When sales reps think of thought leadership, they often think of lead generation: marketing creates a compelling whitepaper, it’s put up on your website, people download it in exchange for their email address, it gets fed it into the lead gen machine, and then it is passed on to sales to contact, qualify, sell and close.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But there’s more to thought leadership than leads. Thought leadership can create an epiphany in the minds of buyers while establishing yourself as an expert in solving a problem that they face. But it also has the power to engage customers throughout the buying process.
According to ITSMA’s just-completed study on marketing’s role in enabling thought leadership selling, only one-fifth of the B2B marketers who create thought leadership say they excel at using it to empower the sales force (as opposed to other purposes, like reputation-building). One of the factors that set apart this elite group of marketers is the practice of using thought leadership not just to create epiphanies, but to continue to engage buyers beyond the initial hook.
The survey results show that almost everyone uses thought leadership in the early stages of the sales cycle. But the farther into the buying process you go, the bigger the gap between the laggards, or the publishers as we call them, and the sales enablers. The sales enablers find ways to demonstrate their thought leadership again and again, at every stage, and don’t stop even when the sale is made as the process becomes one of nurturing and strengthening the relationship.
Recall the ITSMA definition of thought leadership: “Ideas that educate customers and prospects about important business and technology issues and help them solve those issues—without pitching.” Here are four types of thought leadership that work well in the later stages of the purchase process. Each is educational. Each helps customers address their business and/or technology issues. Each leads to a conversation. Each is more targeted than typical early-stage top-of-the-funnel collateral. And while any of them can be a pitch, none of them needs to be a pitch.
Case studies. A case study highlights a problem and potential solution using a story about someone in a job and an industry sector similar to the customer. It brings the power of narrative and empathy to bear on the customer’s problem. If it’s a real case study about a customer willing to serve as a reference, the case study may be useful in the confidence stage, when the purchaser is ready to buy.
Benchmarking or self-assessment tools. These are designed to help the customer compare the company’s current state to some ideal state, highlight the gaps, and think about steps that could be taken to close them. Using a tool like this can be educational, interactive, and strengthen confidence at the end. The thought leadership aspect lies in the definition of the reference model – the ideal to which the real is compared.
ROI calculators. An ROI calculator may not sound like thought leadership. But it is I the sense that it helps customers consider costs and returns that they might otherwise overlook. A calculator also offers you a chance to define the problem in terms that show your solution off to its best advantage. You can surface hidden costs and highlight those that competing products impose. The breakout of costs and returns may also suggest ways that other departments and functions can benefit, leading to a stronger business case.
Your people. When a company buys services, it’s buying people. Specifically, it is buying knowledge, experience, IP, and a point of view of your subject matter experts. Your experts are the human manifestation of your thought leadership. To the extent you can facilitate their interaction with buyers, you’re demonstrating your ability to lead with ideas.
A rule that writers follow is “Show, don’t tell.” Instead of telling customers about the expertise your company has, use thought leadership to show off the expertise – both at the start of the sales cycle and all the way through. That’s a key trait that separates the accomplished thought leadership sellers from those that merely publish.