To make thought leadership work as an effective component of a company’s marketing strategy, companies need to ensure that individual thought leaders have the resources to succeed and thrive. Marketing and communication teams can do so by putting four essential support mechanisms in place.
Set minimal policies with maximal clarity.
Companies can suffocate thought leadership before it even begins by creating overly restrictive policies. While both speak on behalf of the company, a spokesperson is not the same as a subject matter expert. Restricting communication rights to a small set of senior executives can mean cutting out people who have the most detailed understanding of subject matter topics. It also stifles rising stars who can make high-energy contributions to the company’s positioning.
Similarly, while compliance reviews are essential, especially in companies conducting regulated activities, multiple layers of review and approval can slow down or even disrupt thought leadership efforts. Make sure that every review significantly adds value or mitigates risk rather than meaningless bureaucratic handoffs that frustrate thought leaders.
Finally, the process for creating thought leadership and the roles of everyone involved need to be clear. When thought leaders have an idea for an article or a conference submission, they should not struggle to figure out how to vet that idea, get approvals, or finalize their output. Processes should be well-documented, made readily available on a company intranet or equivalent, and regularly communicated. Don’t make it so complicated that it’s easier just not participating as a thought leader.
Be a partner in setting the thought leadership agenda.
By their nature, thought leaders have lots of great ideas and lots of insight into what’s happening in their market area. Senior leaders are also closest to product strategy, go-to-market strategy, and business priorities. Marketers understand the best way to get materials into the hands of the right audiences in the right way and how to align them to a company’s overall brand.
All three of these skill sets are needed for thought leadership to succeed as a marketing strategy. Instead of looking at each topic as a one-off effort, business and marketing/communications stakeholders can work together to define an overall vision and specific plans to support it. Effective collaboration calls for a combination of strategic trust and understanding.
For marcomm stakeholders, that means staying in-the-know on industry topics well enough to have meaningful dialogues about the subject matter itself and the best ways to communicate it with marketing impact. For business stakeholders, that means recognizing that marketing and communications are also areas of expertise. They should be able to focus on goals and commercial outcomes and expect their marcomm partners to come up with creative, impactful ways to get the message out there. Marcomm partners have the responsibility for not letting this relationship devolve into order-taking.
Take responsibility for production and distribution.
Production and distribution are the most obvious areas where thought leaders need support. They are the experts, but they do have “day jobs” developing products and services, delivering client service, and establishing or maintaining client relationships.
By providing robust production and distribution support, marcomm resources can cut through one of the biggest objections thought leaders have — that they don’t have time to generate thought leadership.
In other words, marketing and communications should let the thought leaders be the idea people. They should provide them thought leaders with writers, graphic designers, audio and video production resources — in other words, the people it takes to develop a piece of thought leadership. These resources can be a mix of internal staff and expert service providers.
In addition, once a piece of thought leadership is created, thought leaders need support getting it published, whether on owned media properties such as websites and blogs or external sources such as trade publications and industry forums. Once published, amplifying the thought leadership via social media needs to be a coordinated, concerted push, going beyond just posting it one time on corporate feeds. These activities fall solidly within the capabilities of marketing and communications teams.
Cultivate and mentor thought leaders at every level.
Marketing and communications can help maintain a steady pipeline of thought leaders by giving them access to extensive training and coaching (either internal or via third parties). This effort happens in several ways:
- prospecting for new potential thought leaders within the business
- developing and conducting a thought leader onboarding process
- offering access to general communications and messaging training and, where appropriate, training in special skills such as writing, public speaking, or media interviews
- message development coaching at the start of specific thought leadership campaigns
- meaningful review and feedback of draft thought leadership materials
- ongoing coaching of more senior thought leaders to help them hone their craft
Thought leaders invest a lot of their personal energy and time in their expertise. Companies must reciprocate by making it as easy as possible for thought leaders to get traction. Whether these four support mechanisms reside within marketing, communications, or some hybrid of the two, they are all critical to unlocking the marketing benefits of thought leadership.