equipped to discuss those insights and expand on the point of view.
  • Review and modify – as with any marketing activity, thought leadership is a learning process. Businesses won’t get it spot on first time, so need to make sure they establish some relevant metrics to track and to continually monitor the impact of the programme and refining where necessary.