THE BLOG
06/27/2013 09:02 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Thought Followship Marketing Results in Thought Leadership

Over 90 percent of B2B marketers are using content marketing right now, with 54 percent planning to spend even more on it as 2013 progresses, notes a recent report from Content Marketing Institute. And a large part of those dollars are aimed at building a compelling thought leadership platform, which is akin to eating dessert before dinner because followship comes first. Here's why.

Most people move 'forward' in straight lines, without original thought or purpose. They quickly adopt the food, style, views and ideas of others; it's engaging, fun and above all, easy and safe. Best of all, it yields a high return for the time invested, especially when they adopt something in its early stages.

Not surprisingly, this group is large, spans every generation and has tremendous buying power. They take comfort in the fact that an exclusive group of 'know-it-alls,' 'risk takers' and 'knowledge seekers' are out there, doing the homework so they know what to eat, see, wear, go or buy. And they have a name that every marketer knows and regards with healthy respect: thought-followers. That's because when they aim to engage in viral marketing, engagement marketing and experiential marketing, or try to hit the tipping point, they are whom we are trying to infect, engage or tip.

They are our co-workers, neighbors, clients and friends. And many of them are brilliant, as evidenced by the copycat products they create, the brands they catapult to fame and the ideas they incorporate and adopt. We honor and respect the legions of followers because they are integral to our capitalistic system and critical to any marketing efforts, especially in terms of next generation PR. And bottom line, they are the backbone of our marketing and financial economy.

In this new era of marketing, the technology infrastructure of social media and the ability it gives us to search anything--instantly--online, has made it easier for thought-followers to find what they need when they need it. And it has also given new meaning and significance to the need for thought leaders and the development of thought leadership marketing products. So thanks to this changing landscape, where we get information from myriad platforms rather than a few, thought leadership as been reinvented in the last few years.

And for good reason: in today's world, a thought leader is an individual or firm that decision-makers, influencers and even competitors recognize as the "go to" expert in a specific area. They have the ability to convert followers, or those people that you value, to buy your ideas, products or services. And that conversion is critical for it portends profitability for your product or service.

So it makes sense that today's marketing world is focused on thought leadership marketing, which is at the heart of content strategy and content marketing. But great thought leadership marketers have always been, perhaps unknowingly, great content strategists. Just look at CEOs and companies such as Southwest Airlines and Herb Kelleher, Starbucks and Howard Schultz and Whole Foods and John Mackey. Long before thought leadership marketing was in vogue, these giants were blazing the trail.

But I suspect that if these groundbreaking marketers were teaching thought leadership as a course, they would have named it Thought Followship Marketing because they always placed followers first. And placing followers first means your Chief Marketing Officer needs to execute these seven principles:

1. Figure out what matters to THEM

Flying mattered to Southwest Airline's target-- not first class, not short lines, not assigned seats and not that dinosaur complimentary meal. Just flying at a common man's rate with nice people. You can see this message throughout all of their content.

2. Own it perspective, don't delegate it

John Mackey of Whole Foods is perceived to be a little out there with his controversial remarks regarding Obama's healthcare plan. But he's serious, publicly stating "we want to improve the health and well-being of everyone on the planet through higher-quality foods and better nutrition, and we can't fulfill this mission unless we are highly profitable," in his book, "Conscious Capitalism." His market performance has been excellent; his core values tied to explicit action; and the stores unabashedly high prices are designed to do 'good' and to support one of the highest paid workforces in his industry. The point is that he, and his senior management team, own this content philosophy. They haven't delegated this to the marketing officer, and their approach is palpable. The CEO, and senior management experts, are the most legitimate strategic thought leaders in a company.

3. Be authentic

It is clear that Whole Foods is authentic. People know it is the company and not some writer. The same can be said about Southwest in its honest and believable admission that the customer is not always right. That's authenticity. When you have to sell a concept or thought really hard, it won't feel authentic, and it won't fly.

4. Be human

Starbucks' leaders talked about the humanity of the brand and the one moment of the connection. This philosophy extends to the written and visual word and the unspoken engagement managers, their frontline employees. At the end of the day we are human beings and want to feel that way. A hint of the "manufactured" is a turn off. Just look at what is going on in the social media arena, where people are connecting--even with strangers--if you doubt this.

5. Give them something to talk about

At the end of the day we are social. Every one wants to learn some thing new or be stimulated by something special. It makes the common man, or the not- so-common man, more interesting. The thought goes like this: "I can share with my associate, put it in an email or tweet it. But in the end give me content that I want to share."

6. Give them lots more of what they like

Also give me lots of it. The human brain has a huge capacity to digest information. The most recent "How Much Information?" report from UC San Diego's Global Information Industry Center notes that the average U.S. household consumes 3.6 zettabytes--which equals 100,500 words or 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. This is many times greater than the findings of previous studies and research suggests, and the rate is growing exponentially annually. Bottom-line, lots of content is important, but content that is important to "me" is even more important. Personally, I never tire of looking at recipes from Whole Foods and I am fascinated about what they do in the community.

7. Don't confuse them

The follower has a thousand things thrown at him or her daily, so, if you want your brand registered in their brain and an instant understanding of who that brand is--get a tight strategy and keep your content on target. In that way, I will know who you are. Starbucks and Southwestern airlines really embody this so much so that I do not even have to say why they are great examples of this. You get it in your gut!

So if you want to engage, infect or tip those followers, your leaders need to remember Thought Followship Marketing and the principles I've identified here. They should be enforced, and just maybe all that junk masquerading under the budget line item of thought leadership marketing will diminish. And that will allow you to build your brand and sustain customers.

Our final question: are you thinking about Thought Followship Marketing and do you have a disciplined strategy around it?