The concept of thought leadership has dominated the content marketing conversation for the last several years: Everyone from IBM to Whole Foods was buying in to the theory that if you demonstrate subject matter expertise in your field, consumers will become invested in your brand and sold in as future customers. And many of the predicted effects of thought-leader campaigns have proven true: They foster trust among consumers. They build affinity for the brand, which strengthens the customer relationship from early on.
But brands encounter a major problem when thought leadership-focused content marketing doesn’t translate to an increase in business. They might be tempted to think the model is broken, but chances are, they didn’t have the model right from the get-go. Let’s examine a couple ways thought leadership strategies commonly fall short.
Problems to Avoid
They prioritize expertise over insight. The big push toward thought leadership stemmed, in part, from several studies (one from ITSMA in particular echoed throughout the industry) reporting that consumers wanted thought leadership from the companies they buy from. This was interpreted to mean that brands should focus on educating the public instead of explaining how their products or services make consumers’ lives better, easier, cheaper, etc.
But providing free information is not a way to increase revenue in and of itself. In order for consumers to take action that involves a purchase, they need to be convinced to change their current behavior in some way—the information they receive needs to compel them toward a decision. The way the marketing field categorizes this type of information is called “disruptive insight.”
Recent CEB research, which involved more than 5,000 B2B purchase participants across 12 industries, found that merely presenting a “smart or expert perspective” does very little to impact customers’ decision-making process. It revealed that only content that teaches customers something new about their business and provides a compelling reason to change their behavior has the power to affect how the decision making plays out. And CEB’s definition of insight goes like this: “Insight is designed to disrupt the customer’s view of their business. It juxtaposes the cost of current behavior against the potential of an alternate action. This breaks the customer’s frame of mind.”
How does this play out in the real world? Take, for instance, a web development company that specializes in mobile solutions. If a certain new platform on the market is causing problems, the company could take to its blog and broadcast the issue. Maybe it even offers “insight” into why the problems are happening. This information is all useful to consumers. But it doesn’t prompt anyone to call the company and contract its services.
The firm needs to give consumers a compelling reason. So instead, it takes to the blog, reports the news, and then explains how it can remedy the problem for any businesses that rely on that platform. It could share a case study about how it migrated a client to a new platform quickly and easily to eliminate disruptions. The second approach still emphasizes leadership, but it’s leadership through action.
They never make the ask. While it’s an elegant idea—to believe you can preach your company’s wisdom from a podium and inquisitive, information-hungry consumers will gratefully take the initiative to buy from you in return—it’s a model that works only for maybe a handful of the most prestigious, luxury companies in the world.
At the end of the day, if you are in the business of selling, you need to ask for the sale, whether this happens via a “Click to Buy” button on your website or at the end of an email or at the end of a phone call. If you are publishing blog posts to demonstrate thought leadership, always circle back to your solutions, your products, your services. Always include the call to action. Otherwise, you’ll permanently end up in the business of giving away knowledge for free.
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