Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute recently took companies to task in an assessment of branded content that he published on LinkedIn. “The majority of content produced by brands through blog posts, enewsletters, social media posts, print magazines and webinars is flat out awful,” he wrote, noting that nine out of 10 companies produce content like media companies to attract and retain customers. He indicated that one of the problems with branded content is that the vast majority of brands lack an actual strategy. Enter Dr. Liz Alexander and Craig Badings of Leading Thought, who have published a new online course to help brands get grounded in a form of content marketing known as thought leadership, or the creation of ideas that advance the state of the art in any given field. And I’m happy to report that Liz and Craig devoted a chapter of the curriculum the thought leadership strategy I created for digital agency iCrossing (where I managed thought leadership, social media, and influencer outreach for more than two years). My key take-away for Liz and Craig: an effective thought leadership strategy must flow from the needs of your own brand.
The contents of my interview with Craig, conducted earlier in 2013, are available for purchase as part of the course, which also includes insights from the likes of thought leader Jeff Bullas. However, I’ve been granted permission to cite a few of the highlights of my interview. Here are three questions you should always ask when you create a thought leadership strategy, based on my experiences at iCrossing and the ideas I shared with Craig:
1. What does your brand stand for?
You can create interesting thought leadership if you don’t understand your brand — but your ideas will be off topic, off tone, and off strategy, thus confusing your audience rather than attracting potential clients. That’s why it’s essential that you connect your thought leadership to your brand personality, messages, and strategy. If your brand stands for being edgy and cutting edge, then your thought leadership should adopt an edgy tone. If you aspire to be a global brand, then your choice of topics should appeal to an international audience, and you should go out of your way to represent your company with international thought leaders.
The strategy behind the iCrossing thought leadership program is actually quite simple: thought leadership supports iCrossing’s mission of connectedness, or creating closer relationships with customers by being useful, usable, visible, desirable, and engaging. The entire iCrossing brand is built upon the notion of connectedness. Accordingly, iCrossing thought leadership in its many forms — whether points of view or blogs — show brands how to live the tenets of connectedness.
But to be credible, iCrossing also has to live connectedness via its thought leadership. So iCrossing supports its brand by publishing content that is useful, usable, desirable, visible, and engaging. Being engaging, for instance, means embracing visual storytelling. Being visible means employing a strong organic search and content distribution strategy.
2. Who is your audience?
Thought leadership also supports an important marketing goal that I had been leading at iCrossing while I was senior vice president of marketing: get the brand closer to the CMO. As I mentioned to Craig, a laser-like focus on a CMO “helps iCrossing be very specific and clear about their choice of content, the tone of that content, and the way they deliver it.” For instance, to make iCrossing content resonate with busy CMOs, I needed to coach iCrossing bloggers, authors, and video creators to always speak in terms of business and brand benefits — to tell the CMO, “What’s in it for me” — and to do so immediately, as in the first paragraph of any written content. I also collaborated with my colleagues to launch a “CMO series” of white papers that explain the impact of digital marketing and technology to the CMO, an example being The CMO’s Guide to Pinterest.
Getting the iCrossing brand aligned with the CMO is indeed an aspirational goal. One way to get there is to share CMO-worthy ideas and to use language that CMOs understand — even if most of your current buyers are one or two levels beneath the CMO. If you want to be viewed as CMO-worthy, you need to start acting CMO worthy.
3. How will you share your thought leadership?
There’s no point creating thought leadership if you and your audience are unable to find each other. In fact, distribution plays a far more crucial role in your thought leadership strategy than ever before. Sharing thought leadership used to be a simple affair: brands created reports and relied on emails, newsletters, your website, and face-to-face interaction. Those methods remain important, but the proliferation of platforms, devices, and social media channels has made it possible for brands to be far more nimble and ubiquitous with their content — and, of course, be as visually arresting and interactive as your smartphones and tablets will permit.
One 2,000-word white paper can be repurposed as a series of blog posts, byline on a third-party site, a presentation, or a video shared across social spaces ranging from Facebook, to SlideShare, to Google+, depending on where your brand lives. And smart paid media and organic search strategies can maximize the value of a post across the digital world in more targeted ways. In my interview with Craig, I refer to the process of maximizing multiple channels and content formats as as “hustling content.”
Even better, your distribution strategy should include reaching out to key influencers. As Craig points out, my sharing iCrossing’s thought leadership with influencers like Forrester Research improved iCrossing’s visibility and caught his and Liz Alexander’s eye.
I can think of many other questions you should ask as you create your strategy. But these are the questions you should always ask, and they formed the basis of the story I shared with Craig. If these suggestions make you feel like you’re acting more like a publisher than a brand, well, that’s the point. Brands such as Red Bull do, in fact, act like publishers all the time. Agencies such as Razorfish and SapientNitro rely on thought leadership because thought capital fuels their work. As I said to Craig, “To be seen as a thought leader, make sure you think like a publisher and coach your employees to think, write, and present like thought leaders.”
Thank you to Craig and Liz for the opportunity to contribute to How Thought Leadership Works.