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The Complete Guide to Thought Leadership for SMEs

Small and medium scale enterprises do not have the goodwill and standing of the more prominent players to drive sales. These big brands are not giving up on seeking higher market penetration, making the task even more daunting for SMEs.

There are still plenty of ways to get your products and services out there.

The traditional marketing approach is to go for email marketing channels, invest in PPC, boost your SEO, and improve your content marketing channels. One prospect that is rarely discussed in SME circles, though, is thought leadership. Smaller and growing businesses often don’t know where to begin with thought leadership, or fear that costs will be prohibitive.

We already know that 58% of decision-makers in your target audience will choose a business based on thought leadership. That tells you all you need to know about why you should also get started today.

What is Thought Leadership?

The answer is, well, in the name, but we need to do a little bit of more exploration into the topic.

Look at it this way: there are services, products, and offerings that are crucial to your business. Those services/products are particular to different industries. When you want to learn more about them, or find an unconventional approach, there is most likely someone whose opinions you trust. This person or brand is a thought leader in that niche for you.

Thought leadership is the series of steps and processes towards establishing yourself and/or your brand as a force to be reckoned with. Thought leadership separates you from many other vendors and marketers by bringing fresh ideas and insights to the table.

Thought leadership does not answer how you can sell more – although it brings sales in the long run. What it does, instead, is ask the question of how you can help your clients more.

You might think in this case that a thought leader would be an expert in their field from all areas. After all, that is how you and your business can better understand the industry for the required resonance and results with customers and potential customers in that sector. However, expertise alone is not enough.

A true thought leader will be passionate about what they are doing. A strong start by itself is not as impressive or impactful as sustaining effective thought leadership for a long period. This is not a sprint, but a marathon, that requires intention and dedication.

The thought leader knows that they are responsible for a set of audiences that look up to them for insights and fresh content. They are not expected to only be there some of the time and disappear at will. Without commitment and consistency, the thought leadership campaign is dead on arrival.

The Benefits of Thought Leadership

As an SME, there is no point in your business putting hands in cookie jars that will not generate ROI. You do not have the luxury of time and resources that the more prominent brands do. If it doesn’t contribute to short-term growth, while setting a template for long-term expansions, we don’t recommend it. On that basis, how does thought leadership compare?

1 Reach

35% of all decision-makers concede that they spend at least an hour (and up to three hours) consuming thought leadership content daily. This takes up vital hours from their day, and we are sure they won’t give it up willingly for mediocre content.

The internet is awash with content, and the information overload problem is growing. Helping these decision-makers combat that problem gives them something worth their time to keep coming back for more. With effective thought leadership content and campaigns, you establish yourself as a go-to resource for these decision-makers to spend their hours better.

2 Filtering

Buying is an emotional decision that has logical sides to it, too. The logical aspect boils down to filtering out many options until you find which one works best for you. Thought leadership gets you a foot in the door here.

Up to 55% of decision-makers claim to use thought leadership content in their vetting process. Even if your business is doing fine, you could still always lose profitable business to competition with better thought leadership.

This is one situation where you cannot afford to sit on the fence either. With poor thought leadership, you are most definitely going to lose profitable business to other brands. You can choose to avoid lousy thought leadership by not doing it at all. Unfortunately, you would still be losing business to brand with good thought leadership.

3 Exposure

Do you know how hard it can be to generate B2B leads? Have you taken the time to study the rigorous process to get your target audience’s contact information in the B2B market?

When you therefore find something that promises to make 47% of C-suite executives willingly share their contact information with you, it’s worth pursuing. That something is thought leadership. The flipside to this, though, is that the thought leadership has to be good quality work. This encourages C-suite players to want to know more about you and learn more industry insights and expertise from you. We don’t know about you, but that sounds like the beginning of a beneficial business arrangement.

4 Premium

Thought leaders are not scared to place a premium on the products and services that they offer. They have shown their workings time and again, so they know their clients are getting value from every financial commitment they make. It is one thing to place a premium on your offerings – and another thing for your clients to be willing to pay that premium. This is where the disconnect happens in most market scenarios. That is one go-to-market strategy discussion for another day, but bear it in mind as part of your thought leadership strategy.

