I’ll tell you, these days there is so much content out there, it’s hard to know what’s what. On any given day, you can read a plethora of theories — and their exact opposites — at the same time (kind of like the title of this blog post!). More and more people seem to gravitate towards information that comforts or reinforces existing ideas and opinions; and in today’s digital age, investigative journalism to verify “the truth” has become a dying profession.
Forbes magazine defines a thought leader as “an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded”. As an extension of this, the coined phrase “thought leadership” has become a marketing buzz word, and is often used as a means by which a company seeks to increase demand for a product or service (by touting their expertise).
B2B companies try to use thought leadership to build their reputations and strategically position themselves in the minds of potential customers. (White papers are a perfect example of thought leadership-based marketing content). But despite this, my feeling is that the reason why many marketers struggle to pin-point a correlation between thought leadership efforts and sales impact is due to the simple fact that nowadays everyone is an expert on everything.
In his recently published non-fiction book entitled The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Tom Nichols explains that experts are being undermined by several key factors of today’s society, including: ready access to higher education, the rise of the internet and the explosion of media options for the anti-intellectual to express thoughts and opinions. He details examples and exposes research to reiterate his point, including how average citizens believe themselves to be on par with doctors because they read WebMD or Wikipedia. He claims that all voices (even the most absurd) demand to be taken with equal seriousness — any disregard is treated as undemocratic elitism.
He argues that while “the internet has allowed more people more access to more information than ever before, it has also given them the illusion of knowledge when in fact they are drowning in data and cherry-picking what they choose to read”.
While his criticism is geared towards citizens and consumers, I believe that this has (and will continue) to impact business. Because of the rise in thought leadership by businesses as a marketing tactic and the simultaneous decline in the perceived credibility of experts, the question becomes how can companies shape their marketing initiatives accordingly?
Here are some ideas:
Talk to people like people
One common criticism of experts is that they typically patronize their audiences. Looking down on ‘non-experts’ is a no-no as a business especially when it comes to sales, so even if your team is comprised of industry experts, they should be good at communicating with other people, and showing respect to people in all situations. If you invite experts to make a presentation on a webinar for example, encourage them to engage in discussions, answer questions and acknowledge other people’s opinions, even if they don’t necessarily agree.
Simple, to-the-point messages
The era of Donald Trump is not innocuous. It has taught many public relations specialists on and off the campaign trail the importance of direct messaging. (To a large extent it’s Trump’s wide disapproval of experts and cabinet advisers that has reiterated America’s general distaste for them). Whether we like it or not, this sentiment is being carried over into the B2B marketing realm. People are moving away from marketing “mumbo-jumbo” (messages that sound nice but don’t mean anything), because they clearly want to know “what’s in it for me?” Prospects don’t have the time or the patience to look long and hard to find the answer. Being direct and to-the-point has its advantages, so think of how you can simplify your marketing materials to not be overly “techy” (even if they’re meant for IT decision-makers).
Don’t claim to be the best
Everyone claims to be an industry leader, which may in and of itself be another form of the problem that everyone is an expert on everything. But not every company can be #1 (and #1 at what? With what measure? By what standard?). So don’t position yourself that way. Use your case studies to speak for themselves and let your audience decide. As we say, the “proof is in the pudding”. Let facts be the basis for your conclusions and don’t make claims that can’t be backed up by concrete figures.
Admit your strengths & weaknesses
It’s a hard thing for them to admit, but even experts are sometimes wrong. Taking responsibility and owning up to your actions is an important step to maintain credibility and build trust. The simple truth is not everyone can be good at everything, so don’t try to be. Be transparent about your strong and weak points alike — don’t try to hide behind smoke screens and marketing babble.
Be forward thinking
It’s difficult to anticipate the future needs of your buyer personas or how the tech market will evolve over time. Evolving your offer (and your marketing strategy) to respond to what will come a year, two years and five years down the road is challenging. But it’s necessary to imagine where your business will be and how it will react to market changes if you want to have a chance at being at the forefront of innovation.