What should customers do with your thought leadership, anyway?

Jan 9, 2017

So you and your subject-matter authors have labored long and hard to produce a brilliant thought leadership paper. It’s got a bold, well-differentiated argument. There’s a clear “why now.” It’s jam-packed with lively examples and proprietary data.

But what will your target readers do with it? What do you want them to get out of the content? Crucially, how do you want them to respond to your firm as a result?

If you answered “pick up the phone and give us a contract,” then you may as well give the sales team the rest of the month off. That call ain’t gonna happen.

As I’ve blogged previously, thought leadership is a proven way for organizations – especially those selling services and solutions – to start filling the marketing funnel. But let’s flip that and look at it from the customer’s perspective. Customers don’t put themselves into a funnel – but they do go on what marketers call “the buyer’s journey.”

At the beginning of the journey – a.k.a. the awareness phase – they have just begun to look for information that will help them solve their challenges or make it easier for them to pursue new opportunities. They’re looking for insight, resources, data, research, answers, and opinions.

At this point, the emphasis is on “listen to our big ideas” or “view your challenges through this lens” as opposed to “bring us in next week to solve your business problem.”

So what might your big ideas do for your customer? And as a result, for you? Here are some possible outcomes:

For the customer: Reframe the problem. Your big ideas can help them look with new eyes at what ails them, and that can help them solve the problem faster or with fewer resources, or both. Whether it’s a CFO formulating her currency-risk strategy or a CEO grappling with sustainable growth, the reader is looking for best practices and proven approaches for meeting a need.

For your firm: Put you on their radar. Your big ideas can raise your credibility as a great source of top-notch insight on the topic they’re preoccupied with – and as a probable source of the kinds of services they may soon need to tackle their challenges. You may not know they’ve got you on their radar, but they do.

For the customer: Validate their perspectives. Your ideas can provide independent snapshots of the market forces at work in their industry. For example, a C-level exec in the semiconductor industry will value your unbiased third-party perspective of market-research data on the competitive landscape, regulatory changes, and pricing pressures.

For your firm: Cultivate trust. By showing that you “get it” – that you know his industry really well – you’ve got his attention, and are on the way to earning his trust. You’ve probably nudged him closer to the consideration phase of the marketing funnel.

For the customer: Cross-pollinate best practices. Your paper or article may demonstrate that what works in one industry may work in another. Let’s say your insurance client already knows your firm for its expertise in the digitalization of customer service. A well-crafted white paper on consumers’ use of mobile technology in retail banking could spark innovative new ideas for insurers too.

For your firm: Showcase your experience across industries. By showing prospects what works in other industries, your firm has a  better chance of being added to their RFP lists.

For the customer: Envision disruption. Your publication may help them anticipate challenges they don’t yet see – for example, challenges coming directly from technology or from a slew of start-ups with disruptive approaches. Although it’s not your job to play futurist, chances are your firm can spot patterns that the customer doesn’t yet see because you interact with a wide spectrum of companies in their industry, and in other industries besides.

For your firm: Demonstrate your forward focus. Your publication will make it more likely that you’re invited in for a conversation about what’s over the horizon and how to prepare for it.

The thread running through these scenarios is “building awareness.” You can never expect your readers to buy from you off the back of thought leadership – because they’re not ready yet.  

But they may find your thought leadership content compelling and persuasive. There’s a good chance they’ll remember that it helped shape their thinking. They may well be open to hearing more of it – which is one reason why you should keep up the steady drumbeat of content – a series of blogs, say, that pick up on particular strands of the argument in your original paper.

Then, at some point, your customers will start moving into the consideration phase – actively looking for providers of solutions to the challenges that your content may have helped them identify and articulate. Now that you’ve got their ear, they may soon be ready for other forms of content– pieces such as cases studies, data sheets, and brochures. And then, once they reach the decision phase, they’ll be ready for that conversation about a contract or engagement – ideally in person, face to face.

Now let’s go back to the question: what should customers do with your thought leadership content? Read it. Learn from it. Be engaged by it – so much so that they want to know more. So they know your firm’s name. And so they associate that name with expertise in solving their trickiest challenges.