Category: Sales

4 Types of Thought Leadership That Work Well In the Later Stages of the Purchase Process

I am delighted to have Dan Armstrong, Director Research and Thought Leadership, ITSMA as a guest writer on my blog. Dan is an excellent writer, researcher, and analytical thinker. Enjoy! —Julie,

Dan_photoBy Dan Armstrong, ITSMA, 

Many salespeople use thought leadership like fishermen use chum: They spread it around the boat and hope that a big fish will come near. That’s fine as far as it goes. But there’s more to sales than leads. Thought leadership has the power to engage customers throughout the buying process.

According to ITSMA’s just-completed study on thought leadership selling, only one-fifth of the B2B services marketers who create thought leadership say they excel at using it to empower the sales force (as opposed to other purposes, like reputation-building). This elite group of marketers uses thought leadership not just to create epiphanies, but to continue to engage buyers at every step.

Almost everyone uses thought leadership at the start. But the farther into the buying process you go, the bigger the gap between the leaders – or the “sales enablers,” as we call them – and the  “publishers.” The sales enablers find way to demonstrate their thought leadership again and again, at every stage, and don’t stop even when the sale is made and the process becomes one of nurturing and strengthening the relationship.


Think of the purchase decision as a four-step process, starting with epiphany, moving through awareness, interest, and confidence, and ending with loyalty and an endless loop of new purchases.

In the awareness stage, sales works to clarify the customer’s objectives and identify a short list of potential solutions.  They submit a proposal in the interest stage. They show why it’s the best one in the confidence stage. They proactively reach out and make sure that the customer remains happy in the loyalty stage. In each of these stages, thought leadership can continue to give customers yet another reason to take the next step.

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 content. And while any of them can be a pitch, none of them needs to be a pitch.

  1. 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.
  2. ROI calculators.  An ROI calculator may not sound like thought leadership. But it is in 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.
  3. 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 fun, interactive, and bring a surprise at the end. The thought leadership aspect lies in the definition of the reference model – the ideal to which the real is compared.
  4. Your people. When a company buys services, it’s buying people. Specifically, it is buying the time, expertise, and viewpoint of 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. Alternately, you can think of your subject matter experts as a product demo.

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.

What is Epiphany Marketing? (Part 1)

By Julie Schwartz, ITSMA,

Epiphany marketing? That’s a new one! I can hear you now… Just what we need, more marketing jargon. But this one is important. The phrase “epiphany marketing” reminds us that generating leads is not the end-all/be-all of What epiphanymarketing. Marketing also has to generate demand. Epiphany marketing is demand generation. So why not just call it demand generation? Why introduce another term? Because too often demand generation and lead generation are used synonymously and the significance of generating demand is lost. Let me explain.

Mindshare Before Marketing Share

As you well know, building eminence and amplifying a firm’s reputation through thought leadership content is the basis for B2B professional services marketing and is rapidly becoming the foundation for all B2B marketing.

You have to build mindshare before you can build market share. The idea is to show the target audience how smart you are and make them aware of your capabilities. Build relationships with them. Show them you know their business, as well as the names of all their children. And when they have a need for your services, they will call you first. This used to work, but not anymore.

Today, there is very little business walking in the door. You can’t sit back and wait for clients to call when they need you. “Build it and they will come” no longer works. Today you have to do more.  Today, you have to create demand. You have to use your thought leadership to spark epiphanies.

Spark Epiphanies with Thought Leadership

What exactly do we mean by epiphany? Epiphany is the point at which a potential client comes to the realization that they have an important business need—it can be either a problem, or an opportunity. Some call this the pain point. It is the “Aha!” moment.

For example, it can arise when a grocery chain is purchasing another chain in a neighboring country and realizes that its corporate human resources practices are in violation of the regulations in this new country. Or it can be when a business unit leader sees how the application of a new technology can solve a previously unidentified business problem.

It is a golden moment for a services firm to be there to offer advice and support.

Most buying process models begin with the Awareness or Search Stage, when a buyer has a known problem or opportunity, clarifies objectives, and seeks out possible alternatives.
However, we recognize a phase prior to Awareness, before there is any discussion of
products, services or RFPs.
It is the “pre-purchase” stage—the stage during which the potential client comes to the realization of an important business need.
We call this stage the Epiphany Stage.

I am guessing that the Epiphany Stage may be part of the buying process that you haven’t thought too much about. And if that is the case, you are not alone.


With Epiphany Marketing, We Are Talking About Demand Generation, not Lead Generation

In ITSMA’s research we found that none of the companies we interviewed formally recognized an epiphany-like stage in the buying process. Interestingly though, nearly all the companies intuitively recognized the existence of the Epiphany Stage and created programs to market to clients in this stage.

The Epiphany Stage occurs long before any discussion of products, services, or RFPs. It occurs before clients have even begun to think about a purchase. As one person I interviewed said, “before the pursuit is even a twinkle in the potential buyer’s eye.”

During the Epiphany Stage, the potential client is constantly scanning the horizon, looking for new ideas and learning. They are conducting research, talking to people, looking at thought leadership and examples to help them clarify their next move.

It is at this stage that marketers and sales professionals (yes, sales people have to do epiphany marketing too!) need to get involved. When you are working with clients during the Epiphany Stage, what you are actually doing is demand generation, not lead generation.

Use Epiphany Marketing to Create Deeper, More Enduring Relationships

It is important to remember that potential buyers in the Epiphany Stage are not yet leads. They are not looking to be sold to. They are not even looking to buy. They are looking for ideas. They don’t yet see their problems and opportunities.

You have a great opportunity during this stage to create deeper more enduring relationships with clients—relationships that will eventually lead to new business. Epiphany marketing communicates that:

  • You are smart
  • You have a broad perspective
  • You have worked with many different clients across multiple industries and geographies, including clients just like them
  • You can see where they may need help

You understand your clients and potential clients so well that you are coming to them with ideas before they know they need them. You can see the proverbial glass wall long before your clients ever see it. They don’t see it until they hit it. And when they hit it at high speed, it can get ugly. By keeping them from hitting that glass wall, you have the opportunity to earn the status of trusted advisor.

That is the power of epiphany marketing (and sales).