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Online Thought Leadership: Transform Your Company Into a Trusted Resource for Your Buyers

online thought leadership

Article based on content from David Meerman Scott’s book The New Rules of Marketing & PR: How to use news releases, blogs, podcasting, viral marketing & online media to reach buyers directly.

An effective online content strategy, artfully executed, drives action. Software and technology companies that use online content well, have a clearly defined goal—to sell products, generate leads, or get people to join a community—and deploy a content strategy that directly contributes to reaching that goal. Often people ask me: “How do you recommend that I create an effective ____?” (fill in the blank with blog, podcast, white paper, e-book, e-mail newsletter, Webinar, etc.). While the technologies for each form of online content are a little different, the one common aspect is that through all of these media, your organization can exercise thought leadership rather than simple advertising and product promotion; a well crafted white paper, e-book, or Webinar contributes to an organization’s positive reputation by setting it apart in the marketplace of ideas. This form of content brands a company and the people that work there as experts and as a trusted resource to turn to again and again.

Developing thought leadership content

OK, so what is thought leadership, and how do I do it?

First, put away your company hat for a moment and think like one of your buyer personas. The content that you create will be a solution to those people’s problems and will not mention your company or products at all! Imagine for a moment that you are a marketer at a Sales Force Automation (SFA) provider. Rather than just peddling your SFA solution, you might write an e-book or shoot a video about shortening the sales cycle, and then promote it on your site and offer it for free to other organizations (such as industry associations) to put on their sites. Or perhaps one of the salespeople at your company could blog about the trials and tribulations of being a traveling salesperson. She could post her thoughts from around the world using photos and videos of the hotels she stays in, the coffee shops she meets people at, and the tradeshows she attends. Perhaps there is a humor angle to it (cool title for the blog: Diary of a Road Warrior). Since the target market for your SFA solution is other salespeople, you would build a following of readers of the blog who are also your target market. The SFA company with a blog like this educates and entertains buyers but does not sell the SFA services directly. Instead, the idea here is that people who enjoy the blog are more likely to buy that company’s SFA product when the time comes.

Forms of thought leadership content

Here are some of the various forms of thought leadership content (there may be others in your niche market).

White papers – The best white papers are not product brochures. A good white paper is written for a business audience, defines a problem, and offers a solution, but it does not pitch a particular product or company.
E-books are being used more and more by marketers as a fun and thoughtful way to get useful information to buyers. For the purposes of marketing using Web content, I define an e-book as a PDF-formatted document presented in a landscape format, rather than the white paper’s portrait format.

E-mail newsletters have been around as long as e-mail, but still have tremendous value as a way to deliver a regular series of thought leadership content. However, the vast majority of e-mail newsletters that I see basically just serve as advertising for a company’s products and services. You know the type I’m talking about—each month you get some lame product pitch and a 10 percent off coupon. But consider using a different type of e-mail newsletter, one that focuses not on your company’s products and services, but on simply solving buyers’ problems.

Webinars are online seminars that may include audio, video, or graphic images (typically in the form of PowerPoint slides) and are often used by technology companies as a primer about a specific problem that technology can solve.

Wikis are started by an organization as thought leadership content because it wants to be seen as an important player in a distinct marketplace. A Wiki allows anyone to post, so it could be used to organize information about a specific issue or problem in the market. The Wiki from Alacra is a good example

Research and survey reports are used by many companies that conduct research projects or surveys and publish the results for free. This can be an effective approach if the research or survey is real and statistically significant and the results are interesting to your buyers. Pragmatic Institute’s salary survey is a good example of this kind of thought leadership.

Blogs are personal Web sites written by someone passionate about a subject and wants the world to know about it with the benefits rubbing off on the company that he works for. Writing a blog is the easiest and simplest way to get your thought leadership ideas out and into the market.

Podcasts are an ongoing series of audio downloads available by subscription which are very popular as thought leadership content in some markets. Some people just prefer audio, and if your buyers do, then a podcast of your own might be the thing for you.

Video content, vodcasts, and vlogs (three names, one medium) are regularly updating videos that offer a powerful opportunity to demonstrate your thought leadership, given most people’s familiarity with the video medium.

