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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.