What is thought leadership? Thought leadership content associates an organization or an individual with ideas. Thought leadership strives to establish credibility in a domain with the intent of making the organization or individual more attractive as a supplier, partner, or advisor.
Many collaboration companies, for instance, develop thought leadership that looks at the future of work because their products facilitate work. Collaboration technology suppliers create thought leadership that helps people think about their problems differently. As they ponder the insight, hopefully, they will arrive at the conclusion that will bring in the thought leader as a supplier. While thought leadership should not directly sell, it should establish a level of confidence in the supplier that reduces friction for a sale or outright encourages it. (Did you read this? Why would we go with anyone else?)
Some thought leadership focuses on the depth of use. This is common in software-related products. People buy software and then don’t get the most out of it because they fail to integrate it sufficiently into their workflow to adopt all the features. Thought leadership makes a case for a deeper engagement with the technology, which ultimately enhances the stickiness of the solution—meaning it reduces customer churn and therefore increases revenue stability—good outcomes for content that doesn’t directly sell.
Thought leadership employs the same content as does other marketing. Unlike traditional marketing which assists in selling a product, thought leadership should be considered a product. The ideas encapsulated in a thought leadership program become the focal point of marketing activities. Blogs, social media posts, and videos serve to introduce, elaborate, reinforce the messages associated with the thought leadership’s core ideas or tenets. Thought leadership often involves a central piece of content, such as a white paper, an eBook, or a book. The other content and channels support the marketing the central thought leadership idea.
As an example, at Microsoft, we developed the New World of Work as an idea to frame the Microsoft Office discussion in Bill Gate’s 2005 CEO Summit presentation. New World of Work went on to live for several years beyond that event as it became the thought leadership pillar for the Office Product line.
The New World of World was based on a set of scenarios about the future of work. Those scenarios supported a wide range of content from white papers about particular business issues, like big data and analytics, automation, and collaboration, as well as a series of industry-specific papers. Those papers suggested ways the uncertainties at the center of the New World of Work might play out in healthcare, manufacturing, finance, and other areas, like government.
Beyond the white papers, the New World of Work acted as a kick-start presentation for customer meetings during the Executive Briefing Center visits. It set up a day or two of product, sales, and executive discussions by providing context for why the other discussions really mattered.
The New World of Work, however, never sold products. It sold the idea that Microsoft was deeply committed to understanding the future of work and conducting research to create products that would support the future no matter how it turned out. The thought leadership revealed our research, often suggesting that Microsoft didn’t know the answers to important (which it did not), and offering several ways the future might play out. The New World of Work Microsoft demonstrated its thoughtfulness.
I would often coach others in Microsoft marketing that the power of thought leadership, and the New World of Work, in particular, was the humbleness of exploring with our customers. We didn’t have the answers, but we were using our enormous resources to stay enough ahead of them that our products would remain relevant. The presentations on the Microsoft campus, at industry events, and at Microsoft conferences brought the customers along that journey.
That is a very different approach than traditional marketing and customer journeys where the content is meant to bring them along a journey that terminates in a sale. In thought leadership, the concern is not where the customer is on their journey toward a sale, but engaging them in a way that takes them along the discovery journey with you. It may lead to a sale, but intent is to build a relationship that transcends current products.
Thought leadership often begins as content, but it grows into relationships that people connect to the underlying ideas, and then more intensely with the organization.
Nurturing thought leadership
Because thought leadership is more a product than a marketing program, it requires nurturing. People learn as they engage with it and share their lessons learned. Good thought leadership isn’t just a marketing veneer but reflects deep-seated beliefs that also influence product direction.
While the New World of Work program I managed at Microsoft no longer exists, the idea of Microsoft understanding the future of work persists (see there site here). Thought leadership usually involves an evergreen idea that tightly ties to the company’s brand. Because Microsoft is so associated with information and knowledge workers, it could be argued that they have an obligation to take a leadership position on the future of work in a way that is independent of their products, although that research should and will contribute to the ideas wihtin product teams.
Nurturing thought leadership means investing in it. Without new research, messages become rehashes of existing messages. They lose their impact because customers and media no longer pay attention. Like a product, thought leadership requires constant innovation.
Good thought leadership comes in layers. The future of work becomes generic pretty quickly. People will want to know, “What does it mean for me?” The best answers will come by exploring the future of work in industries and roles. The New World of Work program developed papers across many industries. Roles perspectives, like the future of marketing work, or the future of nursing, add another entry point. This is also where thought leadership becomes more practical to its creator. As the ideas play off industries and roles, feedback received during presentations and discussions informs which products and services may require adjustment to better service those markets, or suggest new products or services. While some thought leadership may originate from the desire to communicate innovation, in practice, it may help drive it.
All thought leadership needs to evolve. As the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political (STEEP) world changes, thought leadership needs to recognize changes—perhaps even reflecting on previous work that forecasted some of the changes. Uncertainty in the STEEP categories is one of the main reasons Serious Insights leverages scenario planning as a tool for thought leadership development. It helps organizations engage in the future as it unfolds. It also helps them create richer thought leadership by including perspectives on influence categories that they might not otherwise address. Microsoft engages in education because the future of work makes certain assumptions about a society’s capabilities. And education also offers a different spin on the work, with educators and learners bringing very different needs than office workers in manufacturing or transportation.
Thought leadership requires nurturing because it only retains its value while it remain relevant to its target audience.
Thought leadership and differentiation
Thought leadership does not require a differentiated position on a topic. What it does require is proof of competency and understanding. Customers seek a level of comfort with a supplier which derives from trust in knowledge about a topic, usually more knowledge than the customer currently possses.
Some thought leadership does strive to differentiate. When trying to differentiate, messages should reinforce a strategic goal that offers alternatives to competitive positions or suggests category creation. Thought leadership demonstrates how an organization or individual thinks, which supports whatever features or product they believe differentiates them in a market.
The goal is to become an authority, not THE authority. Thought leadership becomes diminished if it exists in a vacuum because it has nothing to play against. Microsoft’s future of work thought leadership is interesting because it exists beside the thought leadership from Cisco and Salesforce. It demonstrates first that they are thoughtful, and second that they are listening to the pains and needs of the market. It may also suggest that they have a different point-of-view on certain topics, especially when it comes to implementation of solutions. When it comes to multimillion-dollar investments, customers need to decide which visions align with their own. Thought leadership makes visions more transparent.
Each organization must decide why it is creating thought leadership. Be it for building brand trust, or creating a new category or otherwise differentiating themselves in the market. And its OK to do both. Making those decisions is part of the ongoing strategy and another reason that thought leadership requires product management.
Thought leadership is content marketing focused on ideas rather than products. It establishes credibility through authoritative research and interpretation. Thought leadership helps people and organizations grapple with hard problems. Thought leadership brings customers along the learning journey with its creator. And because of that, thought leadership can’t be planned too far into the future. Thought leadership requires feedback and adjustments that come only after people engaged with it. The relevance of thought leadership aligns with its timeliness.
Most importantly, thought leadership makes people think. And when they think, they will associate that inspiration with the organization or individual that encouraged that thinking. The chain of value in helping people better understand their world accrues back to the source, and that results in them being perceived as a leader.
For more serious insights on thought leadership click here.
Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.
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