Thought leadership demonstrates to your audience that you are an expert, an authority in a domain.
In the blockchain universe, often synonymous with high technological complexity, proving your expertise is crucial, whether you want to transmit knowledge or to promote your own project.
Thought Leadership Challenges Your Whole StrategyBeyond being clusters of features and benefits, compelling products represent a point of view. Products take a perspective on how things should work and how they can work better and make that perspective tangible, something people can interact with. This notion holds whether the product is a technology, a service offering, or some mix of the two.
Thought leadership provides companies with the most direct way to articulate that point of view and communicate it. Thought leadership also allows companies to make the clearest possible case for what "better" means.
Therefore, treating thought leadership as only one content marketing tool among many misses the point. Similarly, engaging subject matter experts to create individual pieces of thought leadership content without bringing C-level and other senior leaders to the table to develop a thought leadership strategy misses a massive opportunity.
Because thought leadership takes an implied point of view and makes it explicit, discussing thought leadership in full strategic depth has a way of bringing unanswered questions to the fore. A tactically-focused project-based team typically doesn't have the right stakeholders at the table to ask or resolve such questions.
In the process of figuring out what to say and how to say it, big-picture, even existential questions can come up:
- Who are we, and what do we stand for?
- Where is our "blue ocean" (i.e., what we and only we can do to stand decidedly above the fray with competitors)?
- What is missing or vague about our brand?
- What do we want to communicate to internal and external stakeholders?
- What are the gaps between the way we talk about ourselves and what we offer to the market?
- How well do our products connect with the needs in the market?
- Which features or capabilities might be missing from what we offer?
- What are the big questions on our clients'/customers' minds?
- How effective and efficient are our marketing and communications processes?
- Where is our company's top talent, and how do we cultivate it?
In essence, you are asking what you can say about yourselves that is true and what you do in the world to make it true. These questions span an entire organization. Thought leadership strategy discussions center on these questions with unique clarity and rigor. They can open up some of the most critical questions an organization can have.
Answering them and then doing something about them requires the input of people empowered to make executive decisions and lead towards change. Including top company leaders takes the best advantage of this transformative opportunity.
Tying Thought Leadership to Financial Product MarketingAlthough thought leadership is not an appropriate format for marketing product features and benefits directly, there is a way to link thought leadership pieces to a broader product marketing strategy. In other words, thought leadership can accomplish more than brand awareness and help build reputations.
Connecting the two strategies can be very effective. You can even design them to reinforce each other.
The key to making this connection is getting greater clarity on what questions your product answers. Typically, people think of products as addressing particular needs and pain points. You can also look at these from another frame of reference. Each need implies an underlying question about the most efficient ways to accomplish something.
For example, a fintech product that helps streamline customer due diligence and anti-money laundering efforts implicitly offers a point of view on the most efficient ways to complete the tasks it supports. It also embeds a hypothesis, such as the impact of automation in high-volume AML monitoring.
Similarly, a product that offers rich real-time data to support trading operations relies on hypotheses about the data that have the most impact and provide the best insights to users for the decisions they need to make at any point in time.
These are just two illustrative examples. In fact, you can trace any product or service back to underlying hypotheses and assumptions, which in turn are answers to questions about optimizing how people work, how data flows, and more.
These questions can become the seed for thought leadership. Imagine thought leadership such as:
- A position paper advocating for the role of automation within a particular set of processes
- Single or aggregated case studies highlighting day-to-day challenges for people and organizations
- A survey gathering data about the current landscape for your target market
- A series of blog posts highlighting related industry developments and emerging practices
- Interviews and conversations between product designers and clients
The power of this approach is that it goes beyond product brochures, testimonials, and similar types of content. It builds your credibility within a particular niche, in which you offer a differentiated solution. It helps you shape the market's understanding of its needs, and it provided materials that help sustain conversations with prospects (vital especially in longer B2B sales cycles).
