Thought leadership on a budget

How to develop a practical plan

Why thought leadership?

There’s a lot of talk about thought leadership these days. Most companies or brands aspire to be a recognised and respected entity in the marketplace, especially in the B2B sector. So, what is meant by thought leadership, and why is it such a desirable status?

The formal definition of thought leadership would be something like: a person or organisation that possesses distinctive insights into a subject, and by sharing those insights, guides and influences others.

However, in simple terms, we would say that it is the development and sharing of expertise in a way that earns trust. And it is those last two words that makes it such a desirable status – because people buy from companies they trust.

 

A touch of reality for B2B SMEs

Becoming a thought leader can be a daunting prospect for organisations that are not centuries-old blue-chip companies. But this is where common sense should prevail. Something is better than nothing.

Every business that successfully delivers value to customers has some level of expertise. Finding an effective way to leverage that expertise is the first step on the path towards thought leadership.

It’s better to have one authoritative whitepaper than none. Or two case studies that demonstrate expertise through the solutions provided, rather than no proof of competency at all. The first bricks are then laid. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

 

We created our simple 4-step framework for developing and maintaining thought leadership, based on our experience of helping clients.

 

Step 1: Identify your target audience needs

The first action to take is relatively simple. Identify your target audience and clarify what pain points, knowledge gaps and interests they have. You may already know this through your engagement with the market, or your customer-facing staff may be able to tell you.

Briefing customer-facing staff with the task of finding out what areas of help are looked for can be very effective. A one-month focus on asking questions about customer concerns or frustrations can reveal demands for help and guidance that are quite possibly felt across an industry.

And then there are forums, discussion panels, industry articles and suchlike that can reveal trending topics and questions within a market. Zing provides this type of research if you are hard-pressed to conduct it yourselves.

 

Step 2: Pinpoint your thought leadership sweet spot

This second step is the critical one. But it must flow out of step one. Once you have identified your target audience needs, you should review your company’s core expertise. And if you think you don’t have significant expertise, think of it as your area of focus. What is your company passion and purpose?

Now consider how that expertise relates to the needs and questions that you’ve identified within your target audience. The correlation between the two is the beginning of your thought leadership sweet spot – subjects that you can speak passionately and authentically on, that your target audience want to know about.

In establishing your thought leadership approach, it’s important to identify the golden thread that will run through all that you do. The underlying philosophy that you are propounding.

Working with our client RVT Group in 2016, we identified that while their business offering was hire of specialist equipment to control dust, fume and noise on site, their underlying philosophy was ‘protecting long-term health on site’. With the emotive catchphrase of ‘every life counts’, they set themselves to provide valuable guidance and help to the construction industry. In three short years, they have established themselves as an industry authority on the subject, regularly publishing informative and authoritative content, and speaking alongside the HSE and other recognised bodies.

The example above also demonstrates the final ingredient that creates the ultimate sweet spot for thought leadership. When you apply your expertise to address both knowledge gaps within your target audience, and also concerns within wider society, then you have a truly strong foundation for becoming a valued voice. And if those wider societal concerns can have an emotional aspect to them, all the better!

Step 3: Create content related to the sweet spot

Once you have established your thought leadership golden thread that hits that sweet spot, then you can go about creating content – whitepapers, training materials, articles, videos, case studies, speeches, etc. But this is where many companies flounder. Because while they may have a lot of internal knowledge, they can’t articulate it. Or their internal knowledge is limited, and they just have a broad idea of what knowledge their target audience requires.

Up to this point, most of the activity within our 4-step framework can be done in-house, within a manageable time commitment. At this stage, you may well need outside support, unless you have specialist writers and graphic designers within your team. Creation of authoritative content requires a specific skill set, and it is at this stage that we at Zing provide the most support to our clients.

For companies with limited internal knowledge, commissioning the creation of authoritative content has doubled up as training material to increase the knowledge of internal staff, making it a twin-win!

 

Step 4: Optimise your communication types and channels

The final step is to ensure that the content you create is attuned to your target audience in its format and its method of delivery. In other words, the decision of whether to create whitepapers or infographics, videos or in-person presentations, and how then to deliver that content to your target audience.

These decisions should be based closely on the characteristics of your audience, but often it is best to include a mix of formats and delivery channels, and monitor the effectiveness of each.

Perhaps the one overriding recommendation when it comes to delivery of your thought leadership, is to strive for face-to-face contact wherever possible. Speaking at an event, delivering a CPD, or hosting an industry round-table discussion, all provide invaluable people-to-people interactions, further inspiring trust.

 


We named this article ‘Thought leadership on a budget’ because the approach is scalable. The principles in our 4-step framework hold true, whether you intend investing hundreds or thousands in your quest for thought leadership. And following this framework, there is a lot that you can do in-house without incurring outside expense.

If at any stage, you would like outside support, we would gladly provide it. Good luck!

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