A new report from Forrester Research gives advice on how to develop thought leadership to help your brand. 

The report, “Nurture Thought Leadership to Nurture Your Brand,” says that “promotional information masquerading as thought leadership” can produce what it calls “unremarkable results.” Thought leadership, on the other hand, surprises buyers “with differentiated ideas that prompt them to pick up the phone and call for more insight.” It looks toward new frontiers for addressing things that customers face, and provides a passionate defense of the company’s approach.

Among Top Four

Most content marketing, according to Forrester, “has become the new black,” simply emphasizing quality over quantity because it is fashionable to do so. This includes product information that doesn’t attract buyer interest, and, given the amount of content that has to be produced to feed branded media sites, social public relations programs and research-backed reports, the spending for content marketing is considerable.

Content marketing clearly is important to marketers. Forrester said that tech-oriented marketers list content marketing as among the top four tactics for lead origination, nurturing or sales enablement, but it was not among the key tactics for building brand awareness.

“Most content marketing programs don’t produce a distinct, provocative point of view,” the report said, noting that “a forward-looking idea that takes on a separate life from the firm” is unlike brand messaging, and it provides insights on issues faced by customers. In fact, the report says, thought leadership is at the top of content marketing in terms of potential impact, above solutions, case studies, how-to, evaluation tools, product/service content, or brand ads and messaging.

Focus on Customer Issues

Developing good thought leadership is a whole discipline in itself, according to Forrester. Chief Marketing Officers have to set a company-wide direction and tone for delivering “valuable information based on customer concerns, with the expectation of immediate commercial returns.” There needs to be executive commitment and enthusiasm to “provocative forward-leaning points of view.”

In addition, Forrester developed in 2011 a four-step IDEA framework -- Identify, Develop, Engage and Assess -- for moving thought leadership from being a marketing program to becoming a business essential.

Thought Leadership.png

But how can your ground-breaking ideas rise to the level of thought leadership? Forrester says that, to increase the chances, keep the thinking focused on customer issues.

One example: Owens-Illinois’ “Glass Is Life” campaign highlighted the taste, health and reuse benefits of glass packaging for health-conscious mothers. The report says that this is a case of developing a “generous brand” that adds value instead of simply pushing a brand or product message.

This is key to a central value of thought leadership -- a brand gets differentiated by striking out an original position on something of interest to customers, cutting through the clutter and helping to build trust that the brand is on your side. It’s providing informational value to buyers, in exchange for buyer attention.

Thinking About Thought Leadership

The report offers a scoreboard to assess the relative value of your approach, as represented by five measureable components each in value exchange and in bold leadership. Other steps include involving “extroverted, passionate subject matter experts,” creating incentives, providing necessary resources, or using social mining tools to spot trends.

While Forrester provides a variety of steps and strategies toward great thought leadership, and some fairly tangible definitions, what it is missing most is a variety of specific examples of successful thought leadership. Only a few are mentioned, such as Owens-Illinois’, and it’s not entirely clear how the “Glass Is Life” campaign differs from, say, interesting content marketing.

The report mentions such examples of thought leadership publishing as those from Bain, Booz or McKinsey, but aren’t there major differences between B2B thought leadership and B2C? Clearly, there’s been a lot of thought given to thought leadership in this report, but what exactly are the tangible benefits to all this effort? If I were a company reading this report, I’d be asking what the proven benefits were from this much extra effort, and what are some specific case examples, with specifics of benefits to the brand. It's difficult to determine what the goals of your thought leadership might be, without some clear guideposts.