Is Thought Leadership The Future of Marketing?

thought leadership ideas and content marketing
thought leadership ideas and content marketing

In our last interview, Steve McKee asked if Big Data was the future of marketing.

In previous interviews, Doug Kessler talked about creating a content culture, Todd Wheatland predicted that content and technology would combine to drive the future of marketing. Mark Schaefer discussed culture and the future of search. Marcus Starke predicted the rise of the science of marketing. Ann Handley called for more brands to become Content Brands. And Alan See reiterated that the customer and the content is king.

Today’s Future of Marketing interview is with Dr. Liz Alexander (@DrLizAlexander). I invite you to connect with Liz on Facebook or LinkedIn. I met Liz thanks to her insightful and constructive comments on my Forbes article “What is Thought Leadership?” So I thought it would be great to get her views here.

Tell us: who is Liz Alexander?

Global hybrid: Born in Scotland, raised in England, US citizen since 2009; in India two months of the year working with clients; my co-author and business partner, Craig Badings, is in Sydney, Australia.

I work with corporate executives and consultants, provoking questions and solutions to help them discover and communicate their unique thought leadership space. My 14th nonfiction book is #Thought Leadership Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign. Favorite word is “why?”

Tell us about a tough or interesting challenge you’re involved in.

Changing the conversation around thought leadership. That term probably inspired groans from readers who feel this is simply the latest contender for Buzzword Bingo. I don’t blame them. You can barely turn a corner without bumping into some self-appointed thought leader or self-labeled thought leadership piece.

When the term was first coined at the end of the 1990s it described “renowned thinkers” focused on “the big questions,” who could “provide profound insights into how today’s managers can go about positioning their companies for ongoing success,” according to Joel Kurtzman’s book Thought Leaders: Insights on the Future of Business.

It’s now being used to describe “proven approaches,” “best practice,” “how to” guides and is commonly considered to be synonymous with content marketing, which it isn’t. Too many articles and blog posts focus on tactics: how and where to position yourself as a thought leader or ways to ensure visibility. Few question the quality of what’s being described as thought leadership.

Fiona Czerniawska of UK-based Source for Consulting, which conducts analyses of thought leadership by leading global consulting firms, recently stated: “An awful lot of thought leadership continues to be really about what other people do.” The challenge is to turn away from short-term mediocrity and “up the ante.”

How do you suggest we approach that challenge?

First, awareness: If what is passed off as “thought leadership” continues to devolve into curated content and tactical approaches then you can forget about leveraging the outcomes that true exemplars experience: like the 600% increase in US sales that Dove reported just two months after launching their Campaign for Real Beauty; or the 20% increase in brand value claimed by IBM in response to its Smarter Planet campaign; or the impact that Blue Dart Express’ is having in India championing corporate social responsibility with their Living Corporate Responsibility campaign.

Second, by asking better questions. The battery market is an illustrative example:

Panasonic’s Any Battery Light is designed to be compatible with four different sized batteries. But how long before some other company makes a flashlight that works with six or eight?

Leyden Energy, an advanced battery startup, is innovating around different materials and battery chemistries in response to faster battery replacement cycles. They’re competing in a crowded marketplace with the likes of Sony, Toyota, Samsung, Amprius, Envia, QuantumScape and others.

WiTricity is by passing batteries or connected power sources altogether, developing ways to charge electronic and other products wirelessly, similar to how computers access Wi-Fi. GravityLight is similarly innovative.

Each of these companies has defined the “problem” differently. Only WiTricity, in my view, is thought leading given that their approach inspires others to think about a world in which products have no need for batteries, plugs or wiring.

Third, by having a strategic thought leadership process and making it part of the culture of the organization.  We describe this thoroughly in our book #Thought Leadership Tweet.

What’s your prediction for the future of marketing?

Both of these concern different ways of thinking.

ExactTarget’s Marketers from Mars report and the Hinge Research Institute’s How Buyers Buy study identified considerable differences between marketers and their customers. Hinge found many inaccurate perceptions that marketers hold, including what buyers’ value and their biggest challenges and priorities. In terms of the disparity between the online habits of marketers and customers, ExactTarget concluded that, “When it comes to investing a brand’s marketing time and resources, newer isn’t always better.”

If marketers don’t stop thinking of themselves as “a focus group of one,” as ExactTarget puts it, the chasm will only widen between highly successful, truly client-centric companies and the “also-rans” who imagine they are representative of the people they are presumably trying to serve, and flounder as a result.

My second prediction is an article in and of itself: That as globalization comes of age, the US will shift its inherent short-term orientation and become more long-term focused, as it is in Asia for example. The quality of thought leadership can only benefit as a result.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

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