The Ultimate Thought Leadership Course
for B2B Technology Companies
Defining thought leadership
Is thought leadership just another buzzword used by marketers and sales professionals or is it something that actually matters?
Originally used to describe Henry Ward Beecher in 1887, the phrase has since been tossed around for decades. In 1994, Joel Kurtzman described a thought leader as being “recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate.”
Today, thought leadership is an integral component to conducting business. Quite simply….it matters. In a B2B environment, customers want to be assured they are going with a trusted resource – a company that can solve a problem and deliver. But this isn’t just our opinion…take a look at the latest statistics from B2B buyers gathered in the 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study:
- 58% of B2B buyers read one or more hours of thought leadership content per week
- 55% of B2B buyers use thought leadership to vet organizations they may hire
- 47% of C-Suite executives said they have shared their contact information after reading thought leadership material
- 60% of business decision makers said that thought leadership directly led to their awarding of business to a company
- 60% of C-suite executives said they were more willing to pay a premium to companies that create thought leadership with a clear vision
“Is this partner I’m going to work with – do they know what they’re doing? Are they at the top of their game? And…are they going to cause my business risk?”
VP Product Management & Marketing
Ultimately, thought leadership means that your consumers, peers, and others view you as the expert. When potential customers are struggling with a business challenge, they come to you for advice. When they want to innovate or improve their business processes, they look to you first.
At the end of the day, thought leaders are the choice in their area of expertise.
Building thought leadership
What are the attributes of thought leaders?
Ok. So, we’ve established that thought leadership is important to the B2B technology customer journey. But what does it actually look like? What are the key ingredients to becoming a thought leader? What are the building blocks of an effective thought leadership strategy?
In order to become an influencer and have a point of view that is respected in your space, it takes a concerted effort…and time. Here’s a breakdown of five major components that are required in order to be a thought leader in your industry or area of expertise.
1. A unique value proposition
One of the major building blocks of a thought leadership strategy is a unique value proposition (UVP) within a particular market. What is it that makes your organization an authority within your industry? How does your company stand out differently from the competition? What is your specific niche? What pain points do your consumers have, and how can you help to resolve them? And…most importantly – how can you empathize with the audience that is a part of your specific niche?
There are several factors that can help you to identify, refine, and effectively present your UVP as a thought leader in your industry. Here are 3 major elements that you should pay attention to:
- Expertise. In the majority of cases, it is extremely helpful to have direct, hands-on experience with whatever niche you want to talk or write about. For example, if your organization wants to position itself as a leader in sales enablement, it’s much more effective if the leadership within the organization has experience in this area.
- Ongoing involvement. Even if leadership has years of experience in a certain field, it’s important to stay abreast of the latest trends and developments affecting that particular sector. Instead of being tethered to the past, you must ensure the organization stays connected to the present. Getting involved with major events, publications and local/regional meetups or masterminds are just some of the things that can be done. It’s crucial to not get stale within your industry and to constantly engage with those who are a part of your domain.
- A clearly delineated perspective. Finally, in order to offer a truly unique value proposition to your audience, it’s important to provide a specific, insightful, even controversial take on your subject matter. For example, when developing a content marketing strategy, include different angles or takes on key trends within your industry. Take a stance on current issues facing your industry – are shifts in the marketplace good or bad? Why? Ultimately, these perspectives help differentiate your organization (and its leaders) from others.
2. A well-defined audience
In order to be a thought leader, it’s important to clearly establish who you want to engage with – first and foremost. In the B2B world, you’ll likely need to define which target accounts would offer your company the highest value in the event of a partnership. Then, identify their most pressing needs and concerns. What solution does your product or service provide? How does it deliver higher value compared to your competition?
It’s important to ask these and related questions in order to establish a “launch-point” for your thought leadership strategy. Your insights as a thought leader may be penetrating, and your suggestions extremely tactical, but if you’re targeting the wrong audience then your return on investment is going to be limited. In contrast, a narrow focus on the ideal customer profile usually leads to faster growth.
Perhaps the single most effective way to identify your core consumers is to develop a buyer persona and even go through an empathy map exercise. It works for content marketing, and (by extension) it works for a thought leadership strategy as well. You’ll need to answer such questions as:
- What is my target consumer’s age, level of education, and yearly income?
- In the B2B setting, what title, job duties, and decision-making authority does my target have?
- What is his (or her) position within the company?
- What are his (or her) goals, both professionally and personally?
- What are his (or her) biggest challenges?
- How does he/she consume information, and from which sources?