Simply put, combining the two approaches leaves you better positioned to convince your market that you have a solution to a specific problem because you also demonstrate the best understanding of that problem. You provide a layer of insights that sits on top of your product or service features and sets you apart from your competition.
Give Your Thought Leadership a Post-Launch BoostFrequently enough, thought leadership campaigns run out of steam after their initial launch. After publishing a report, backing it up with a few social media posts, and a conference panel or two, companies allow thought leadership efforts to falter. Marketing teams go on to their next campaign, and subject matter experts go back to their day-to-day activities.
Positioning as a thought leader requires a longer-term strategy, however. It takes several months to develop sufficient authority on a topic. Doing so requires a range of activities to remain present and visible in a particular area. In turn, that sustained effort can pull against people's natural tendency to run out of creative energy and move on.
Several tactics can help sustain and refresh your efforts:
- Quarterly updates on trends or, where relevant, market data that supported your initial release
- Commentary on high-profile news stories that shed light on new events, using your longer-term point of view.
- Monthly audio or video updates discussing angles of your topic with clients or other industry experts.
- Social campaigns, including direct posts by individuals in your firm rather than corporate feeds.
- Publishing focus topics that highlight facets of your point of view relevant for specific regions, segments, industries, etc.
- Working with internal and external media relations resources to get quoted and interviewed on topics that reinforce your perspectives.
- Distributing multi-step email sequences (journey-based approaches and drip campaigns) to get your thought leadership directly into the hands of relevant stakeholders.
- Commenting and interacting with others' social media highlighting relevant connections to your point of view.
- Planning now for your next major update and including teasers in your marketing to let people know what's coming.
Done is just the beginning.
10 Questions to Transform Thought Leadership CampaignsDo you want to create truly transformative thought leadership? Develop clear and compelling answers to the following ten questions.
- What does the audience already know and feel about this topic?
- How do your ideas change the audience for the better?
- What do you want to happen after you've convinced your audience and earned their trust?
- What do you need to explain or clarify to support your ideas??
- What evidence do you have for the claims you are making?
- What objections or opposition might you have to overcome?
- What makes your ideas and claims about the topic unique?
- What exactly entitles you to promote these ideas (skills, experience, capabilities)?
- How can you distill your ideas into three key messages?
- What other formats or media can you use to get your ideas across?
Avoiding Common Thought Leadership MistakesWhile most of my client conversations focus on positive steps to establish and maintain thought leadership positioning, I also occasionally hear questions or have discussions about what not to do.
Among the most common mistakes that come up in my discussions, several tend to come up more often than others.
Conflating thought leadership and product marketing. Thought leadership pieces are not an appropriate forum for touting the features and benefits of a company's underlying offerings. When developed with craft and a deliberate strategy, thought leadership adds depth and nuance to product messaging. It highlights the broader industry context in which features and benefits are relevant. It also can highlight business needs for innovation that a company's products and services bring to the market. Finally, although the language in thought leadership materials can be consistent with a company's overall brand messaging, it needs to be done artfully and authentically, lest it stick out and lower credibility.
One-and-done efforts. Thought leadership takes time to build. When a company wishes to own particular topics and points of view with a differentiated position, a single piece of content will almost never do it. With a few exceptions, such as a TED Talk that catches fire with millions, most thought leadership requires extensive campaigns with smaller and larger pieces in multiple formats and media to achieve their objectives. One key to success is planning out such content in advance while at the same time remaining flexible to adapting the underlying themes, observations, and findings to relevant events in the news.
Excessive caution and risk-aversion. Compelling thought leadership must express a point of view. It should shake up people's fixed beliefs and include insight from new ways of thinking. Relying on conventional wisdom can take the wind out of any thought leadership efforts. While thought leaders needn't create animosity or controversy just to get attention, having something genuinely new to say makes a difference. Similarly, thought leaders should be willing to express opinions (yes, grounded in facts and reality) and use a bold voice to avoid sounding generic.
