I was talking recently with my friend, Dr. Liz Alexander, writes Kim Anderson of Big Pond Marketing, and we got on to the topic of thought leadership. I shared with her my disappointment in what passes or is attempting to pass as thought leadership by marketers and agencies selling communication services. Liz sent me a copy of the book she co-authored with Craig Badings, #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign, and I found myself audibly saying “Yes” and thinking “Hear, hear!” as I read the pages and the myriad tweets. One prompt that rang especially true for me was tweet #20:
Is your thought leadership brand agnostic? Do you realize that if it is too brand or product-centric, your thought leadership loses value?
As a branding consultant, I’ve run into this issue with clients on numerous occasions. I’ve often seen companies err on the side of being too “me-centric,” where the marketing is all about the company, the product or the brand. They have a message they want to communicate and think customers want to hear it. They’re half right. There is a need that they fill (or at least one would hope so) and there are customers looking to buy their product in order to fill that need. But the issue is that people aren’t interested in making you happy by buying your product. They want to solve a problem and hope that your product or service can do that for them.
Beneficial, or Backslapping?
The locus is off. Most companies forget whom they are serving and what is happening in the buyer’s mind. In such cases, marketing programs –like webinars, blogs, seminars and other means to educate the public– become pitchfests rather than helpful, instructive events. Too many programs labeled as thought leadership campaigns are simply egotistical, back slapping attempts, masquerading as useful information. Many marketers, and unfortunately ill-informed agencies trying to ride the thought leadership wave, consider the content they produce as valuable, original thought when in reality it’s re-purposed content from other sources sucked in to fill the cavernous content management pipeline.
There is a saying that “All PR is good PR,” meaning that if you get your name in the media that brings you top of mind with customers; having people know your name is better than remaining in obscurity. Similarly, I think many marketers believe that “All content is thought leadership” because it’s getting the word out and keeping you in front of people. I disagree. Like bad PR, poorly developed content taints the opinions of the readers and does more harm than good. If you are simply repeating what others have said before you, without adding to the discussion or providing new insights and innovations, you are simply communicating to the world that you are a follower and of lesser value than those who are truly creating and innovating. You’re positioning your company, products and brand as inferior.
Thought leading or “Thoughtwashing”?
The trap is that marketers are pressured to employ the latest techniques and the best practices seen in the industry. Thought leadership is one of those trends and a best practice that is often misunderstood. The problem with best practices is that people blindly apply them without knowing what it is they are truly doing. Thought leadership is one of those areas that started out very effective because it served to differentiate companies and was adopted because it worked. But as the concept is bastardized, its effectiveness wanes. Calling everything that you produce or curate thought leadership is the equivalent of greenwashing your message. It’s inauthentic and your customers and prospects can tell. Essentially you are “thoughtwashing” your marketing in the hopes of making something ordinary seem amazing. Too bad there isn’t a certification test that companies have to pass before they are allowed to use the term “thought leader” so that it isn’t tossed around and abused as much as it is today.
To be of service, which is really what great companies do, the customer’s needs are at the core rather than profits or egos. This way of thinking focuses on the long-term play rather than the short-term gain. Brand-centric thinking is not innovative or authentic and your customers will eventually know it, if they don’t already. True thought leaders offer solutions to current problems and needs as well as ones that customers have not yet anticipated. When you are driven to solve for the needs of your customers, it transcends your brand. The positive association of the brand is a by-product of innovation and the relentless pursuit of excellence. The most successful brands are in a sense humble. And so is thought leadership. The focus is on the individual that it serves, not you.
Kim Anderson is a brand and strategic marketing consulting specializing in B2B marketing for technology companies. Her company, Big Pond Marketing located in the Bay Area, works with companies to define their brand and vision and then bring it to fruition with expertly developed programs. Kim is passionate about helping companies become more successful through thoughtful and authentic strategic visioning and alignment, assisting them to not only operate more efficiently and profitably but also serve as great places to work.
Dr. Liz Alexander is a co-founder at Leading Thought and co-author of #Thought Leadership Tweet. As consulting co-author, she collaborates with aspiring authors who desire to write thought leading books.
Connect with Liz on LinkedIn. Follow her 140 character musings on Twitter: @LeadThought and @DrLizAlexander