Opinions, best practices and research into B2B marketing strategy and practices

Big thought leadership ideas for big industry

There’s a seat for everyone at the Thought Leadership table, says Morten Floee Knudsen, Thought Leadership Content Manager at global engineering company FLSmidth. In a highly competitive market with discerning buyers, thought leadership is an important tool in the B2B marcomms toolset.

“People can be intimidated,” said Morten Floee Knudsen, when I asked him about thought leadership as a marketing mechanism in heavy industry.

“The idea of spending resources on creating or sharing inspiring, thought-provoking content that does not talk about your product and won’t sell products tomorrow can be a scary thought. But raising issues and debating broader industry challenges show that you care, that you take ownership of the market, and that you speak the same language as your customers.

“And it gives context to the products and services you sell to a potential customer, who might not be in the market to buy right now, but will remember that you took a stand on issues they cared about when they are ready to buy.”

As Thought Leadership Content Manager at cement industry engineering company FLSmidth, Morten Floee Knudsen’s role involves encouraging his colleagues to not be intimidated, but instead embrace the opportunity.

Be curious

“It’s a question of being bold enough to invite both competitors and customers alike to share an intellectual space, challenge the imagination, promote innovation and collaborate on progressing the industry through thoughtful, elevated discourse,” he says.

“People can be reluctant to start a conversation about the big questions in the industry; the ones where there is no clear answer. But I think it’s important to ask questions – to be curious. For example, why exactly do we do the things we do? What’s the context – the bigger picture? Why do we make these products in this way?

This exercise, however, requires a well-defined platform based on solid communications principles. This platform must create a well-designed venue for discourse that engages respected experts and is a safe space for asking challenging questions.

As an example, Morten points to a blog by Jabra that deals with a topic important for the brand’s target audience: the impact of sound in the office environment. This blog is the home of an idea called the “productivity cube”, which underpins key themes. Here, thought leadership is supported by a powerful communication concept to create a space that continuously engages key stakeholders with relevant, topical content.

A key element of Jabra’s thought leadership is the productivity cube, which provides a model for engaging stakeholders with relevant content.

Let’s dare to start a conversation

To some extent, it’s about gaining credibility by daring to admit intellectual vulnerability. “There’s just as much credibility in creating the space to ask questions as there is in being the one with all the answers – perhaps even more,” he says.  

Perhaps it even has its roots in Socrates’ well-known method of discovery and learning. Don’t thought leaders also employ a certain pedagogical method when they ask, “Just because we’ve always done it this way, do we have to do it this way?” Could it be that the whole concept of thought leadership is a modern-day reiteration of that highly regarded albeit ancient mechanism of intellectual discovery?

Trust-building for the long term

Thought leadership also involves looking to see what’s ahead on the horizon in an effort to shape awareness of key issues. It differs from sales, which is about the “right now” as opposed to the “not-so-distant future”.

There is, of course, huge importance in intimately understanding the specific challenges of your client’s world. Going beyond just the intellectual and demonstrating a passion for understanding specific challenges can make the client feel seen and heard – a great basis for building a strong client relationship.

In B2B, a prerequisite for gaining a competitive sales advantage in the marketplace is trust. Because thought leadership is an effective means of building trust, thought leadership should also be a prerequisite for sales.

A recent thought leadership impact study by Edelman-LinkedIn Research found that 89 percent of decision-makers say that thought leadership can be effective in enhancing their perceptions of an organization, with 42 percent stating they are willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that produces thought leadership.

Driving sales with authenticity

So, where does thought leadership fit into a marketing and sales strategy? The short answer is, everywhere.

Morten notes that “thought leadership is part of the marketing and communications setup and needs to be part of the customer journey, so it’s important to understand how they move through it.”

“By releasing quality content, you can make your brand part of the customer journey before they even know they are on it.

“On one hand, the whole idea behind creating an open discussion forum is that everyone can participate, and this goes specifically for industry peers. But perhaps the most important member of the thought leadership space is the customer you’ve invited to the table.”

Morten insightfully identifies an opportunity here.

