Business buyers don’t buy your product; they buy into your approach to solving their problems.

Most B2B marketers need to position their firms as thought leaders on the issues their buyers face. This is easier said than done, because marketing mindsets focused primarily on brands, products, and offerings makes it difficult for marketers to develop interesting content that captures their buyers’ attention.Forrester's Framework For Thought Leadership Marketing

A lack of skills and experience in developing customer-focused content make it difficult to produce engaging content. Our benchmark study showed 87% of marketers struggle to produce engaging content. (subscription required)  And most firms don’t have a process or framework for managing thought leadership marketing initiatives, so they push out product brochures and white papers thinly disguised as thought leadership content.

As a result, buyers don’t find B2B content engaging because the digital world gives them more power to form buying decisions alone. To intercept these buyers when they begin to discover issues and start to explore options; marketing and sales teams need to put your firm’s points of view out there for prospects and customers to see. Really provocative or forward-leaning points of view help to not only attract an audience, but build interactions.  Doing this is thought leadership marketing.

When done right, thought leadership marketing is a way to stand out from the competition, create interest, and earn the trust of potential buyers early in their problem-solving process. This makes potential buyers more likely to seek out your firm when they enter the purchase cycle. Forrester defines thought leadership marketing as:

The process of formulating big ideas and insightful points of view on the issues your buyers face, capturing those ideas in multiple content vehicles and sharing the ideas with prospects and customers to enlighten them, engage them in a dialogue, that creates an exchange of value, and position your company as a trusted resource.

To successfully engage B2B buyers, thought leadership marketing must check off some key attributes that go beyond content and solution marketing. To provoke and engage the right audience, thought leadership must present:

  • A clear, compelling point of view. Thought leadership marketing doesn’t just educate potential buyers about an issue; it provides a strong point of view that brings new insight and thinking to an issue. For example, Deloitte publishes “Global Human Capital Trends” to share thought leadership about the changing nature of work. It this series, Deloitte takes a strong position on what it takes to make human resources management more agile and forward-thinking as well as bolder in its solutions.
  • Actionable advice. Thought leadership provides persuasive and practical guidance on what clients should do now. After absorbing your thought leadership perspectives, clients should feel better equipped to tackle an issue or make a decision. For example, KPMG International doesn’t just report on regulatory changes, it publishes concrete recommendations for what companies need to do to ensure they comply with new regulations.
  • A tone that starts a dialogue. In telling the story, thought leadership does not shut down the conversation with a one-sided argument. Rather, it invites people to participate in a dialogue and expand on ideas and encourages audience members to share their own views on the subject with others. For example, glass-packaging manufacturer Owens-Illinois encourages its customers and enthusiasts to share the reasons why they choose glass products on its site, a destination dedicated to exploring social issues and creating inspiring moments that show why glass is cool, beautiful, innovative, and more sustainable.
  • No mention of products, services, or offers. While thought leadership output should talk about an approach to solving problems that align with the strengths of your offerings, true thought leadership should not talk about your products or services at all. It should be helpful to potential customers even if they don’t buy from you every time. True thought leadership should be a gift to the market that is given without any expectation of immediate commercial return.

Any B2B company that solves complex problems should create a set of strategic objectives, resources, and processes that make thought leadership happen as a part of its marketing strategy.  To make thought leadership marketing an effective editorial endeavor – and pay off in tangible results to the business – Forrester developed a four-step framework for thought leadership marketing. Using this framework, marketers must:
Identify the audience members you want to engage, understand the issues they face, and determine what impression you want that audience to have of your firm.

  1. Develop a thought leadership platform consisting of one big idea about the trends affecting your industry and a hierarchy of supporting points of view on the major issues your audience faces.
  2. Engage the audience previously identified in a true dialogue by developing a communication plan that distributes your thought leadership ideas across all own, earned, and paid channels.
  3. Assess the outreach in terms of leads, sales, and market influence.

Great thought leadership takes a committed, consistent approach.  After evaluating your readiness for thought leadership marketing against Forrester’s 4-step framework, you may decide you are not yet ready take the plunge.  That’s okay because the framework principles can help improve the impact of any content marketing you undertake. Please take a moment to look further at the research (subscription required) and let me how you are using thought leadership to create new ways to engage with customers.