Thought Leadership and the Social Enterprise; Creating Superior Innovation and Marketing

Posted on August 2, 2011 by

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Business is becoming more social. In fact we’re on a road to social enterprise, one where many thousands of micro-interactions between people online create your success. The tools of online conversations and interaction are now the tools of marketing.

In a world where everyone has a point of view and can express it online, you not only need to stand out, you need  a way to scale your point of view. Yes, you need a point of view that is intelligent and astute enough to make your market-leading skills, products, services and offers shine brighter than anyone elses. But that is just first base.

In fact your point of view will be there, perhaps buried within your products or offer. Thought leadership is first and foremost an expression of superior products and services and it needs to be articulated.

How do you get that your point of view into all the right channels? How can you be sure that what you are saying actually leads a conversation, leads your industry, leads your prospects, rather than having you look like a follower? I want to look briefly at those challenges and I’ll do it in these five steps:

  1. What is the social enterprise?
  2. What, really, is thought leadership and why does it become absolutely critical in the era of social business?
  3. How do you research conversations so that you can position your offer to the best advantage?
  4. What training, coaching or support do you need in order to create that position?
  5. How do you move to scale?

What is the social enterprise?

The social enterprise is first and foremost a sign of the most profound change in how we organize for wealth, probably the most significant change in two hundred years, but at least since Ford created integrated production and assembly.

Business is increasingly an externalised set of functions. The days when you did it all in house are well and truly over. Increasingly companies are dependent on an ecosystem of collaborators, partners, freelancers, advocates, fans, associates and customers. Even in those areas where internalised processes are still highly significant, such as the heaeth care sector, the real intelligence, the real pattersn of change and new consumer needs, reside outside the hospital and health care setting – online.

Out there are all the people who carry your message. In the social enterprise your staffers have to be communicating your point of view to that ecosystem. Equally important your offer has to have relevance to conversations out there, online.

Why is thought leadership more important now and what is it anyway?

Thought leadership is typically mistaken for PR, white papers and collateral giveaways.  In fact thought leadership represents the strongest chance you have of taking a lead in a new market.

Thought leadership needs to encapsulate your view of change. It needs to spell out a vision for why your sector or industry is changing and where it is headed. And it has to position your offerings as the best way for potential customers to adapt to that change. It is vital right now because most sectors are experiencing change or need change, often radical change.

That means in turn that your staffers and ecosystem need your leadership so that they can understand that change and make good decisions. Thought leadership then is about real leadership, concrete business objectives for new markets, real sales. That’s why it has nothing to do with PR.

How do you research conversations so that you can position your offer to the best advantage?

There are now many listening technologies that allow you insights into what is being said about you, your competitors and your market. many of them are inadequate.  If you rely on a Radian 6 or a Scout Lab to inform you about conversations in your area of business you will be left with an impressionistic account.

What you really need to know is how do you structure information in the sectors you are targeting, the competitors you might face, customer opinion and needs in the markets you want to lead. To do that the choice of tools becomes more limited. I prefer semantic analysis and have written about it here at the Harvard Business Review site.

Semantic tools can give you a structured overview and inform you about emerging trends as well as about gaps that competitors are not filling. To do good thought leadership marketing you need this data and you need to create structure from the flow of opinion and general noise. In addition you need to know the effective channels of communications in your sector – who influences debate and who can accelerate your message?

To take the health sector example further: what is more significant right now, the development of a healthcare driven preventive medicine or the growth of self-monitoring? While health care professionals might answer, of course it is us, the evidence suggests that innovation in lifestyles are going to be extremely significant and are going to be driven by individuals, just like radical change elsewhere is driven by customers. Who are the significant players in this lifestyle movement, who influences who and what are the trends?

What training, coaching or support do you need in order to create that position?

Many senior executives stall when it comes to thought leadership. Carving out the time to truly understand their domain , developing a well structured point of view, and finding even more time to write about it are too much – so they leave it to the PR department, and that spells inevitable failure.

PR professionals are not equipped to research and construct points of view that can lead an industry – they are there to communicate. On the other hand executives should not be exposed if they are not ready. In order to do good thought leadership, in order to get on the stage, even if that stage is the web, a blog, an article or an actual stage, needs a different type of time management and personal development.

To be a thought leader requires support, at the very least to help construct the point of view, the deck, and the persuasiveness of leadership.

How do you move to scale?

Ultimately success lies in proliferating messages not just creating them and in the social enterprise the propagation channels are mostly online, though conferences also play a role. The tools of the trade are:

  • Functional channels – channels like Google profiles, scribd, YouTube, Google SERPs, Slideshare, blogs. These are channels you control and where you can begin creating a thought leadership profile and reference points for people following you.
  • Acceleration channels – Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Google +, other social networks.
  • Interactive channels – channels such as Gary Hamel’s MIX where leaders should be seen and should contribute.
  • Sectoral channels -  online outlets in the industry sector your want to lead.
  • High value channels – Forbes, BusinessWeek and similar channels. Leaders need to be seen alongside other leaders but not in a PR sense.

Creating contributor pieces that will be published by leading business journals and sites is an important part of the leadership journey. It says you are there, you’ve done it.

How people perceive you is important to how they perceive your offer and the company you keep is important to people because it lets them validate your claim to leadership.

Finally – isn’t this all a bit much effort? No – because if you can’t work out what makes you a leader you will be a follower. If you can’t communicate your point of view then your social graph will not be able to articulate it either, you will not be able to propagate. You will have great ideas that languish in powerpoints and collateral but which are not taken too seriously. If you can’t take the time for personal development then the chances are you won’t lead anyway. So it’s time to rethink marketing and in doing so to rethink yourself and your career and your leadership claims. Good executives will enjoy that challenge.

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