5 Steps to a Corporate Thought Leadership Plan

Posted on August 12, 2013

When I arrived as CMO of PEER 1 Hosting in Summer of 2011, one of the challenges that I faced is the lack of corporate thought leadership visibility in the media and with industry analysts.  Our C-suite routinely talked (with envy) about how Rackspace and other competitors held an advantage as to the amount of earned media coverage they received to advance their points of view.

One of the first steps I took was to audit our existing efforts (largely PR and random speaking panels) and then benchmark what leaders in our industry were doing.  This allowed me to create a gap analysis presentation that I was able to give to the C-suite to test their level of interest in closing the gap.   Once my C-suite peers showed support for the idea of a thought leadership strategy, I set about meeting with my existing staff to develop a plan, assign ownership, and execute.

Here are the 5 steps I took to putting the company on a path to thought leadership influence:

(1) Affirm Your Positioning – often overlooked, but a critical step. Executive management must agree on the brand position so that thought leadership tactics can support the USP.  It only creates confusion in the marketplace to be positioned as technology innovator, but focus thought leadership efforts talking about operational efficiency.  [In our case, the company operated three separate divisions, each with its own brand, and none with a defined USP.   This led us to separately undertake a brand strategy initiative in 2012 to attempt to consolidate brands and define a USP so that our thought leadership efforts would be consistent with journalists, online influencers, and industry analysts.]

(2) Develop a Topic Menu (“What”) – brainstorm a list of questions your buyers are asking and industry topics that align with your positioning.   As an example, if your company is positioned as a technology leader you might develop a list of topics such as big data, analytics, cloud computing, etc.  Once the topic list is developed, you need to develop your unique POV (point of view) for each topic.  The POV is your perspective on an industry trend or bigger picture theme that differentiates you from your competitors (it is NOT about your products).  In the case of questions your buyers are asking, your POV are the answers you are providing to those questions. You need to root your POV in authority (third party research, internal expertise, proprietary data, etc.)  The goal of the POV is to establish your company as an authority, and therefore draw people back to your products or services (inbound marketing).  This is the ultimate measure of awareness that is more effective than traditional advertising and PR.  You should revisit the list of topics and questions each quarter to add or subtract based on what is happening in your industry.

(3) Identity internal thought leaders (“Who”) – once the topic menu is firm, it is important to identify internal staff who will be spokespersons (thought leaders) to comment on these topics.  The way to do this is not to assign staff, but to instead recruit staff.  That is, internally publish the list of topics for which the company is seeking thought leaders and encourage interested staff to respond.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that thought leadership only comes from the top (VP-level) as some of the most credible experts may be at the senior individual contributor levels as well as Directors as they may be your hands-on subject matter experts.  Once you have begun to compile a list of possible candidates, interview them and uncover their communication skills.  Some may be great bloggers (masters of the written word) but are uncomfortable speaking on camera.  Others may be wonderful on speaking panels, but need someone to ghost-write for them.  Again, be open minded and recognize that different folks are suited for different mediums.  In our case, we had a couple of VPs are where smooth on camera but were not great writers for blogs or white papers, so we assigned ghost writers.  For anyone speaking on panels or to the media, it is advisable that they receive media training and any good PR firm can provide this. Identifying these owners and agreeing to the amount of time they will devote each month to supporting the thought leadership calendar is essential.  If you are recruiting lower level candidates, be sure to gain the approval of their Director or VP for the time they will spend writing or speaking (hence, not performing their “day job.”)

(4) Develop a production process (“How”) – with topics and owners identified, it’s time to create the content and earned media opportunities to distribute your thought leadership.   We divided the production process into three categories (content, events, influencers) and made sure we had a workflow and staff assigned to each.   The content category included both owned content (white papers, blog, Webinars, How-To Guides, etc.) that we would produce and distribute as well as content that we would contribute to third-party publications and websites.  The events category included trade shows as well as conferences and incorporated both presentation materials (where we were speaking) as well as booth visit incentives (where we were exhibiting).  The influencers category was typically a list of journalists, media and analysts where we provided interviews, briefings, and other idea exchange.  The production deliverables might range from speaker notes/script to an actual presentation.  In all cases, it is important to tie all of this back to a central objective of associating your brand to a specific set of industry topics or buyer questions that creates interest and drives people to contact you.

What you end up with is matrix where the rows are your topics (buyer questions and/or industry trends) and the columns include POV, thought leaders, media channels, ghost-writers (if any), publication dates, etc.

(5) Measure  (“How Well”) – I recommend two kinds of metrics: short-term, long-term.  The short-term metrics for any content distribution are reach (attendees, listeners, watchers, etc.), engagement (download, views, print, sharing), and inquiries (phone, chat, web form).  If you are using assisted attribution for your lead generation efforts then you should be capturing this via tracking tags (e.g. Google MCF) or similar.  The long-term metrics include the impact your thought leadership efforts are having on brand awareness, brand association and brand preference. These should be measured annually as part of your brand management function.   So within target audiences (buyer groups) you should be measuring changes in awareness, association and preference to gauge whether you are gaining ground on your competitors.  Remember, people can’t buy from you if they haven’t heard of you.

Check out some of my other posts on buyer personas, customer journeys, and marketing strategy.

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