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In March, I attended ITSMA’s road show on Thought Leadership Marketing: Moving from Ideas to Revenue. I caught up with Chris Koch, Associate Vice President, Research and Thought Leadership for ITSMA, to dig down further into the topic.

chris-koch1.     What are the concrete steps to selecting the right issues to focus on and prioritizing ideas to develop for a thought leadership program?

It’s all about knowing your target audience, what they’re interested in, and what’s bothering them. But you then need to go beyond that and conduct original research to investigate the issues and come up with interesting points of view on trends and issues. That includes bringing in points of view from customers, industry experts and analysts, and other relevant external parties.

When it comes to prioritizing, marketers need to focus on 3-4 ideas that relate to their offerings and the audience they’re serving. You can have a terrific idea, but if it doesn’t map to your offerings, it won’t lead anywhere. In fact, I’ve seen companies get into hot water with ideas they weren’t ready to deliver on. Plus, by focusing on a manageable number of ideas, organizations can develop a deep well of content to support them.

2.     What does it take to develop a compelling point of view?

While a subject matter expert can put forth a hypothesis and point of view, it’s the storytelling capability of marketers that helps get it across in an interesting way.

For example, IBM thought about what it meant that companies were suddenly so interested in analytics. After conducting years of research and using social media throughout the organization, analyzing trends, and the calling up on talent throughout the organization, it decided it was because globalization was putting constant pressure on efficiency, forcing companies into permanent cost-cutting mode, IBM came up with “Smarter Planet” to encapsulate those trends.

This illustrates what we are seeing as an emerging trend – the idea of business themes. In other words, finding a big idea to sit on top of trends and offerings and the way you segment your market. This isn’t a tagline about what you do or who you are but something that really captures a compelling idea.

Consider Cognizant’s new campaign, which revolves around the concept:The Future of Work. Under this major business theme, Cognizant has created sub-themes related to its offerings, including globalization, cloud, and virtualization, to name a few. In other words, they’re drawing the line between their conceptual thinking and concrete offerings for buyers. And this is clearly resonating with the market. Since the campaign launched, Cognizant’s web traffic has grown quite a bit.

3.     What types of incentives work to get subject matter experts involved in contributing to idea and content development?

The old carrot-and-stick approach works. The carrot can be something like a contest for the best idea with a prize of an iPod or recognition through a newsletter, award, or a seat on an “eminence council.” The stick, so to speak, can be the C-level mandating that the creation of good ideas is a priority and part of employees’ annual goals. This approach starts to permeate throughout the corporate culture, as it has at places like McKinsey for decades. To get ahead, you need to come up with thoughtful, compelling points of view.

4.     One of the steps of the Development: Discover phase is to run ideas through the idea network. Please describe the idea network.

In the idea network, marketing facilitates the process of gathering internal input for idea development. This can be through knowledge sharing sessions, customer councils, and running contests for ideas, for example. Marketing then helps test the ideas with an external audience, including vetting ideas with industry analysts, and getting market feedback via social media.








5.     In your briefing, you mentioned that buyers don’t respect vendors that pay for thought leadership. Why is this?

Referencing analyst findings in your own thought leadership makes sense. And analysts can be incredibly valuable in the idea network as you’re trying to figure out your point of view. But you can’t only feature analyst reports and call it thought leadership. Your prospects and customers will see through it.

6.     How can companies validate their ideas with data and case studies?

Data is about developing a hypothesis and confirming it in the marketplace, such as by conducting research, surveys, and focus groups. Once they’ve started putting ideas into the market, companies can then develop case studies showing how customers have realized real-world success with offerings that tie to those ideas. For example, with IBM’s Smarter Planet, it might be a case study on smarter traffic management.

7.     What does it mean to take a formal approach to thought leadership dissemination?

We see centers of excellence developing in companies. For example, McKinsey has a dedicated research arm and follows the publishing model. Similarly, IBM has a highly developed research competency governed by strict, honed processes. A key methodology that even small marketers can get their hands around is an editorial calendar.

We found in our surveys that companies with a proactive editorial calendar process had more success from development to dissemination of ideas. They don’t just capture what’s at hand; they actively plan ahead for a year.

8.     How can thought leadership bridge the gap between customer loyalty and trust?

A company may get high Net Promoter Scores on satisfaction. But if you explore more deeply, you may find that its customers are satisfied but not overjoyed. So if a competitor came along with a better offer, the company could easily lose the business.

With idea marketing, you demonstrate to prospects and customers that you understand their key issues and that you can help address them. By doing this consistently over time, you can shift the perception of your organization as a vendor to being a trusted provider. And when customers trust you, they will put their future in your hands. Companies that achieve this status stop asking “are our customers saying good things about us?” and instead ask “have our customers asked our advice on what they should do next?”

Thought leadership is obviously not the only thing you need to do to earn that trust. But this is how marketing, sales, and service can help shift the perception.