“You meet them when their guard is down. Again, it’s an emphasis on trust-building. By not talking about the product from a sales perspective, you can actually benefit sales by creating an entire infrastructure for how to talk about the product. You do this by creating and naming the environment in which the product lives, and by examining how it functions in that environment and the specific challenges of the product.”

Adding value with a new conversation

When Jabra started talking about productivity in the modern workplace, for example, it gave sales staff a completely new entry point to customers. The conversation was no longer about sales deals: ‘three for the price of two’, or ‘50 percent longer battery life’. Instead, the conversation opener became, “How’s the ‘open office’ going?”

“You’re carving out a space in which the solution or product is a natural part, without the hard sell,” explains Morten. “It’s a much more meaningful conversation.”

High and low-involvement sales

Moving from one industry sector to another, Morten Knudsen has observed some vital differences in how thought leadership needs to be approached depending on the sales process.

“In the office equipment sector, for example, as you move closer to the point of purchase, you need to be ‘always on’. You need to keep up the communications throughout the customer journey to maintain constant visibility. That’s the role of thought leadership.”

But in the heavy industry sector, the thought leadership card has to be played somewhat differently.

He explains it in terms of the level of involvement in the purchase.

“If you’re selling simpler products in bulk, such as Bluetooth headsets, it might be possible to talk about bigger issues all the time. The technical aspects of the product are not so crucial and there is less competitive differentiation.

“In a company like FLSmidth, however, selling large industrial machinery and services, the sales cycle is so much longer and the process so much more complex. The topics of thought leadership can span many different aspects, from being closely related to the product to broader topics related to the industry’s role in local society.”

In this context, big issues such as emissions and energy consumption cannot be taken lightly. And kudos should go to FLSmidth for shouldering the responsibility of taking on such issues, and bringing thought leadership overtly into its marketing strategy with the MissionZero sustainability ambition for 2030.

Influencers are important in big industry, too

As with any strategic initiative, a figurehead is also needed to represent thought leadership in the company.

Ideally, it should be a C-level or high-ranking executive. Not only will this bring more credibility, but the thought leadership itself will begin to carry the meaning and culture associated with that person.

Sound familiar? It’s really no different than the social media influencers of the consumer world. The influencer endorses a brand with a well-known face and personality, making the brand more relatable and more credible – just what’s needed in thought leadership.

Content platform

So, the experts are on board and you have a great story. Now, the thought leadership initiative can begin to take shape. But how can you take it from the abstract to the, ahem, concrete?

Here, FLSmidth’s Discover publication represents a great example. Discover is a physical and digital content platform that FLSmidth uses to discuss topics pertinent to the company and to its industry sectors: mining and cement.

By sharing the views of senior experts and executives at the company, as well as opening up discussions pertaining to topics such as sustainability and the environment, FLSmidth’s Discover is an ideal space for thought leadership.

Broader marketing mix

Even though thought leadership is important, it can’t be relied on as the only marketing activity.

“There is always a time and place for promotional communications such as adverts and direct marketing to create opportunities and drive sales engagement,” says Morten.

But increasingly, in a highly competitive market with discerning, well-informed buyers, thought leadership is a necessary tool in any complete marcoms toolbox that needs to be used at the right place in both the content marketing and sales processes. In fact, in terms of the traditional sales funnel, it has a role to play throughout, supporting all sales and marketing efforts.

For Morten Knudsen, it’s crystal clear. “Whether you are trying to sell 1000 Bluetooth headsets or a $100,000 piece of equipment, thought leadership can and should be a part of the sales process.”

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David Hoskin

I've helped B2B companies create and implement international marketing and communications strategies since 1999. I've been fortunate enough to work with some great companies and highly talented individuals during the years. But the game's changing fast. Although my aim is always to create pragmatic solutions that produce measurable results, there are always new challenges to overcome. I studied engineering and music and I have an Executive MBA (with Distinction) from Henley Business School, University of Reading (UK). Today, I'm a partner at B2B marketing agency cylindr and BBN International. Here on Integrated B2B, I want to share my personal opinions and perspectives on the changing face of B2B marketing. I hope you join in the conversation, too.