- What correlation is there between my ideal client’s major problems and my technical solution?
- Why would he/she be interested in my product/service?
- What objections might he/she raise?
- How would my product/service solve his/her problems – if my technical solution is not implemented?
- What external factors are also influencing the overall success of my target customer?
- What industry trends are impacting my target customer?
These and other questions will help you to laser in on the B2B consumers who will find your insights most helpful. In turn, these consumers will form the nucleus of your nascent following, and help to validate and solidify your position as a thought leader.
3. A distribution strategy
In addition to the UVP and core audience, thought leaders must have a content distribution strategy. Organizations need to create a vehicle that provides a forum to share insights on a consistent basis. Moreover, any platform that will enable you to pull in 3rd party support (e.g., guest posts, interviews, podcasts, etc.) will add an extra layer of value to your distribution network.
For example, many thought leaders are leveraging podcasts to grow their audience. As of 2019, there were an estimated 86 million podcast listeners in the United States, and that number is expected to balloon to 132 million by 2022. The increasing popularity of the podcast format has opened the door for thought leaders from Tim Ferriss to Guy Raz to Courtland Allen to grow their brands by means of regularly aired episodes, informative and entertaining insights, and guest appearances.
Whether you decide to use a podcast as your main distribution vehicle, keep the emphasis on your blog, or use a multi-tiered approach that allows you to periodically repurpose and repackage content, it’s imperative that you deliver thought leadership pieces through the channels that will have the greatest impact on your core audience (and enable engagement/interaction!).
4. Engagement on LinkedIn
Social media plays a huge role in just about any effective thought leadership strategy; and in the B2B realm, LinkedIn is an essential medium for sharing valuable insights and engaging with prospective clients. Not only does LinkedIn have a huge following (some 590 million by the end of 2018), but its reputation and functionality as a “business-first” social media platform makes it an excellent channel for cultivating professional credibility.
One of the best features of LinkedIn is the ease of access that it affords for connecting with high-level decision makers. Granted, these executives will have their shields up from the horde of aggressive entrepreneurs and salespeople that want them to purchase some product, or invest in some venture. However, your thought leadership content is 100% free, with no strings attached. That means that you can promote your expertise without worrying about the pressure of a “sales pitch.”
Furthermore, one of the best parts about LinkedIn right now is that the organic reach is still quite impressive compared to other platforms like Facebook or Twitter. The Facebook feed is littered with sponsored posts and unrelated ads – making engagement quite difficult. With LinkedIn, it’s still very possible to engage with other thought leaders in your space AND to even create an active dialogue on the platform. When you’re on LinkedIn, it’s important to note that you should just be yourself – take a stance if you must or just offer different perspectives.
5. A way to help without asking for anything in returnIt’s important to remember that a B2B thought leadership strategy is definitely not about immediate sales. Neither does it have to necessarily involve lead generation. The goal of your thought leadership strategy is to ultimately position your B2B brand as a helpful expert that has the solutions your prospects need. With that goal in mind, provide assistance at every appropriate opportunity with no strings attached. For example:
- Your content itself should provide actionable value to your readers/listeners. True, they don’t have to pay a single dollar for its consumption; but they should walk away with increased knowledge and a deeper understanding of your subject, and some practical suggestions to implement. In this case – think about providing extreme value without even asking for an email in return. Why even “gate” the content – just provide the material directly to your ideal customers and allow them to access it when it is convenient for them.
- In most cases, you’ll see comments come through (perhaps on a LinkedIn post or in a group). If a user leaves a question on a post you’ve put out there, answer it as thoroughly and as promptly as possible. This will show your audience that you are not just another talking head, but someone who is really interested in engaging with his/her followers, and providing practical assistance to everyone who seeks insights. If you spend a lot of time creating content – engagement is what you want, so make sure to jump on it as quickly as possible!
- Link to other resources that you’ve found in your own research. If you’ve found a great post (even if it’s from a competitor) or online resource (podcast, video series, etc.), make sure to reference this for your audience. This type of action will indicate that you’re not seeking to just promote your own material, but are simply willing to share the same information that has helped you to become successful in your area of expertise.
“Thought leadership is less about the products or services you’re selling…it’s more about the contribution of expertise.”
