CS Forum Helsinki 2013 is officially underway in lovely Finland. While I would have loved to be there (and the organizers did their best to try to lure me), the journey from California to Scandinavia is a bit daunting without a broader agenda in Europe. Lucky for me, Stacey Gordon, founder and president of Suite Seven, will be there presenting the Content Strategy of Thought Leadership. Not surprisingly, strategy, thought leadership, and storytelling feature highly in the "content as business value" section of the event.

Stacey and I caught up last week, and she peppered me with some interesting questions about the business value of thought leadership, how to organize/staff around thought leadership, and what are the leadership/governance models that work. We thought it would be fun to write up our chat in the form of a (rather lengthy) Q&A, shared with you below.

Reading through it, I think it's important to approach thought leadership as an organization, and not just a marketing activity or program. True thought leadership happens when the market talks back, and you get to exchange valuable insight with other leading thinkers on the topic. Kinda like Stacey and I do here.  

If you happen to be in Helsinki at CS Forum, you can catch Stacey's presentation on Friday, September 13, right after the coffee break at 11:20 a.m. Best of luck to Stacey and the other speakers at CS Forum!

The Content Strategy Of Thought Leadership: Q&A With Stacey King Gordon

Stacey: Have you found there to be a connection between recognized thought-leading organizations and higher brand valuation, brand loyalty/affinity, or some other measurement?

Laura: Thought leadership marketing, like brand marketing, is important for increasing customer engagement across the purchase life cycle. But like branding, it can be difficult to quantify definitively. Companies that routinely run brand valuation studies show year-over-year correlations, but these results are rarely made public and are difficult to compare between firms.

Forrester’s model for growing customer engagement shows how thought leadership can help deliver the right mix of marketing tactics at the reach, depth, and relationship (Forrester’s RaDaR model for engagement — subscription required) phases of the buyer’s journey. By analyzing the impact of thought leadership at each RaDaR stage, we have found companies benefit in the early stage of reach through more inbound inquiries and shortlisting; in the middle stage of depth through faster sales cycles, higher close rates, and bigger deal sizes; and in the later stage of relationship through increased customer loyalty and higher lifetime value.

Stacey: Are there certain kinds of organizations that benefit more from thought leadership than others? 

Laura: In our research, I’ve found that companies that sell services or more intangible solutions benefit from thought leadership since — by definition — they need to establish that their approach to solving business problems brings something new, better, or more effective to the table. Thought leadership helps show that the company thinks about the bigger business picture, whether industry-, role-, or horizontal-specific. As a solution provider, they can foresee key trends and market dynamics that would make it advantageous to allow them to modify, run, or significantly enhance some aspect of the buyer’s business.

Stacey: What are your thoughts about the balance between individuals as thought leaders and companies as thought leaders?

Laura: I’ve found true thought leadership is about creating a conversation that leads to an exchange of value between sellers and the audience they want to reach. You can’t have conversation without people, so subject matter experts are vital. The challenge is to sustain conversation — and associate it tightly with your brand — while managing the risk that some key spokespeople may not stay with your firm over time. This is where a good content publishing strategy needs to merge with a company’s brand strategy to link big ideas with the brand promise, but in a way that is not overly commercial or forced.

Stacey: Have you seen successful models used by companies to mine their internal expertise? Any favorite ideas or models you've seen to help that happen?

Laura: The most successful models start with an editorial oversight function that answers the questions, “What is our thought leadership platform, what are the key issues that truly engage the buyers we want to reach, and what is our unique position on those issues?” In a small company, this may fall under a marketing role, and in large firms, a council or standing committee. The function sets the direction for the thought leadership and focuses the activity, creating and continuing a differentiated conversation in the market.

To succeed, this oversight function must have executive commitment, funding, and specific goals to accomplish. The executives must be truly interested in the editorial calendar and the accomplishments of thought leaders. If they pay attention to and acknowledge this work, then the process of getting participation and building a truly differentiated position become easier.

The other key component to a successful model is PR. Unlike advertising, PR has always been about influence. PR’s role in thought leadership is to make sure that the thought leadership content circulates, engages the right outside influencers, and responds thoughtfully to any conversation that goes on in the market around the topic.

Stacey: Does thought leadership need to be driven by the C-suite, or can it be a strategy developed by marketing that the C-suite buys in to?

Laura: It’s all about strategy. We believe that thought leadership marketing strategy has four components — which refer to by the acronym IDEA.

  1. Identify your audience members and the key issues they have. Good thought leadership is focused; it’s not about publishing your product catalog and customer case studies under the label of thought leadership.
  2. Develop your platform. Much like a political platform, the oversight team must define the big ideas and supporting topics that will explain the firm’s unique point of view and why it matters to buyers.
  3. Engage with buyers through a considered mix of traditional, digital, and social channels. Thought leadership must be out in the market to succeed. You know it’s thought leadership when the market starts talking about your ideas independently from you.
  4. Assess the impact of your thought leadership on your business. Determine where you need to revise or reinvest in the activities and people who participate here.

If you work through these four steps of the IDEA framework, marketers and the editorial team have a much better chance of creating truly thought-leading content and maintaining a differentiated effort over time. It’s not easy, and it requires consistent attention and investment.

Stacey: Are there models that you've seen that work better than others in terms of content governance and publishing?

Laura: Thought leadership requires a centralized approach to set strategy and manage the editorial calendar. From there, it can become more decentralized. In larger organizations, feedback loops become very important for not only understanding how effectively you are marketing your thought leadership but also sampling trends and sourcing new ideas and subject matter experts.