Thought leadership is becoming both more ubiquitous, and a more important part of a content marketing strategy. However, many people are struggling to understand exactly what thought leadership means. In particular, they are wondering how to design thought leadership pieces and programmes so that they frame a coherent set of ideas and thoughts.
Thought leadership traditionally has been aimed and customers and potential customers. It sets out a problem, or issue, and then provides ideas about possible solutions. It is not, however, direct selling or advertising. You are selling your product on the basis of your expertise, not the features of the product. The selling is indirect: the implication is that because you understand your customers best, your product will best meet their needs. You never need to make this explicit—indeed, doing so may put off some potential customers.
We think ‘expertise marketing’ may in fact be a better description for what’s at stake.
The need for a framework
In developing expertise marketing pieces and programmes, therefore, you have to consider several elements:
Your customers – First and foremost, communicating expertise must be designed around customers. It is, in fact, a key part of customer experience, because in many cases a good piece or comment is likely to be your customers’ first contact with your organisation. You have to know your customers, both existing customers and prospects, intimately, and you have to be able to address them directly in what you write. Tools like buyer personas and customer segmentation are helpful ways to manage this, but the ‘gold standard’ may be co-creation of content with customers.
The problems and issues that concern your customers – Understanding their problems and issues is a key part of knowing your customer, but it is important enough to be a separate element of the framework. Understanding their issues needs unpacking somewhat. First, you do not need to cover every last problem that concerns them. Your expertise may be much more niche than that. Your ideas should be focused carefully to ensure that your point of view is both crystal clear, and novel: you must provide unique value to your customers. Identifying the right problem creates the ‘burning platform’ or ‘case for change’ for your potential customers, so is crucial.
The solutions to your customers’ problems – Once you have identified the unique problem area where your expertise will add value, the next element is adding the value. Your recognition of your customers’ problem creates a connection between you. Your proposed solution(s) will make or break the budding relationship. You have to be able to show that your solution will be effective and also that it is practical. In other words, will your potential customer be able to implement it easily and will it have the desired effect? Your packaging of this expertise-driven ideas must also be rigorous. There must be no ‘logic gaps’ between the solution and the problem.
There is one final element that matters: having a coherent framework of ideas and expertise into which your customers, problems and solutions fit. This, for many people, is the most challenging part of developing thought leadership. The most important part of this overarching framework is to be absolutely clear about your organisation’s strategic focus: your reputation and brand, and the expertise that you bring compared with your competitors. You must identify topics and areas where you can differentiate yourselves and prove and improve your reputation, and be firm about sticking to them. It is also important to do things differently: yes, you will need to do some things that your competitors also do, but you should consciously focus on providing something new as well.
A simple but effective framework
This framework, with its three fundamental building blocks, and overarching ‘umbrella’ is a simple but effective way of designing thought leadership. It can be used at several levels—by subject matter experts, by their marketing partners, and by marketing leaders—and also to both plan programmes and assess their results.