A few years ago at a conference, a man gave me his business card that read “Thought Leadership SVP,” and he said he ran a whole department that came up with the “big ideas” in his company. Really? It seemed like a Dilbert cartoon moment. I was also thinking about the inevitable next economic downturn and how easy it would be to label this department with a new word: Overhead.
I find the term “thought leadership” pretentious. By definition, thought leaders are the recognized experts in their field who are considered authorities and educators. In other words, they are fonts of wisdom, and somehow that knowledge is meant to keep or capture business. Here is my problem with this approach: Consumers in the digital world are more empowered and open to multiple sources of information and ideas. They sample and choose what is relevant to them. They don’t just read news and information, they engage with it. They are looking for ideas and conversation starters.
You don’t own their respect, your earn it.
In my opinion, this is why content marketing as a strategy is very different from thought leadership, and why it is so important today. In contrast to thought leadership, content marketing is open architecture—you don’t just produce ideas, you have insight to collect ideas that your audience will appreciate. As in most arenas where open architecture is valued, this engenders trust. Since there is a huge over-supply of valuable articles and information out there, the material must be sorted. The art of content marketing is curation, or collecting for display.
There really is a skill in finding the right mix of information delivered the right way at the right time. Your goal is to make it easier for people in a world of information overload, and if you are a good curator, you are showing the best of the best for your audience. You know you are successful when they choose to follow you.
The traditional marketing approach is going the way of the dinosaurs.
So what is the point of all of this idea sharing? In the old days it was to prove how smart you were. Your client would feel validated: Having chosen such an astute expert made them smart, too. Many firms in my industry are stuck here, but very few of these firms measure readership rates or effectiveness; they just keep doing what they have always done. I’ve done the research: customers are bored by the traditional stuff.
People read what is interesting and enjoyable.
With content marketing, the first thing I try to achieve is to become more woven into the client’s or prospect’s daily life, which means you have to know who you are talking to. Have an audience—your target market—in mind. Be interesting and relevant to them, offering short bites they can either quickly scan or peruse. My mindset with our firm’s e-magazine is that I am not in the financial services business; I am in the lifestyle business. Money and life are entwined. We’re pulling information across a wide range of newsfeeds and delivering it to our clients in a fresh, compelling format, with the ability to customize the content based on their interests. Our “voice” comes through where we have a piece or two of our own content, and when we comment on the other articles. A simple “We think you will really like this!” is very effective.
Create conversations and encourage sharing.
We’ve all become accustomed to websites that ask your opinion, provide reader reviews or offer various sorts of chat options. What’s happening is that two-way conversations are being created, not one-way thought leadership. The other interesting change is that the day of “proprietary information,” where the “good stuff” sat behind a client login, is gone. Ideas and information are shared everywhere, and in fact, your goal should be for your clients and prospects to share ideas from you on their social networks. Encourage them, make it easy and cherish every “share,” “like,” “pin” or other badge you get. These people are referrals for your new prospects.
Skill, time and technology are required.
Years ago, you needed one or two “smart” people, maybe an outside writer, and the marketing communications channels from print to digital. In retrospect, it was pretty simple and a level playing field if you had some good ideas to publish. Today, for small and mid-sized businesses, this is a whole new approach requiring strategic marketing and curation skills, time to maintain the quality and cadence of content, and technology to not only publish but manage the program and measure your results. For instance, in financial services, we have to link CRM, publishing, compliance, digital analytics and other functions to even get started.
Get going, one step at a time.
If the whole notion of content marketing seems daunting, you can still make small positive changes that have a big impact. Start by asking, “How can I bring ideas to my clients and prospects to interest them and create more two-way conversations?” Could you add third party content to your newsletter, or simply email some articles to clients saying, “This made me think of you!” Have you defined your space too narrowly (a car dealer, talking about the cars they sell) or taken a fully creative approach to what, when and how you communicate (a car dealer, sharing ideas for the best scenic drives this summer).
What we all really want when we invest in marketing communications are followers and fans. Look past what you thought you knew about “thought leadership,” and you will see that a dynamic and relevant content marketing strategy is much more effective.