Carol Lin Vieira
VP of Corporate Marketing & Communications
Measuring thought leadership
What is the value of thought leadership?If you’re looking for a single metric that gives an ROI on thought leadership, let us know when you find it. We’ll feature you on Tech Qualified for sure. From our perspective, thought leadership can’t be boiled down to a single numeric value. Instead, the presence of thought leadership creates value throughout a lot of different functions within your business – especially within your marketing and sales areas. While a content strategy can garner engagement, ads can generate traffic and in-person events can build rapport with your audience – the value of thought leadership can really become an integral part of all your ongoing marketing efforts. Let’s take a look at some of the major ways thought leadership contributes to increased revenue by enriching your marketing and sales processes.
Nurtures prospectsResearch has shown that buyers do a bulk of their homework BEFORE ever reaching out to any companies. So, the era of solely sending a newsletter is dead. Instead, you need to be visible at all times and you need to be recognized before a prospect is ready to provide you with their email address. If you have committed to developing thought leadership material, then you have a great reason to stay top of mind for prospects who just aren’t ready to buy from you….yet. Some of the ways you can remain top of mind include a newsletter, custom follow-up emails, LinkedIn posts and advertising. As you create a library of thought leadership content, you’re essentially building an asset that can help your most ideal customers. And, as your clients and customers work through their major tasks or initiatives, they can use materials you’re developing and ideas that you’re publishing. By providing value to your prospects, you’ll definitely be top of mind when they’re searching for a solution that your technology provides.
Adds value to outbound processesYikes…have you received a cold email lately that immediately pitches a solution or a specific technology? Annoying, huh? The sender of the email hasn’t built any rapport and they’re already trying to push some software or service before even having a conversation. Well, if you create thought leadership content, you have the ability to flip your cold outreach on its head. Rather than simply asking for a meeting, or even worse, pitching your solution right away – help them! Thought leadership content allows you to connect with those who fit your ideal customer profile. Leading with a great piece of content that helps to improve your prospect’s day is a much better approach to building relationships. Or, even better, what if you ask your prospects to be included in a podcast or video interview series? What if you can have a conversation with your ideal prospect, build value for your community and establish a relationship – all at the same time? Well, that’s what a commitment to thought leadership allows you to do. Your focus is on creating valuable content for your entire community and the “lead” is a secondary goal.
Creates trustIt might be obvious, but people want to buy from brands they trust. Or, stated a bit differently, they want to reduce the risk of a purchasing decision. With so many tech tools on the market, people are less likely to just get “sold” by your salespeople without going through a lengthy vetting process. Thought leadership pieces where you feature industry experts, customer stories and other industry perspectives all allow you to build rapport with your audience and create a trustworthy environment. Trust will help you throughout the customer journey and likely will help you take prospects from a prospect to a customer. At the end of the day, thought leadership creates the trust needed to “close the deal” through a conversation instead of a situation where you have to convince a prospect that you’re the right partner.
Earning thought leadership
How do you become a thought leader?Ok. So, we now understand the key attributes of a thought leader and we understand the value thought leadership brings to an organization. However, what can an organization do in order to start this type of process? How can a company earn the right to be a thought leader within their industry?
- The heavy wheel is very difficult to turn.
- As you put effort into it, it starts to move.
- The more you push it (a.k.a. the more energy you put into it) the faster it moves.
- The faster it moves, the easier it becomes to push.
- Your same level of effort starts generating more and more speed.
- Eventually, the momentum of the wheel allows the wheel’s weight to generate additional speed on its own.
- You generate high-quality content that breaks through the noise by focusing on solutions to your prospects’ problems (i.e., your content is focused around the customer’s needs).
- Meanwhile, you make sure that your existing customers are receiving excellent service and getting all of their problems solved as they bring them up to you.
- You then utilize the issues brought up to customer support as topic ideas for content, helping to ease the concerns of both current and potential customers.
- By helping out your existing customer base, they become a source of referrals and leads because you are helping them to succeed, and they can confidently recommend you to their colleagues.
So, let’s go ahead and breakdown the three primary layers of the Thought Leadership Framework for B2B Technology Companies.
Customer Journey Layer
The outer layer highlights the stages of the customer journey. This outer layer is a commonly accepted set of four stages within the new flywheel approach. Here’s a description of these primary stages:
- Strangers – includes professionals who are unaware of your organization and how your technology can solve a problem that they may potentially come across (i.e., they fit your ideal customer profile, but may not experience pain points related to your technology just yet)
- Prospects – includes professionals who are in the midst of certain challenges that your technology may help them overcome; these organizations may be searching for a solution like your company offers
- Customers – includes organizations (and those professionals within the organization) who are currently or who have recently used your technology
- Promoters – includes organizations who have had a positive experience and have overcome a major challenge by implementing your technology
The next layer involves the actions an organization can take to get the flywheel to move or gain momentum. The actions to take in order to propel people through the journey include:
Here’s a table outlining various elements that are a part of each one of these sets of actions:
Social media posts
White papers / eBooks
Pillar content pages / guides
White papers / eBooks
Pillar content pages / guides / playbooks
Email sequences or campaigns
Promotions / Upsells
Email sequences or campaigns
Lastly, let’s review the innermost layer – the area which directly impacts the ideal customer. In the content layer, your organization develops content that aims to do one thing – help your ideal customer.
