How often have you seen a celebrity (or influencer) endorsing something completely outside their field of expertise and have had a negative reaction along the lines of, “What does this person even know about premium hog feed?” Unless you live in the wild, your answer is likely to be at least everyday.
For as long as marketing has been around, so has the ubiquitous celebrity endorser. Of course, there is a time and place for celebrity endorsers, and if used strategically, they can be very effective. However, due to the sheer volume of celebrity-centric marketing campaigns linking these endorsers to unrelated products, the opposite of the desired effect has become prevalent in the market, with many people becoming numb or having a negative reaction to the material.
This negative reaction is rooted in people’s natural distrust for things that seem too salesy and inauthentic. Why should you trust an endorser who is obviously not an expert in the subject?
And if they're endorsing things they're not an expert in, then naturally any endorsement of what they do purport to be an expert in is viewed with thinly veiled skepticism.
In the modern marketplace, whether that is in a seller-consumer or a business-to-business relationship, the key to driving sales is building a relationship with your audience. Authenticity is key to this, and sending out messages that don’t seem genuine and provide value is a quick way to get your market to turn the other way.
Fortunately, there is another way to grow your brand that does not involve paying a famous face to give a thumbs-up next to your instant oatmeal product, and it is effective, relationship-building, and undervalued.
This marketing strategy harnesses the strength of expertise and authenticity - it is thought leadership. Thought leadership in a nutshell is free content that agencies or individuals produce on a topic of their expertise that they feel will be beneficial to their audience in the marketplace.
The goal of this free content is to provide value to their target market, demonstrating the depth of expertise in their field, with the intention being that a relationship of trust and reciprocity will eventually form, allowing their messages to be more well-received, ultimately driving sales and growing their brand as more and more people look up to the person or company as an expert in the topic.
Thought leadership in it's literal form has been around for as long as humans have inhabited the earth, with many leaders throughout history rising as a direct result of their ability to effect internal transformation of the individual or masses through the knowledge or insights they imparted.
While its integration into the modern marketing mix is relatively novel, putting thought leadership into a business context, it has far more impact on sales than people realise, and trends in the marketplace today show that its growth is set to continue.
According to a 2019 Edelman study (2019 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study), which surveyed business decision makers in a B2B context, 58% of respondents said it was the direct cause of them awarding business to a seller. Yet as effective as this is, only 26% of sellers believed that it was directly responsible for helping them close business.
This disparity in the perception of the value of thought leadership is a theme throughout the study. Only 17% of sellers believed thought leadership led to a request for proposal, but 45% of buyers said it was the reason that they contacted companies they weren’t even considering before. Additionally, only 14% of sellers believed that thought leadership helped them charge higher rates for their product or services, but 61% of business decision makers said they were willing to pay a premium for a company based on their thought leadership.
So why do buyers place such a high value on thought leadership? What sellers may not realise is that buyers look to thought leadership as a way to get a sample of what an organisation is all about. This is because it is one of the best ways out there to show the calibre of thinking of your organisation, as well as showing what your values and characteristics are.
By having thought leadership that is truly representative of your brand values, you give your audience a deep look into what your company culture is like, what your perspectives are, and even what you stand for.
As you can probably tell, this gives far more information than your usual sleek branding and catchy copy, and if it is of high calibre, will tend to attract like-minded customers to reach out for collaborations and business.
The relationships that form between seller and buyer in this context will be much stronger than if it were founded on something superficial, as thought leadership is based on authenticity and expertise, not fleeting glitz and glamour.
The statistics above point towards a huge market opportunity that many sellers have not recognised yet. The demand is obviously there, as the numbers show that a majority of decision makers look to thought leadership to guide their choices, but sellers are yet to recognise this.
This represents a field of untapped opportunity which marketers (and indeed anyone with a message to share) would be well-advised to capitalise on, by incorporating this exceptionally rapidly growing marketing discipline into their strategy.
Word of caution though - the fate of many an organisation has been well intentioned desire to embark on an ambitious thought leadership program only to stumble out of the gate or shortly into the race. A cohesive strategy to align thought leadership initiatives with a firm's (or individual's) overarching brand and values, along with the consistency to support it over a sustained period (and we all know the content machine is a hungry best!) are the two most important factors that hinge the success of thought leadership execution.
The biggest precursor for ongoing success is a robust implementation plan with systems and processes that will support the production of excellent thought leadership materials on a consistent basis to connect with their ideal target audience.
This doesn't mean you need to have all the bells and whistles, or a marketing team the size of an army. It's about identifying what is the "right" frequency and channel for your organisation based on your goals, resources, audience and appetite for engagement. Then powering this with generous doses of patience and tenacity (yep, you're going to need it!).
And if you're on social media as your choice of channel don't forget about engagement - as what's said on the periphery has equal if not more impact than any published pieces themselves as that's where true thought leadership is demonstrated.
Thought leadership is not about publishing just for the sake of it. It's about harnessing the genuine expertise and insights and packging it in a way that has meaning and impact for your audience. Done consistently, you're well on your way to becoming a recognised thought leader and expanding your market reach and position, and ultimately your market share.
Nina Christian is passionate marketer and mentor to marketers and entreprenuers around the globe.
Her marketing agency Braveda, founded in 2000, is a boutique marketing agency that specialises in building brands through thought leadership and content creation.
Braveda was named Best Marketing Agency at the 2018 Australian Marketing Excellence Awards and Nina was named 2018 Certified Practicing Marketer of the Year (Victoria) and National Finalist for both categories in 2019.
Nina believes believes every marketer deserves the chance to build a career that inspires and is helping young marketers become the marketers the world wants and needs through Launch Your Marketing Career.
She is also an entrepreneur with several start-ups under her belt, including a successful exit in 2008 of a pioneering ecommerce brand she co-founded in 2001.
In 2017 she co-founded EntreprenHer - a School of Entrepreneurship for Girls, inspiring and equipping young women and emerging entrepreneurs and leaders.
She is a Fellow of the Australian Marketing Institute, and Chair of the AMI State Committee in VIC.
Nina is a regular speaker on the subjects of Marketing and Entreprenuership and believes there has never been a more exciting time to be a marketer.
Outside of work (which she loves!) Nina enjoys the outdoors, is an active CrossFitter, and after 3pm most days is off-duty having fun with her five young children and doing mum stuff.
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