January 20, 2011

The Seven Steps to Thought Leadership

Most companies want to be known as thought leaders. Those few that do not probably don't understand how this positioning would positively impact their reputation, their ability to meet their business goals, the value of their company, and their sales.

There are four major benefits to successful thought leadership:

a. A successful "push" strategy. Your brand and your expertise are invaluable to customers and stakeholders seeking advice and information

b. A successful "pull" strategy. As your reputation grows, it opens doors to new business prospects, trading partners, and interest from news media

c. Stronger relationships. Current customers and stakeholders feel validated for choosing such a forward-thinking company

d. High ROI. The materials created for thought leader campaigns generate higher returns because they are used for multiple purposes and multiple audiences

The path to becoming - and remaining - a thought leader has changed radically, as Web 2.0 and social media have re-defined how we receive information and communicate.

These seven steps are effective in today's web-driven environment and have proven themselves with numerous companies.

Step 1:Self-publishing

Never has the saying, "publish or perish" been more true than in today's content-driven Web 2.0 world. It's no longer about interrupting what people are doing and getting them to listen to your message; it's about having your message in front of customers' eyes exactly when they are looking for information.

What does this mean for marketing and PR? Companies need to build their brand by publishing their own intellectual capital. While the news media is still an important influencer, online information has become so omnipresent that most people now use the Internet as their primary source of information.

Self-publishing for your marketing campaign can take several forms:

1. The Multi-Channel Bulletin

This is the foundation of your in-house publishing program and your Internet marketing and PR campaign. Topics can cover:

a. "Best practices"

b. Growing issues/problems and how they can be solved

c. Customer problems and solutions

d. Tips or advice

Each bulletin can then be adapted for multiple purposes:

Press releases, direct mail, website content, etc.

Now you can track website hits, analyze audience sourcing, and monitor your search engine positioning to see if the bulletins are driving traffic to your website.

2. Bylined Articles

The trade news media - both print and online - is increasingly interested in bylined articles. These articles - written by industry guest experts - are important components of your self-publishing program.

3. White Papers

White papers can also be utilized in marketing. Companies have had considerable success offering white papers through online ads in well-read newsletters and news sites to generate new business leads.

Step 2: The Executive Forum Blog

B2B companies often wonder about the usefulness of blogging, and are wary of the time commitment required and the risk of negative comments on the blog. The Executive Blog avoids these barriers by presenting individual blog postings as mini executive forums, i.e., vehicles to publish searchable opinions and establish thought leader positioning. Blog entries serve multiple marketing purposes and can be circulated to clients, prospects, opinion leaders, internal audiences, and media, too.

Step 3: The Online Speaker Series

Hosting online speaking forums is another thought leadership tactic that is a component of the "Content Is King" communication universe we now inhabit.

Your executive can serve as the host/moderator or as a member of the panel. Having multiple speakers increases your audience and strengthens your relationships with co-panelists who can be clients, consultants, or other key influencers. Inviting members of the media as panelists and moderators is another strategy that increases interest in the topic and strengthens relationships.

Ideas presented in the webinars can also become content for the multi-channel bulletin program and for the Executive Forum blog. The presentations themselves can be archived on the company's website as podcasts and/or made available through iTunes and other online sharing sites.

Step 4: Traditional Speaking Engagements

Speaking engagements at conferences, trade shows, and other industry gatherings are a traditional component of a thought leadership program. While these opportunities are declining in number and increasingly competitive, they can still be invaluable as PR opportunities.

Step 5: The Thought Leader Website

Your website is one of your company's most important showcases, demonstrating the depth of your intellectual capital, your industry leadership, and your dynamic growth. Two initiatives will maximize your website's thought leader capability:

a. Provide a constant stream of new content with blog entries and posted bulletins, news releases, articles, etc.

b. Creating a "knowledge center" of insightful information, such as your own bulletins, white papers, and bylined articles, as well as commentary on interesting articles written by people outside your company.

Step 6: Media Relations

There are two components to media relations, both of which contribute to thought leadership.

The first is the type of activity that has traditionally been considered "public relations" -- news releases on company events and accomplishments, with outreach to media likely to write about these announcements.

The second is Web 2.0 activities such as:

a. News releases that provide commentary on new industry, economic, market, regulatory, or social developments

b. Posting insightful comments on the blogs of key journalists who write stories relevant to your company or area of expertise

c. Sending selected bulletin, white papers, and articles to media

Thought leadership in media relations does not happen overnight. It is an evolving process that takes time and investment, but the long term benefits are significant. Executives and companies with successful media relations programs possess a powerful brand-building tool in the court of public opinion.

Step 7: Leveraging Online Social Media

Facebook, blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter -- these social media tools are becoming more ubiquitous every day. But is social networking relevant to B2B companies? Is it a threat, a gold mine, or a non-starter in their marketing and PR efforts?

Handled appropriately, these new communication channels will not only enhance existing communications, they offer access to new audiences. They can strengthen your thought leader program, positively influence customers and stakeholders, and minimize the risk of a "social media firestorm," a conflagration that can sink your company's reputation with a real-time online crisis.

So yes, these social media channels are relevant to a B2B audience. The question is "How relevant?" And what exactly should you do?

Some leading PR Firms offer social media thought leader program which begins with an audit of how your company, your executives, your industry and the problems you solve are being discussed and/or represented online. Based on the results of this audit and their understanding of your business goals and resources, your program may include:

a. Setting up a corporate Facebook page and using it to share company information with constituents

b. Developing a lead generation strategy for LinkedIn and other business networking sites

c. Re-broadcasting company news on Twitter, following key journalists, and cultivating your own following

d. Selective blogging on appropriate thought leader and industry blogs

These seven steps to thought leadership in a Web 2.0 world will take you to the pinnacle you're seeking in terms of reputation, brand equity, and lead generation. It may be via an entirely unfamiliar and different path than you might have taken five years ago, but the payoff will be an expanded online presence and the ability to reach a larger audience with even higher impact.

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