Every B2B Company Can't Be a Thought Leader -- But That's Okay

Every B2B Company Can't Be a Thought Leader -- But That's Okay
Stephanie Tilton - Tue Jan 12, 2010 @ 01:53AM
Comments: 27

Yesterday's guest post by Billy Mitchell was timely, as I've been thinking a lot lately about the concept of thought leadership. By definition, every company can't be a thought leader. The fact is that it's a tall order to truly be a thought leader, assuming you're on board with this lightbulbdefinition of thought leadership in Wikipedia:

"…a futurist or person who is recognized among peers and mentors for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights…"

Some companies put forth what they call thought leadership, when in fact, they're simply keeping pace with the market. And that's okay. As long as you're able to satisfy your prospects' needs, you don't need to develop groundbreaking concepts. In fact, as Mike Schultz of the Wellesley Hills Group points out, thought leadership doesn't always appeal to prospects.

That said, it's understandable why companies pursue thought-leadership initiatives. After all, it's one way to get industry analysts, partners, journalists – and sometimes, even customers – beating a path to your door. But there's another way to get prospects to find their way to you: by leading the charge in content marketing.

I'd be willing to bet that most B2B marketers are now familiar with the concept of content marketing. (For those that aren't, I highly recommend "Get Content. Get Customers. by Joe Pulizzi and Newt Barrett.) According to Joe Pulizzi, "Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience - with the objective of driving profitable customer action."

While thought leadership has its place, it's not often applicable to the situation at hand – after all, it's usually focused on a strategic vision. On the other hand, content marketing provides something of immediate value to prospects. And while not every company can be a thought leader, any company can be a leader when it comes to content marketing.

Interestingly, a well-executed content-marketing strategy reflects key characteristics of a thought leader as defined by Elise Bauer: a company that "deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates." And, as Britton Manasco says, thought leadership is "the presentation of insightful, provocative and compelling perspectives that frame the way people think about key issues and even guide them to smarter decisions."

Whether or not you're conveying your understanding of your customers' needs and the market on a strategic level, you should put that insight into play on a practical level, one that gets – and holds – your prospects' attention over time. If you're seeking step-by-step guidance, see Chris Koch's blog post about the shift from thought leadership to "idea marketing."

What are your thoughts on how prospects perceive thought leadership? Is the concept of content marketing valued in your organization?

Related Posts:

Read more Savvy B2B posts from Stephanie.

Comments: 27


1. Billy Mitchell  |  my website   |   Tue Jan 12, 2010 @ 12:22PM

Stephanie, It is so cool that maybe something I said helped you with such a great article. I have only one complaint...another great book to read. My head is about to explode but I am definitely going to order "Get Content Get Customers" if you recommend it. I'm also going to start following the others you reference in the article.

That's the best thing about following braniacs and maniacs like you. You know where all the great ideas are and have a good deal of them yourself.

I'll add one to the "content marketing" idea of your article that you are probably well aware of already. I recommend anyone interested, like me, in learning all you can about Content Marketing also check out Doug Kessler's ( @dougkessler of Velocity Partners in the UK ) ebook at http://bit.ly/uJk3s It's a very clever and well designed piece of work.

I'm going to order that book now, hope it's on kindle. If not, I'm going old school. Thanks Stephanie

2. jeremy morris  |  my website   |   Tue Jan 12, 2010 @ 01:52PM

Stephanie, nice post. Content marketing will fail unless companies have something to say which is of value and relevance to their customers and that differentiates them from their competitors -- isn't that thought-leadership?

3. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Wed Jan 13, 2010 @ 01:08AM

@Billy - You definitely sparked my thinking on the topic - thank you! I'm embarrassed that I overlooked reference to Doug Kessler's ebook because, as you say, it's well worth reading. And I'm glad you picked up a few new folks to follow.

@Jeremy - I believe that thought leadership as aspired to by many companies is about painting a unique vision of the future and spending lots of effort to get it into the public domain. While there's a time and place for that, it's oftentimes meaningless to the prospects/customers who are trying to solve a problem today. In other words, I'm not so sure it's of value and relevance to many customers. Content marketing draws upon the principles of thought leadership you mention to bridge the gap. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

4. Mark Delfeld  |  my website   |   Thu Jan 14, 2010 @ 08:38AM

Good post. I am more in line with Elise Bauer's interpretation of thought leadership...and I believe that every company has some "special sauce" that can help them to meet a customer's needs. Thought leadership is one way to convey these special qualities and differentiate themselves from the competition.

5. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Thu Jan 14, 2010 @ 10:32AM

Mark, if you're saying every company offering a product or service that satisfies unmet market needs has a special sauce, I agree. But would you call that thought leadership or a unique value proposition? In my mind, the "secret sauce" is more of a UVP and is different than thought leadership. Either way, it seems it all comes down to showing prospects -- by whatever means necessary -- that you can help them overcome their challenges and achieve their goals. Thanks for stopping by!

6. Paul McKeon  |  my website   |   Sun Jan 17, 2010 @ 04:34AM

Stephanie, you make an excellent point that all marketers need content marketing, while not every organization can be a thought leader; otherwise, who is following? And yes, knowing and communicating that "special sauce" is the secret to effective content marketing.

We define Thought Leadership as the expression of Market Leadership--in which, again, not everyone can be the leader.

Our white paper: <a href="http://contentfactor.com/library/content/anybody-following-your-thought-leadership" target="_blank">Is Anybody Following Your Thought Leadership?</a>

7. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Tue Jan 19, 2010 @ 01:52AM

Paul, you hit the nail on the head -- how many leaders can there be, after all? At some point, it's inevitable that a few companies are truly leading the way, with others merely beating the same drum. That said, organizations may find that prospects don't care as much about thought leadership as they do about a truly customer-focused company that "gets it." Thanks for the pointer to your white paper.

8. Craig Badings  |  my website   |   Tue Jan 26, 2010 @ 11:00PM

Stepanie your post has certainly surfaced some interesting points and ideas. You're right when you say not everyone is a thought leader but that doesn't mean they can't be. I do believe that there is a blurring of the lines between great content and thought leadership and Jeremy, comment no 2, has a point when he asks isn't this thought leadership.

You cannot be a thought leader if you don't share that thought leadership through good content delivery and management.

I like Paul's point of thought leadership being an expression of market leadership but we must be careful to say thought leadership = market leadership. It doesn't. Nor do I believe that innovation = thought leadership. The two are similar but do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Finally, you will find in many instances that the truly customer-focused companies often are the thought leaders because they do more than merely sell their customers a product or a service. They understand their customer's needs initmately and provide them far more as a result. It's often at this interface that the best thought leadership ideas emerge.

9. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Thu Jan 28, 2010 @ 08:02AM

It's true that everyone has the *potential* to be a thought leader, but is it realistic that everyone (every company) will reach that potential? I agree there's a blurring of the lines between putting forth original thoughts and valuable content (after all, if you're going to share original thoughts, you're best served doing it in a way that others find useful.) But I don't agree that companies are thought leaders simply because they publish valuable, relevant content. However, I think they're leaders in another sense. They're exemplars of how best to engage with prospects and customers.

I guess it depends on how you define thought leadership (and I see that you offer your own definition on your site). That said, I think we're all on the same page in believing that companies taking the time to understand their prospect/customer issues and concerns can go far!

Thanks for stopping by!

10. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Thu Jan 28, 2010 @ 10:36AM

I believe a post I just came across helps bridge the gap between the various ideas being shared here on the concept of "thought leadership." This appeared on a blog post authored by C. Edward Brice of Lumension:

"I do believe that there is a new dimension coming to thought leadership and that is “community thought leadership”. Scott Mersey of Genius.com recently blogged that the difference between Community Thought Leadership & Thought Leadership is:

'The key difference between Community Leadership and Thought Leadership is that this approach means that help and relevant content is provided freely and without strings so that any member of the community - whether or not ever a “prospect” to become a customer - comes away with actionable information and insight into how to solve their problems. It’s leadership that’s vendor agnostic and broader than a piece designed to capture leads.'

The full post is at: http://marketinggimbal.typepad.com/marketinggimbal/2009/12/the-great-global-economic-meltdown-of-2009-has-passed-and-we-are-still-here-and-breathing-mostly-a-sigh-of-relief-its.html

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