Guest Blog Post: Dan Latimore
In a February 2012 survey that was conducted by Solutions Insights and ITSMA on Anatomy of Solutions Marketer only 6% of solutions marketers listed as one of their top three challenges “Creating thought leadership to support solutions approaches.” Either they've got this problem solved, or they regard it as being relatively unimportant compared to the top three issues they identified:
- Enabling the sales force to sell solutions;
- Working across organizational silos; and
- Identifying market opportunities and targeting the appropriate audience.
The good news is that a properly executed thought leadership program helps address all of these issues. And incidentally, items 4 and 5 – Communicating the solutions value proposition and Differentiating from competitors and creating brand awareness – are also addressed by a well planned and executed Thought Leadership program.
Many different definitions of thought leadership exist, and each organization ultimately has to decide what makes sense given its particular business goals and focus. There are, however, several common elements that recur. First and most critically, thought leadership is not pure marketing collateral – although the two should complement each other. Second, thought leadership should be fact-based. Third, it should address a clearly defined client issue. And fourth, it should be forward looking and novel – after all, it’s not called thought followership!
So, let’s take each of the top three challenges we initially identified and see how thought leadership can help address them.
Enabling the sales force:
A key element of solutions selling is helping clients identify their needs. Clients are hungry – ravenous even – for insights about what their competitors are doing and how others in their space have addressed the challenges they face. A properly constructed piece of research provides clients these insights and gives the sales force a set of issues to discuss in consultative way. Good thought leadership enables a solutions firm to embrace the “freemium” strategy that so many apps developers use: provide something of value to clients, while enticing them pay for a deeper engagement or a personalized experience.
Working across silos:
Strategically conceived research efforts will draw on expertise from all parts of the organization. Research should be neither a solitary activity, nor the sole province of a single consultant or thought leader. The key researcher should tap into the network of the organization, both internal and external, to create a compelling piece of content that colleagues will feel comfortable using because they’ve contributed to it and therefore feel ownership.
Identifying new market opportunities and the appropriate audience:
During the course of the engagement, the researcher should at the very least be validating hypotheses about the firm’s solution(s). When done really well, however, research uncovers latent market opportunities in a way that a more sales-oriented effort might not be able to, simply because of the different dynamics inherent in conversations driven by different purposes. Further, during the course of interviews, the researcher should be able to more precisely define the target audience for the research and, potentially, for the eventual new solution. A good thought leadership effort serves as a key part of a solutions company’s R&D process.
Maturity of a Thought Leadership program:
A high-level thought leadership process map encompasses nine key elements:
- Selecting a topic
- Defining an audience
- Determining a deployment strategy
- Scoping the project to determine appropriate level of effort
- Deciding on methodology
- Choosing appropriate suite of deliverables
- Deploying the work through appropriate channels
- Measuring impact
- Incorporating lessons learned
Below I’ve classified typical practices at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. See where you are today, and consider what it would take to get you to the next level along each dimension.
|Selecting a topic||Focused on existing solution company is trying to sell||Client needs inform research, with focus on areas where company can help||Client needs drive topic selection with aim of informing development of new solutions|
|Defining an audience||Broad, undifferentiated||Targeted to a specific role or industry||Targeted to a specific role within an industry (e.g., Retailing CFO)|
|Determining a deployment strategy||No effort until piece is completed||Planning starts a couple of weeks before completion||Deployment strategy addressed at beginning of research|
|Scoping the project||Quick (2-6 week) project, 1-2 people part time||4-12 week effort, 1-3 people part time||6 week to 6 month project, at least one full time resource with participation from several other team members|
|Deciding on methodology||Experience-based, drawing on lessons from one or two engagements||Informed by experience, augmented by secondary research||Driven by primary research, including interviews / questionnaires|
|Choosing the deliverables||Single article posted once and left alone||Foundational article supplemented by supporting works, including social media||Prior deliverables, with robust supporting work, including marketing collateral, PR, further articles exploring particular implications of research|
|Deploying the work||Post PDF on website||Target certain prospects for meetings to discuss findings||Undertake Multi-channel effort, including social media and feedback from consumers of the research|
|Measuring impact||Anecdotal||Assessment of web traffic||Robust scorecard tracking key metrics over time|
|Incorporating lessons Learned||No formal process for incorporating data||Individual practitioners consciously assess what worked and what didn’t||Team formally conducts after-action review and recommends areas of emphasis and de-emphasis for next time|
Thought Leadership is but one part of the interconnected web of resources available to solutions providers. Solutions professionals will maximize research’s impact when they view it as part of a complex solutions system, rather than a stand-alone effort with only a single point of connection to the marketing group.
About the author:
Dan Latimore has led strategic research groups (IBM’s Institute for Business Value and Deloitte Research) for the last dozen years. A frequent author and speaker, particularly on financial services topics, he can be reached at email@example.com.