Research recently uncovered that 61% of decision-makers wouldn’t mind paying a premium to work with brands that have demonstrated a clear thought leadership vision. Read that again: your clients will be delighted to pay you more than you might already be charging to have a shot at working with you. It doesn’t get better than that. But be sure to weigh this up with times of economic uncertainty and the need for providing value for money.

Creating a Thought Leadership Strategy

We maintained two constants on thought leadership:

  • that thought leadership holds a lot of promise for your brand; and
  • effective thought leadership takes planning and intention.

It’s best not to start any thought leadership without a strategy. As an SME, you don’t have to pull out all the stops to win an audience, build authority, and start getting paid the dividends of thought leadership.

The first thing to know is that you don’t have to be the thought leader for the brand, even if you are the brand owner.

For example, Elon Musk is a serial entrepreneur who has investments in the space business and the electric vehicle market. Mr. Musk does not indicate having undergone any particular pieces of training in any of both niches. Thus, it would be wrong for him to discuss rocket science and technology when there are more capable hands onboard.

That does not devalue the brand. It just shows that you have the right talents to handle the needs of the client.

Furthermore, there is a need for agile teams behind the thought leadership process. The thought leader might be the campaign’s face, but they cannot do the work alone.

Effective thought leadership comes with research, data analytics, outreach, social media management, and more. While the thought leader can wear multiple hats, they should not have to. Create a budget for the thought leadership team and get the hands to make it happen on board. This could be internal or external resources,or a combination of the two.

The place for an agile team becomes more prominent when you consider:

  • the need to always stay on trend and put out timely content to generate conversions; and
  • the need to conduct in-depth research to uncover insights for the target audience.

One is not more important than the other. They have to be done alongside each other for balance in your thought leadership.

Finally, choose where your content will be published for the best effect. That takes significant market research to identify where the bulk of your target market is, so that you get to reach them better and faster.

Identifying the Right Content Types

Everything rests on content. On the one hand, you know that you have to put out quality content. However, that is just a blanket term for all the kinds of content out there. You can deliver quality content that will be useless to your target audience later. Relevance and timeliness are key.

So, what kind of content makes for effective thought leadership?

We have done an extensive piece on the right content mix for thought leadership on this blog. We shared unique insights into the modes of content to go for, leaving you to choose the content vehicles (video, text, images, etc.) that best resonates with your audience.

As long as you have your content delivery channels and vehicles set, you can leverage the content mix guide to know what content to release and when.

Troubleshooting Thought Leadership

The path to success in thought leadership marketing also involves knowing what to avoid.

To recap, choosing the wrong thought leader can undermine the entire project. The thought leader needs to have a passion for the niche and industry. They should also be experts with critical problem solving skills, able to ask and answer questions that the clients have not even thought about. They should also be willing to advance discussions while possessing the right analytical skills to provide unique takes on trends and news. That sounds like a tall order, but it is the bare minimum that natural thought leaders embody.

Consistency is also a mistake that we have seen with many thought leaders. If your content mix requires blogs and research-based reports, establish a comfortable timeframe to put them out. If your blogs are going out twice a week and your reports get published once per quarter, keep to that. Never introduce your audience to an energy that you have no plan to maintain. If anything, the only place that energy should go is up.

Finally, do not get into thought leadership for the wrong reasons. We have seen a series of thought leaders go on an ego trip. Instead of making the message about their audience, they explore every opportunity to center the narrative around themselves. There is nothing wrong with proof of work and process, but that is not what will help your audience solve their unique problems.

In the same vein, define what you want to get out of your thought leadership before you start. Is your goal to woo new clients? Do you want more reach and exposure? Are you planning on replacing your relative newness to the market with proof of knowing your craft, using thought leadership? Are you only interested in the sales it can bring you?

It would be wrong to lie to yourself about your goals for starting a thought leadership program. This leads to conflicting deliverables and metrics, causing the entire strategy to implode.

As we have said before, this is a marathon. Make sure you are in it for the long haul and sustain your efforts and energy. Following the tips outlined here, you will be well equipped to see that marathon through to the end.

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