How to Avoid the 9 Pitfalls of Thought Leadership Marketing

When done well, thought leadership marketing can elevate your brand, engage buyers at crucial stages in the sales cycle and help your company achieve a competitive advantage.

But, if you’re an experienced marketer, you’ve probably been around long enough to see a thought leadership project go off the rails at least once. I certainly have.

Early in my marketing career, a VP had our marketing team develop a series of white papers for every vertical industry the company served.

His brainchild was to use virtually identical content for each white paper, except for the name of the industry, a few minor details and a different colored cover on each one.

Of course, our cookie-cutter white papers flopped. That’s because they were created based on the faulty premise that prospects from any industry faced the same general set of business challenges. Not surprisingly, they gathered dust in the marketing closet.

9 Pitfalls of Thought Leadership Marketing

So why does thought leadership marketing miss the mark? Here are the 9 pitfalls and how to avoid them:

1. Reactive mode. How many times do we start a marketing initiative in response to another department’s request or an executive’s decision that the marketing team needs to produce some thought leadership content to address a new business issue and help drive lead generation? More often than not, marketers plunge into the project without first establishing a strategy.

How to fix it: Make sure you lay out a clear strategy, messaging platform and process before you produce any communications. Then, build an integrated marketing campaign that includes multiple tactics and touch points for reaching your target buyers.

2. One size doesn’t fit all. Buyers, prospects and customers aren’t all alike. Just as in our white paper example, you cannot deliver the same content to drastically different target audiences and expect it to resonate with everyone, let alone anyone.

How to fix it: Take the time to interview buyers and customers to find out about their business challenges and priority initiatives. Based on your conversations, build buyer personas to use as a guide in developing relevant content tailored to each of your target audiences.

3. Admit it, you’re just regurgitating. Some companies think thought leadership means compiling a bunch of research and serving it up in a 50-slide PowerPoint deck or a 12-page white paper. But real thought leadership doesn’t just report or educate; it also conveys a distinctive point of view.

How to fix it: Be sure you have something new to add to the industry conversation before you develop your content. Take a strong stand or at least bring a fresh perspective on an old problem.

4. The snooze factor. Boring thought leadership often results from playing it too safe. It can also happen when you haven’t done enough research and don’t know the subject well enough to deliver insightful and lively content.

How to fix it: Make an effort to add a dash of personality to your content. Spice up presentations with striking images or video clips. Hit the delete key on empty jargon like “robust” or “flexible” wherever you find them. And develop an ear for utilizing authentic language that buyers would actually use if they were telling the story.

5. No practical value. Your thought leadership shouldn’t just describe business trends or problems; it should also offer the buyer useful advice and a roadmap for addressing these issues.

How to fix it: Make sure your thought leadership content always contains actionable tips and guidance, no matter whether a prospect ends up purchasing your company’s solutions or not.

6. Salesy. Real thought leadership isn’t a thinly veiled sales pitch.

How to fix it: You’ll have plenty of time to trot out the sales presentation or the product collateral when the prospect is finally ready to evaluate your company’s solutions. The role of thought leadership is to engage buyers and to get them to buy into your approach. That means telling, not blatant selling.

7. Lacks credibility. If you or your company isn’t already an established subject matter expert, then you will have to do the hard work of earning the industry’s respect and credibility over time.

How to fix it: Securing speaking opportunities at meetings and conferences is a good way to build up your company’s “street cred” You can also partner with an established thought leader such as an industry analyst to deliver a co-branded white paper or webinar. However, keep in mind that there are no real shortcuts for becoming a thought leader. It can take many months or even years to become a trusted and well-known industry authority.

8. Disorganized. Dull. Death by PowerPoint. There are a million and one reasons why content doesn’t measure up. Whatever the reason, don’t play the excuse game. Just resolve to improve your thought leadership content.

How to fix it: Create a strong team of subject matter experts that you can leverage for speaking, blogging, press interviews and other opportunities. And tap into internal and/or external resources like freelance writers, PR professionals, speaking coaches and graphic designers to help you deliver quality content marketing.

9. Fails the leadership test. If it doesn’t lead, it cannot be called thought leadership.

How to fix it: Real thought leadership dares to take a bold position and take us somewhere we haven’t been. It gets out in front of an issue to provide buyers with novel solutions and a better understanding of where the industry may be headed. Most importantly, thought leadership must lead and attract followers to your company and its approach.

The bottom line is you need to develop a clear strategy and invest in the necessary resources to create provocative, insightful thought leadership that will engage your prospects and get them to buy into your approach.

What other thought leadership marketing pitfalls have you experienced? How do you avoid them?

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