How to Build a Corporate Thought Leadership Strategy
If you oversee marketing at a large company, you might have bandied about the idea of “getting into” thought leadership—and found yourself stalling again and again. In some ways, it’s much easier to write a LinkedIn post on your own than to figure out a largescale thought leadership strategy that encompasses your company’s vision, allows room for your executives’ varying viewpoints, and honors your organization’s particular cultural milieu.
Like all good business strategy, thought leadership at a big company requires a game plan. Here, a few experts explain how they made thought leadership work for them, and how to determine whether or not it’s worth doing (hint: it’s harder to quantify than a simple ROI).
- Make sure what you’re doing is really thought leadership.
Too often, what companies call “thought leadership” is really just a longform sales pitch. Instead of thoughtfully exploring an issue, it leaps quickly to explaining how the company’s products and services solve it—a leap that makes articles boring and even annoying for readers (and potential customers).
To run a successful thought leadership campaign, executives need to think bigger. “To be a real thought leader, it’s not about your technology—it’s about the space you play inside,” said Mary Kay Evans, CMO of Verizon Digital Media Services (VDMS). A good thought leadership piece will look beyond one company’s perspective to examine multiple solutions to an industry-wide problem. A recent article in Mediapost by one of Evans’ VDMS colleagues illustrates exactly that principle, eschewing talk of VDMS products to focus on the broader problem of automation in the TV and film space.
By focusing on the bigger picture, an executive positions him or herself as a forward thinker and a trustworthy source of insights about the entire industry—one of the main goals of thought leadership to begin with. In some large organizations, writing this kind of thought leadership can be a big cultural shift, and executives may need a nudge to talk about the bigger picture instead of making a pitch. Thinking about what customers and industry insiders are already concerned about can be a great first step.
- Clarify your messaging.
The best thought leadership has a strong individual voice. Readers want to hear from a human being with their own personality, not a neutral “voice of the company.” However, that doesn’t mean that your company needs to give executives carte blanche to write about whatever they want, however they want. It’s a difficult balance to strike: executives need freedom to be authentic, but also need to color within the lines of company strategy and messaging.
The first step, of course, is to make sure that messaging is clearly defined. When Synchrony Financial branched off from GE Capital three years ago, the leadership decided to make thought leadership a central part of defining identity for the new company. “In doing that we had to decide what our strategic pillars were [and] what we stood for as a company—because we’re a brand new company now but we have this long history,” said Sue Yasav, Vice President, Thought Leadership and Market Insights at Synchrony.
However, that meant defining those strategic pillars to begin with—and deciding which ones the organization wanted to highlight. “You could have a lot of strategy, but it’s not necessarily something you want to put publicly,” Yasav said. Clarifying your company’s messaging early on can help ensure that articles produced by many different in-house thought leaders remains focused without constraining individual creativity.
- Define what success looks like.
Establishing ROI for thought leadership campaigns has long been a pain point for companies. Yes, your Forbes article might make the “Editor’s Picks” list. Your LinkedIn post might go viral, with likes and shares rolling in. But the broader impact of thought leadership articles on actual business outcomes can often seem like a bit of a mystery.
To gauge whether your thought leadership campaign is getting results, Evans suggests listening to your customers. “For me and for VDMS, an effective thought leadership program is hearing our customers talk about things we’ve said. They’re hearing it, they’re recognizing it, and they’re repeating the messages we’re putting into the market,” she said.
If customers are absorbing and internalizing your messages, that’s a sign that they look to you as an authority in your field—which means they’re also more likely to bring you their business. And of course, thought leadership can generate more concrete marketing wins, such as speaking invitations and conference invites.
Building a thought leadership campaign at a large organization is not always easy. It can require large shifts in company culture and marketing strategy. But when a successful campaign does come to fruition, the benefits are real and lasting.
Want a smoother launch to your next thought leadership campaign? Find out how Hippo can help.