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Thought Leadership Merchandising: How to Rise Above All the Noise


February 19, 2014

Thought leadership has become one of the most widely used terms in B2B marketing. But there’s a range of opinion regarding what thought leadership is, and often fuzzy expectations with respect to its tangible benefits.

Broadly, if thought leadership is a marketing strategy that leverages intellectual capital to engage target audiences, then there are two critical issues to address:

  1. Content — What qualifies as legitimate and effective thought leadership?
  2. Application — How should the content be applied to drive tangible business outcomes?

It’s important to understand that thought leadership should not be limited to pushing one’s own viewpoint. True thought leaders are those individuals or organizations that define what topics or issues are important, and also provide opinions on those topics (other than their own) that are worth listening to. Thought leaders seek to manage, rather than control, the conversation.

For example, rather than featuring a message from your CEO in each issue of the company’s quarterly newsletter, consider publishing guest commentaries (not promotional messages) from clients, prospects, referral sources and recognized opinion leaders in your discipline. In return, you’ll gain higher readership levels, greater credibility and top-of-mind awareness, and an increased likelihood that clients and prospects will distinguish your brand from competitors.

Merchandising Strategy Precedes Content Development

To the consternation of CXOs, some marketers employ thought leadership as though it embodied some mystical higher purpose; as a tactic that’s not held accountable for increasing leads, clients or revenue. Apparently through marketing osmosis, a brilliant OpEd piece in the Wall Street Journal or a rousing keynote presentation at an industry conference will somehow bolster a company’s balance sheet. But all too often, thought leadership’s only benefit involves ego gratification.

Proper application of thought leadership-based content begins with development of a content merchandising strategy, involving two key benchmarks:

  • What measurable outcomes do we want our thought leadership to achieve?
  • How will we leverage our thought leadership content to achieve those measurable outcomes?

Creating any thought leadership content before fully addressing these two questions is akin to building a large sailboat in your basement. It may be a beautiful work of art, but you will never take it for a spin around the lake.

Ultimately, the most effective merchandising of B2B thought leadership content yields credibility tools that:

  • Support your company’s value proposition
  • Deliver an inherent 3rd party endorsement
  • Can be presented in a non-self-serving manner
  • Contain content that has a very long shelf life
  • Integrate seamlessly into your firm’s sales process
  • Engage target audiences in conversations that build relationships
  • Drive tangible business results

In fact, the acid test of effective thought leadership should not be based on your CEO’s level of satisfaction in seeing her bylined article in print. Instead, you’ll know that your thought leadership is effective when your company’s head of sales or new business development is nipping at your heels regarding the campaign’s progress.