When you develop a content marketing strategy designed to help your ideal customer and position your organization as a thought leader, it changes everything. Your team shifts focus from “conversions” or “leads” and simply aims to provide value for ideal customers.
At Motion, this content layer is what we have added to the flywheel concept in order to make it complete for B2B technology companies. We’ve found that many of our customers, before working with us, have struggled to identify the types of content to produce in order to establish their organization as the choice in the marketplace. So, we use this strategy to develop a consistent approach to developing valuable content for ideal customers. Here’s a breakdown of the four major content areas for B2B technology companies:
- Industry Insights
- Objective – In order to help customers, this content type aims to provide unique perspectives on what’s currently happening within the industry.
- Examples – Blog posts, podcasts, videos, executive interviews, surveys/research papers, guest posts.
- Industry Trends
- Objective – In order to help customers, this content type focuses on what’s happening next (i.e., trending) within the industry.
- Examples – Blog posts, podcasts, videos, executive interviews, guest posts.
- Pillar Content / Guides
- Objective – In this case, this content type aims to provide comprehensive “how to” guides to give customers a clear roadmap to solve problems they may face.
- Examples – White papers, ebooks, how-to videos, webinars.
- Case Studies / Best Practices
- Objective – In this scenario, content strives to highlight success stories or best practices from peers in the industry. The ideal situation is when this content demonstrates outcomes related to the implementation of steps outlined in a pillar content or guide.
- Examples – White papers, ebooks, interviews, testimonials, podcasts, webinars.
Getting the most out of the framework
Additionally, you can think about your flywheel content marketing strategy in the following terms:
These three factors determine the momentum of your flywheel, or customer acquisition strategy. Let’s look at how each one affects your content marketing momentum.
How fast you spin your flywheel is akin to how much valuable content you publish and share. The more helpful content you push out for your ideal customer, the faster your flywheel spins.
Let’s think about the visual of a funnel. In a traditional sales funnel framework, the largest part of the effort goes into the “attract” stage. But in the flywheel, you’re putting in energy and distributing across all the stages. Instead of just attracting customers and then dropping them, you put similar amounts of effort into their delight and success. For technology companies, this is paramount. You want to ensure that your customers are continuing to get great value from your solution…whether they just purchased today or awhile ago.
Furthermore, this means you need to allocate budgets across marketing, sales, and customer experience areas so that all your efforts are aligned.
Friction is anything that slows down your momentum. Things like poor customer experience add friction, and to keep your marketing momentum going, you want to avoid those.
The best way to do this is to address customer issues when they occur. Don’t put these things on the backburner because when you do, you’re slowing down your entire flywheel.
In addition, if you’ve got highly specialized teams working in silos and are unaware of each other’s goals and efforts – this can also create friction. In order to have them in alignment, you need to make sure their goals are overlapping. And that involves communication that gets everyone involved and on board with the flywheel framework. For B2B technology companies, it’s crucial that your marketing, sales and customer success teams share insights around your ideal customer. In fact, when sharing information across these teams, you can generate a lot of content ideas.
The weight of your wheel is the number of delighted customers in your existing customer base. Increasing speed and decreasing friction leads to delighted customers.
Basically, as you make improvements that increase the speed of your wheel, you gain more happy customers, and they in turn increase the weight of your wheel. All of these actions make it spin even faster (i.e., you acquire even more customers, more quickly.)
Launching thought leadership
How do you implement a thought leadership program?
At this point, you now understand that it’s important to develop content, demonstrate expertise, convey a unique perspective and share information consistently with your ideal customer profile. So, how in the world do you set out to accomplish all of these objectives? How do you create content that powers the flywheel approach to marketing?
At Motion, we’ve built out an entire process for creating a thought leadership series. The programs we implement (including our very own Tech Qualified) follow this specific process every time. The process outlined in this section of the document will give you a very clear way to engage prospects, enrich your customers’ experience and ultimately attract more leads which fit into your ideal customer profile.