Falling into the jargon trap. Specialized thought leadership is not always intended to reach an equally specialized audience. The audience is often savvy and intelligent, but not necessarily with the same subject matter depth as the thought leader. Especially in industries like financial services and fintech, thought leaders must remember not to make too many assumptions about the differences between jargon, technical language, and specialized concepts. It's not necessary to over-explain but defining terms clearly and simply helps thought leaders make their points more effectively. Even if their audience is likely to have a similar vocabulary, defining terms is a great way to guide audiences to a specific understanding of a concept that helps build the larger argument and make a strong point about the topic.
Writing for SEO. Doing keyword research to find what people are asking about and then repeating those keywords may bump up content within search engine results, but it also won't help create thought leadership. It pushes thought leaders into staying too close to conventional wisdom and ultimately results in less readable, engaging content. Being a thought leader in part means needing to master the art of content distribution. Relying on algorithms to do that work diminishes a thought leader's impact, especially since the deck is stacked in favor of paid placement or content that search engines have their own commercial purposes to promote.
The good news is that these pitfalls are easy to avoid with advance warning and sharp thinking. Keeping an eye out for them and planning accordingly helps thought leaders stand out and shine rather than blending into mediocrity and chatter.
Using Thought Leadership to Sustain the ConversationHigh-quality thought leadership allows companies to stand out from competitors with differentiated insights that communicate unique value. While its primary purpose is differentiation and adding value, thought leadership also provides an enormous benefit for sales pipelines and client relationship management. The reason why? Thought leadership sustains conversations.
A few scenarios help illustrate this point:
Sales and Thought Leadership
Once a company has collected sales leads, it can, of course, make an immediate pitch to clients: buy our product, make a commitment to our service. Of course, the more complex and costly the sales ask, the less likely such an immediate direct appeal is to work.
For example, it's nearly impossible that a bank would sign up for a five- or six-figure deal for a tool to help automate customer due diligence and verification for account openings on the spot. The same is true for any complex, high-value financial relationship where the stakes are high and the risks of leaping into the unknown are unacceptable.
Most salespeople understand this challenge, generally speaking. What happens, however, is they can quickly run out of sales collateral and follow-up tactics in between connecting with a lead and closing a deal. The process is about building trust, and it takes high-quality interactions to build trust.
Thought leadership can help close that gap. Instead of sending yet another brochure or features list, imagine the power a salesperson can unleash with a robust and steady stream of thought leadership to sustain the conversation. Imagine in-depth whitepapers that help their prospective client improve account opening processes and streamline compliance tasks. More nuance and more trust can come from shorter form articles, infographics, videos, and other content highlighting challenges, solutions, and market trends.
Over time, as client trust grows, that high-stakes deal gets easier and easier to close.
Marketing and Thought Leadership
People typically think of thought leadership as falling into the domain of marketing. Many marketers, however, still struggle to build a sustained conversation around keystone pieces of thought leadership.
One of the more common scenarios is to focus on the development of one single, high-impact effort. Companies expend time and budget to produce that one big report on a market trend, they launch it out into the market, and then they stop there. This is a mistake. Memories are short, and there's always another insight from a competitor right around the corner.
Thought leadership as a marketing strategy has a much higher impact when companies plan a sustained flow of communications beyond the initial launch of a major effort. For example, a significant piece of research on payment infrastructure trends could include client events, public presentations, quarterly updates, segment- or region-specific special reports, or quick-takes on different aspects of the technology, particular use cases, regulatory questions, and more.
As a result, one big burst of investment continues to bring in more awareness and capture more leads instead of tapering off.
Client Relationships and Thought Leadership
In my experience, most fintechs and financial innovators do not achieve the full potential of using thought leadership to sustain the conversation with clients. Very often, after a deal is closed, the conversation changes. Existing clients tend to hear about feature updates, bug fixes, service changes, and other details of doing business, but less often do they get new thinking and insight unless they are targeted by an up-sell or cross-sell campaign.
