Thought leadership has helped super-majors, like Shell Oil, refashion their image from producer to high-tech energy solutions guru, and it enabled DrillingInfo to shed the “data company” label and be seen as an industry intelligence leader. Saudi Aramco sponsors an annual global thought leadership forum; news source PennEnergy has launched a Global Thought Leaders Series on trends and technology. And those are just a few examples.
What is thought leadership? In his blog, Thought Leadership Marketing At the Age of Online Influence, Digital marketer and influencer marketing expert Ron Sela offers a helpful definition. “Thought leadership is the process of establishing a relationship with your customers and stakeholders and delivering something of value to them. During this process, you go beyond simply selling a service or product and establish your brand as the expert in the field, differentiating yourself from the competitors.”
Identifying Your Resources
If you’re planning to develop a thought leadership campaign for your company or organization, one of your most accessible sources of help is probably your company’s subject matter experts (SMEs)—people who have been practicing in their field long enough to develop deep knowledge about it. Not all SMEs are potential thought leaders, but most thought leaders are SMEs, writes Peggy Salvatore in The Difference between Thought Leaders and Subject Matter Experts. “A thought leader who is a SME with deep and broad knowledge is suited to lead many. A thought leader who is developing their expertise but willing to step out front will lead fewer. Both will have impact but one will have much greater influence on the future because they are speaking into many lives,” she writes.
There is a catch though: SMEs generally are busy people; they may be less than enthusiastic about supporting a thought leadership campaign, especially if it calls for a significant time commitment on their part.
Motivating your SMEs begins with developing a trust relationship with them, a relationship based on respect and empathy. And how do you do that?
First, Involve Them
Sure, encouraging SMEs to contribute their own ideas achieves buy-in. But what if their ideas aren’t on-point or aligned with your business strategy? Instead of promoting a free-for-all by asking your SMEs, “What do you want to focus on?” start with these questions:
- What are your customers’ most pressing issues or concerns?
- What regulations, industry news or trends are customers talking about?
- How have your ideas or insights helped solve a customer challenge?
Or consider gently providing topic suggestions: “Hey, Joe, I just read about such and such. Are customers thinking about this? How could we contribute to the conversation?”
Next, Make Writing Easier
Journalist Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
Don’t subject your SMEs to that. If you want them to contribute white papers, blogs or speeches to support a thought leadership campaign, you’ll need to help your SMEs eliminate the blank sheet of paper (or monitor screen) by:
- Giving them concise guidelines, explaining what a thought leadership piece is not (it’s not an ad or a technical how-to), and including clear examples of what you are looking for.
- Providing a fill-in-the-blank template for SMEs who need a little more structure.
- Taking the time to write a short project brief, reiterating the three W’s: Who is it for? What are your points? Why should readers care?
Or, Don’t Make Them Write
A short disclaimer: asking your SMEs to write your thought leadership content isn’t always your best option.“When most subject experts write their own articles, books and other content, the insights can be underwhelming,” Robert Buday and Tim Parker of Bloom Group warn in their blog, Moving Your Firm Up The Thought Leadership Evolutionary Chart.
“The ironic thing is these professionals usually don’t lack unique expertise or impressive client work. What they do lack is an ability to develop nascent ideas sufficiently for publication and communicate them in a way the unenlightened can understand,” Buday and Parker explain.
If producing compelling copy for non-experts isn’t in your SMEs’ skill set, you may want to handle the writing yourself. In that case, you’ll need to conduct an in-depth interview with your SMEs.
“The SME interview is one of the most critical steps in the thought leadership content generation process, providing one of the few opportunities for substantive, direct interaction among the main parties in the effort,” thought leadership expert Bernie Thiel of Alterra Group writes in How To Optimize the Thought Leadership SME Interview.
Whoever is doing the writing, SMEs want a chance to communicate what they want to say in the piece so it ultimately reflects their best thinking and positions them well in the marketplace, Thiel says. “For writers, (the interview) the prime venue for gathering the key ingredients they need to shape the SME’s thinking into a strong, compelling piece of content. And for marketers, it’s an opportunity to ensure the project stays on time and results in a document they can effectively pump through the company’s marketing channels.”
If you’re strapped for time, you might prefer the option of hiring a professional writer to handle the interviewing and collaboration with the SMEs. Working with someone who will gather information and provide wordsmithing can make it faster and easier to develop high quality content.
Finally, Remember to Say “Thanks”
Once your thought leadership pieces are complete, resist the temptation to sprint off to the next to-do item. Remember to share the published or digital pieces with the SME. Forward positive feedback from clients and upper management; thank the SME in front of their colleagues. Not only does success feel good, it helps create commitment and future cooperation.
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