The primary components to the process
The thought leadership programs we implement all share a common set of components. These parts work together to ensure you have the right information for your flywheel and ultimately build your organization’s thought leadership.
Typically, we use a video series or podcast as the primary modality to drive the development of content. Once you establish the main vehicle to use, the rest of the content types and formats build off of this structure. Here’s a breakdown of the key components to the process:
- Develop outline
- Capture content
- Transcribe interview
- Identify major themes / quotes
- Edit episode
- Develop blog post / featured article
- Develop show notes / summary
- Repurpose content
The diagram on the next pages shows how to get all of these components moving and illustrates how a “thought leadership machine” can be created. If you set up your content framework this way, you’ll have a rock solid foundation for helping your customer base and positioning your technology as the choice.
Recognizing thought leadership
According to McAfee, the Hackable? podcast series “…gives us a front row seat to explore where we’re susceptible in our daily routines, without even realizing it.” The show features two hosts, one being a cybersecurity expert, to help uncover some of the biggest threats we face online. The podcast format allows McAfee to place a spotlight on cybersecurity issues and gives the organization a forum to explore the latest trends.
Check out the latest episodes which are available here.
The Pipedrive blog is full of resources for today’s modern sales professional. In addition, the organization also features a number of unique content pieces that rollout through its social channels as well. More specifically, the company produces a “meetup” series where they gather customer to chat about challenges and best practices within sales.
Check out the companies LinkedIn page to catch some of the most recent meetups.
Slack, our favorite communication tool here at Motion, produces a podcast which is released on its blog. The Slack Variety Pack is “a podcast about work, and the people and teams who do amazing work together.” On the show, Slack features best practices around workplace communication and indirectly demonstrates how to effectively use its tool. Even if you’re not a Slack user, this podcast provides some helpful tips for how to get better with your communication at work.
Check out the latest episodes from this thought leadership series here.
Wistia is a great tool for producing video experiences on your website. We use the platform here at Motion and often recommend it for clients’ sites as well. Wistia produces a lot of educational content for its user base but one of the best series it has is its Brandwagon original series. According to the website, “Wistia’s CEO, Chris Savage, chats marketing with the brains behind successful brands. Get a peek under the hood of their best campaigns, and watch as we spruce up an old station wagon along the way.”
Check out the original series on Wistia’s website.
We are big fans of Drift’s marketing strategy and execution. Even though their CMO recently left, we’re excited to see how they continue to evolve. Drift produces a range of different types of content for its community. However, one of Drift’s most interesting thought leadership series is its Drift Insider+ program. The membership program is just $99/year and offers “you exclusive access to everything we don’t share publicly, plus you’ll get early access to new swag, VIP tickets to all of our events, and you’ll get to test new Drift products before they ever hit the market.”
Check out the different thought leadership series from Drift here.
Open for Business
eBay collaborated with Gimlet to produce a podcast called Open for Business. Since starting, running and building a small business is extremely hard, this series takes a close look into how small businesses are making it work. The series dives deep into topics such as finance, pricing, hiring and customer service. In addition to the podcast format, the organization builds out several other assets, including featured articles, original photography and videos.
Check out the different the Open for Business series on eBay here.
All for Small
One of the secrets to ActiveCampaign’s growth is its dedication to customer service. From the very beginning, the organization has focused on the customer experience first and has built its marketing around this information (in fact, it brands itself as a customer experience automation company). One of the unique angles ActiveCampaign takes with its thought leadership is by producing a spotlight series. The organization takes a glimpse into their customers’ lives and produces videos and featured articles from these sessions.
6Sense has a platform that identifies intent signals from your very best customers. Essentially, the platform helps your sales team focus on the right targets at the right time. One of the organization’s main types of content is its TalkingSense series. According to the website, the series is “a collection of candid conversations with B2B industry trendsetters, covering topics like ABM, Modern Sales & Rev Ops, Marketing, and so much more.” If you’re looking to see how an organization can leverage interviews and create a variety of content pieces, this is a great example.
Check out the series at www.talkingsense.com.
Outreach.io is a very well known sales enablement platform and its grown tremendously over the last several years. One of the acquisitions the company completed recently was with Sales Hacker. Outreach.io acquired this site to help bolster its own thought leadership content. Sales Hacker is an entire community of sales professionals, featuring over 160k members. On the site, you’ll see a mix of content types – everything from videos, webinars and podcasts.
Check out the different types of content at www.saleshacker.com.