4 Content Types to Own Thought Leadership in Any Market

December 14, 2016

Have you ever tried to ride a bicycle with deflated tires? Not flat tires, mind you, just tires that are deflating at an agonizingly slow rate. It’s still possible to ride the bike, but it will take you twice as long to get anywhere.

You’re likely pushing your content marketing in the same direction. Sure you’ll eventually get to where you’re headed, but you’ll do so in a far less efficient and less sophisticated manner. Deflated content is not unique. It’s the same content that everyone publishes – the same listicle spread across 50 different websites or an eBook that’s been published 100 times.

Hyperbolic, tired or simply nonsensical titles coupled with content that doesn’t actually provide any new or valuable insights might initially drive engagement (at a certain point any content is better than nothing at all) and net new leads, but it negates the one powerful component that can truly drive true growth: the ability to own the hearts and minds of would-be customers through truly excellent thought leadership.

A great content strategy that drives thought leadership should have the following characteristics:

  • Your content should be “pitchable” to journalists.
  • People should be willing to pay (yes, an email address counts) for your content.
  • Most of your press mentions should be attributable to content campaigns.
  • Every sales deck should incorporate some aspect of your content (a stat or quote for example). Hell, your sales deck should be built off of the thought leadership that’s driving your brand.
  • Your content should be able to support a 60 minute keynote and presentation deck.
  • Your content should be relevant at every stage of the funnel, not just the top.
  • Your content should be directly tied to closed ACV or another metric that points to closed business.

To achieve the above, I like to use four different types of content to appeal to each and every potential buyer:

  1. Experiential
  2. Consumer Research
  3. Peer Research
  4. Product Usage

During my tenure at ExactTarget, we set the groundwork for great thought leadership and much of our content strategy revolved around the four aforementioned content types. Here’s how.

1. Experiential Thought Leadership

At ExactTarget we were selling software that managed customer communication channels like email and social. So to get at the hearts and minds of our buyers, we tried to really understand the customer through original research. One piece of content in particular, Retail Touchpoints Exposed, was truly experiential thought leadership. It was one of our best performing demand gen pieces because it accomplished a few of things:

  1. It helped us understand our buyers’ customer journey.
  2. It united sales & marketing at ExactTarget with shared content – each team had a vested interest.
  3. It produced a thoughtful piece of content that secured press mentions, built presentation decks, supplemented sales pitches and generated net new leads.

Here’s how we did it.

Since retail was a good vertical to sell into, we looked to a list of the top 100 fastest-growing retailers from the Internet Retailer report. In order to get buy in from the sales team, we asked team members to actually visit stores for each of these 100 brands. We wanted to understand how people interacted with each of these brands on a daily basis. We then tracked the brand’s engagement over a 30 day period.

To do so, we asked sales team members to shop at two store locations for each of the 100 brands. We said, “Use this name, this email, track different touch points within the store and buy an item. If an employee asks for your email at point-of-purchase, give them this generic email. Here’s a gift card.” So on and so forth.

We tracked each retailer’s efforts at five specific retail consumer touchpoints:

  • In-Store
  • Website
  • Email
  • Social
  • Mobile

After 30 days had passed, we compiled all the information and developed custom report cards for each “buyer” – the retailer’s CMO (in our case our undercover salespeople). The sales team used the report cards to generate outbound interest and marketing used all the data to produce a major thought leadership piece called Retail Touchpoints Exposed for our inbound efforts. We ended up with stats that could be used for press releases and bylines like:

  • 2% used in-store signage to promote email or SMS (text message) engagement
  • 8% used in-store signage to promote their social communities on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • 44% sought email opt-in at point-of-purchase
  • 2% offered digital copies of receipts via email

So when we were pitching the CMO of a major supermarket or major retail store, we weren’t saying, “Hey, did you download the Retail Touchpoints report that you probably didn’t read?”

We were saying, “Hey, we have a report card on how you interacted with us over 30 days, and guess what, we have report cards for all of your competitors as well. Would you like to chat about how you could change your customer journey for the better?”

This strategy worked extremely well because we were creating thought leadership in the market through value-based and original content. We were saying, “Hey, we understand your business because we experienced it, and this is how we can help you make it better.”

You can’t buy better demand gen.

2. Consumer Research Thought Leadership

Consumer research is purely quantitative and can be more expensive than experiential thought leadership. But, it can be extremely effective.

Whenever ExactTarget launched a new office it was important that we try to own the conversation around digital marketing in that region. We accomplished this by running consumer surveys on digital usage over email, social, mobile and web. For example, when we launched an office in Japan we simultaneously completed a research project on how 5,000 Japanese consumers used social, mobile, email and web.

In the report, we explored:

  • When and how consumers used email, Facebook and Twitter
  • What motivated consumer interactions within each of these channels
  • How digital marketers could communicate more effectively with consumers

This research was just another way for our buyer to understand the populace of a country or city. This type of content was extremely effective in reaching the consumer brands we were targeting. And again, it generated many of the stats we used in keynotes and presentations. We could say, “85% of people in the United States open email from a retailer.” We didn’t have to use a third party stat, we owned the survey data to support our decks. We had truly become the the thought leaders in the market.

3. Peer Research Thought Leadership

At ExactTarget, we went to great lengths to truly understand the marketer (our peers and the ultimate users of our product) and their plans for the coming years. In order to do so, we built out a report that sought to understand what marketers were spending their budget on and what they were trying to accomplish with email, social, mobile and tech.

The State of Marketing report that resulted from these conversations was such a success that Salesforce (which acquired ExactTarget) still produces State of reports to drive top of the funnel growth for the company. Here’s another example of peer based content:

4. Product Usage Thought Leadership

Every software company has massive amounts of data on how their product is being used. The problem is that most of the time this data is mismanaged or siloed away. If handled properly, however, product usage data can be a treasure trove for content production.

Silverpop produces great data-driven thought leadership. Their email benchmark reports were (and still are) widely read and distributed throughout the industry. When it came to best practices in email marketing, they were truly the thought leader.

Sales Hacker recently released a great piece of database research where they analyzed 25,537 B2B sales conversations using AI and published content around that research. While I’m not a huge fan of the overall layout of the post, it is extremely valuable content for their buyer and user.

If you truly believe you are the best at what you do, you should be using data collected from your own product to drive leads and inform thought leadership.

So there you have it – four content types to reinflate your content strategy. Ultimately, content should not be the sales pitch, it should supplement the sell. You want content to be the mindshare owner that enables the sales team to close the deal. Happy writing!