Let’s face it, most so-called “thought leadership” is actually nothing of the sort. Much of it turns out to be a crude rehashing of already widely quoted statistics and crudely disguised product promotion.
All-too-often, it does little or nothing to actually stimulate the reader to think differently or to reconsider their existing beliefs.
Nor - typically - does it cause the reader to want to learn more, or to be prepared to talk to someone who can continue their education.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions. But because every marketing department is seemingly being chartered to throw more and more resources at creating “thought leadership”, its quality and impact - its capacity to shock and surprise - is frequently compromised.
And in complex B2B sales the above problems are merely scratching the surface - because I believe that even if the marketing message is expertly crafted, there’s still a critical missing ingredient…
That ingredient is the subsequent sales conversation. If the concept is complicated enough, or if the ideas are challenging enough, your audience will want to discuss them and test the relevance to their own environment.
I’ve referred to this looming disconnect between the marketing message and the sales conversation in previous articles, but I’ve got no evidence that the problem has gone away.
If anything, the ever-growing volume of miscategorised “thought leadership” has made the problem worse, and even more urgent. That’s why in complex B2B sales environments I believe we need to rethink how we establish thought leadership.
Surely a better approach is to define the sort of conversation we want to have and work backwards to create the messages and materials that are going to stimulate the reader to want to have that discussion.
Elmer Wheeler coined the phrase “sell the sizzle not the steak” in the 1920s, and if you think about it, this is a principle that can be appropriately applied here as well.
We don’t want our “thought leadership” pieces to give our prospects all the answers: we need them to intrigue the reader to want to learn more, and to believe that they can best achieve this by engaging us in a proper conversation.
Of course, this also means that we need to keep our side of the bargain: we need to ensure that we resist the temptation to descend immediately into a tedious product pitch or a series of dull qualifying questions.
We need to be conscious that we earn the right to continue the sales conversation only by sharing a stream of information that is valuable - and preferably in some respects unexpected - with the customer.
We need to share genuine insights, and we need to tailor what we share with the prospect - and what we ask from them - in a way that qualifies their interest and motivates them to invest yet more of their time.
You see, true thought leadership is established through intelligent dialogue, and not the one-way traffic of a published white paper or similar marketing materials, no matter how cleverly and carefully crafted.
So whenever somebody declares that your organisation needs more thought leadership, remind them that the real changing of minds happens as a result of intelligent conversations, and that whatever you choose to publish should just be seen as the precursor to a dialogue that leaves the prospect better educated and more inclined to want to work with you than they were before.
That’s why I believe that marketing departments should stop creating any more isolated “thought leadership” pieces until they have collaborated with the sales organisation to agree what conversations they intend to stimulate and facilitate.
It’s why I believe that no piece of marketing material intended to support a complex B2B sales environment can be regarded as complete until and unless it is accompanied by talking points and a conversation guide the sales people can confidently use.
And that’s why I believe we need to reengineer our concept of what we really mean by thought leadership.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales and the Founder of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B value selling specialists. Following a successful career spanning start-ups to corporates, Bob now works with a growing client base of growth-phase tech-based businesses, equipping and enabling them to systematically create and capture mutually value in every customer interaction.