A Researcher’s Perspective: Four Commandments of Thought Leadership

Thought leadership has become the new and shiny strategy for many established and emerging brands. Every brand wants to be the opinion leader, the industry expert who defines the market and where it is heading by creating a few blog posts each month. That would be nice, right?

You may have already discovered that developing a useful and impactful thought-leadership platform is not that easy.

SMS Research Advisors has partnered with a wide range of companies to explore their potential for thought leadership. Through our research, we have identified four rules that can predict the success of a thought-leadership platform, regardless of brand size, industry or marketing budget. We call these the Four Commandments of Thought Leadership.

Commandment one: thought leadership should always be sales agnostic.

Often, when brands are looking to establish a thought-leadership platform, they have one overall goal: to increase sales. The customers (or end-users), however, have a different goal: to increase their industry knowledge or get a better understanding of the future of the industry.

Customers can sense the ulterior motive of thought leadership centered around products and services. Like the annoying salesperson at a mall kiosk, customers can tell you’re not leading the industry, you’re leading them to a sale. Sales-focused thought leadership causes you to waste time, money, and expertise and lose your customer’s trust

Commandment two: you can’t tell your customers what they want…

Marketers often assume they know what their customers want to hear about but echo the same messages over and over: products, features, trends, products, features, trends, ad nauseum. However, thought leadership that resonates with customers requires an in-depth understanding of customer needs, or as we call them, their key drivers. It’s the difference between knowing the information the customer wants vs. why they want it.

Recently, a manufacturing client was looking to establish a thought-leadership platform around production effectiveness and standards. During our interviews, however, we uncovered that while production standards were important, they did not drive additional value. Instead, efficiency emerged as a large pain point in the industry and an opportunity for the client to drive value for the end-user. By uncovering end users’ hidden needs, our client was able to deliver insightful information and establish trust with the brand beyond products and services.

Commandment three: … or how and when they want it.

Thought leadership doesn’t (and shouldn’t) always be a blog post. Often, brands use channels that are the most convenient to them. While it may be authentic and insightful, the thought-leadership platform will fail if it doesn’t come in the right form or at the right time.

One client, a product manufacturer, was looking to establish an online thought-leadership platform: the mecca of all things cleaning. However, we found that end-users rarely search for cleaning information and tips outside of work hours – if at all. For this client, an effective thought-leadership platform would have to be promoted and accessible during work hours.

Commandment 4: trustworthiness is essential for thought leadership.

Here is the Catch-22 of thought leadership: you need thought leadership to establish trust, but you need to be trustworthy to create successful thought leadership.

We look at trustworthiness as culmination of the first three commandments. To be considered trustworthy, the thought leadership should be authentic (sales agnostic), insightful (information customers want/need), and relevant (how and when it is needed).

A good thought-leadership platform can create undying customer loyalty, define the industry, and help your brand become a household name. Bad thought leadership, however, can destroy the trustworthiness of your brand. Choose wisely.

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