This knowledge gap squanders an opportunity to add depth to a relationship with a known audience. One tangible benefit of closing the gap with steady thought leadership is making it easier to win more of their business. Another is simply client retention. Beyond that lies the intangible benefit of becoming your clients' most trusted source for information about the domain that your solution addresses.
There's another way to look at this. Client thought leadership also helps hold back the tide of competitors who would love to win your clients' business away from you. If clients only hear from you with operational details and issues, while your competitors capture their attention with compelling insights by marketing to them aggressively, your relationship starts to get hollowed out from the inside. It's a weak position to end up in.
In other words, don't forget that clients are an essential and high-value audience for thought leadership, well worth your time and attention.
Across these three scenarios, a common theme emerges. Thought leadership is a process that builds trust and enriches relationships with stakeholder groups. For that reason, it should a sustained and intentional effort — part of a broader strategy to engage in high-stakes relationships as conversations that take place over time.
Four Things You Can Do Right Now to Become a Thought LeaderMany people in a wide range of business roles have the potential to become thought leaders. It's not restricted to big names who appear in media interviews, get quoted frequently, and land book deals.
By thought leaders, I mean people who, first, have a strong, credible, and unique point of view that helps drive improvement and innovation within a specific area of business. Second, thought leaders share their insights and actively expand their credibility with public written and spoken thought leadership.
Right now, from wherever you are in your career, you can start to lay the groundwork for becoming such a thought leader with just four simple steps. Anyone from C-level executives to mid-level professionals can begin to position themselves as industry thought leaders. While seniority might influence the balance between breadth and depth of perspective, the foundational steps for thought leadership are relatively similar.
Look within: Spend some significant time asking yourself why you want to position yourself as a thought leader. The right answer will depend on your needs and aspirations. In most cases, there will be many reasons. You may want to contribute to high-impact marketing for your company, build out your CV and strengthen your career, participate in the conversation in an area that excites you, bring needed improvements to the world around you, and more. Introspection, discussions with managers and mentors, and structured interactions with coaches can all help you through this process.
Get specific: After you ask why you want to do it, your next question comes down to "why me?" Take a thought leadership inventory of what you know, your skills and domain expertise, your work experience, and your inner strengths. Be as focused and specific as you can. One major challenge is looking at yourself from a bit of a distance. Sometimes, the things that you take for granted and the bits of knowledge that seem obvious to you can be a big revelation for others. Use introspection and interactions with others during this step as well.
Be differentiated: With your thought leadership inventory in hand, do some research on other thought leaders who have gotten traction on those topics. They may be peers, competitors, well-known industry experts, and others. The main reason for doing this is so that you can tailor yourself and your insights better. You make them into something that people don't know, ways of thinking that people haven't thought of before, answers to questions that don't yet have many good answers. An additional benefit — you build your intelligence about who has already headed down the thought leadership path by seeing what they are doing and how.
Put down a few stakes: The way that most of the outside world recognizes a thought leader is by their digital footprint: what comes up on web searches, news searches, Twitter, LinkedIn, industry directories and forums, interest groups, etc. The specific sources vary by area. Some of these will be different for a more technically-focused crypto expert than for someone focused on open banking, regulatory strategy, etc. You can start to lay the foundation for your own thought leadership by putting down a few stakes in these various channels.
- Amp up your LinkedIn profile so that it captures your expertise, not just your titles and career history.
- Use LinkedIn to share industry articles and insights you come across. These don't have to be your own articles. One day, however, they may be!
- Commit to self-publishing insights frequently, be they on your company website or blog, your blog, a site such as Medium, or published as LinkedIn articles. You can step up to this--once a month, then twice a month, then more often once you develop the muscle. Stay tuned for a longer post from me on this topic in the coming days.
- Get social on social media. I mean this in the most general sense, beyond just LinkedIn. The right channel for you depends on your expertise and goals. But in any of those channels, take the "social" aspect seriously. Take time to like and comment, make connections, and otherwise interact with others.
A reputation as a thought leader is within your grasp. It takes a bit of effort, but resources such as courses and coaches can help you get started and take the first steps.