How to create thoughtful content

While each technique for getting your thought leadership content into the marketplace of ideas is different, they share some common considerations:

  • Do not write about your company and your products! Thought leadership content is designed to solve buyer problems or answer questions and to show that you and your organization are smart and worth doing business with. This type of marketing and PR technique is not a brochure or sales pitch. Thought leadership is not advertising.
  • Define your organizational goals first. Do you want to drive revenue? Encourage people to download something?
  • Based on your goals, decide if you want to provide the content for free and without any registration (many more people will use the content, but you won’t know who they are) or decide if you want to include some kind of registration mechanism (much lower response rates, but you build a contact list).
  • Think like a publisher by understanding your audience. Consider what market problems your buyer personas are faced with and develop topics that appeal to them.
  • Write for your audience. Use examples and stories. Make it interesting.
  • Choose a great title that grabs attention. Use subtitles to describe what the content will deliver.
  • Promote the effort like crazy. Offer the content on your site with easy-to-find links. Add a link to employees’ e-mail signatures, and get partners to offer links as well.
  • To drive the viral marketing effects, alert appropriate reporters, bloggers, and analysts that the content is available and send them a download link.

To embrace the power of the Web and the blogosphere requires a different kind of thinking on the part of marketers. We need to learn to give up our command-and-control mentality. It isn’t about “the message.” It’s about being insightful. We need to stop thinking “advertising” and instead get our ideas out by understanding buyers and telling them the stories they want to hear. Done well, Web content that delivers authentic thought leadership also brands a software or technology company as one to do business with.

David Meerman Scott is an online thought leadership strategist and the author of The New Rules of Marketing & PR: How to use news releases, blogs, podcasting, viral marketing & online media to reach buyers directly. He is currently at work developing a new course for Pragmatic Institute based on his book. Check out his blog at

Robert Scoble’s Foreword to The New Rules of Marketing & PR

Excerpted from The New Rules of Marketing & PR: How to use news releases, blogs, podcasting, viral marketing & online media to reach buyers directly by David Meerman Scott. Used with permission. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007. ISBN: 0-470-11345-6 $24.95

You’re not supposed to be able to do what David Meerman Scott is about to tell you in this book. You’re not supposed to be able to carry around a $250 video camera, record what employees are working on and what they think of the products they built, and publish those videos on the Internet. But that’s what I did at Microsoft, building an audience of more than four million unique visitors a month.

You’re not supposed to be able to do what Stormhoek did. A winery in South Africa, it doubled sales in a year using the principles discussed here.
You’re not supposed to be able to run a Presidential Campaign with just a blogger, a videographer, and a Flickr photographer. But that’s what John Edwards did in December 2006 as he announced he was running for President.

Something has changed in the past 10 years. Well, for one, we have Google now, but that’s only a part of the puzzle.

What really has happened is the word-of-mouth network has gotten more efficient. Much, much, more efficient.

Word-of-mouth has always been important to business. When I helped run a Silicon Valley camera store in the 1980s about 80% of my sales came from it. “Where should I buy a camera this weekend,” you might have heard in a lunchroom back then. Today that conversation is happening online. But, instead of only being two people talking about your business, now thousands and sometimes millions (Engadget had 10 million page views in a single day during the Consumer Electronics and Macworld shows in January 2006) are either participating or listening in.

What does this mean? Well, now there’s a new media to deal with. Your PR teams better understand what drives this new media (it’s as influential as the New York Times or CNN now) and if you understand how to use it you can drive buzz, new product feedback, sales, and more.

But first you’ll have to learn to break the rules.

Is your marketing department saying you need to spend $80,000 to do a single video (not unusual, even in today’s world, I just participated in such a video for a sponsor of mine)? If so, tell that department “thanks, but no thanks.” Or, even better, search Google for “will it blend?” You’ll find a Utah blender company that got six million downloads in less than 10 days. Oh, and 10,000 comments in the same period of time. All by spending a few hundred bucks, recording a one-minute long video, and uploading that to YouTube.

Or, study what I did at Microsoft with a blog and a video camera. Economist magazine said I put a human face on Microsoft. Imagine that. A 60,000-employee organization and I changed its image with very little expense and hardly a committee in sight.

This advice isn’t for everyone, though. Most people don’t like running fast in business. They feel more comfortable if there’s lots of checks and balances. Er, committees to cover their asses. Or, they don’t want to destroy the morale of PR and marketing departments due to the disintermediating effects of the Internet.

After all, we can type “OneNote Blog” into Google or, or Yahoo and you’ll find Chris Pratley. He runs the OneNote team at Microsoft. Or, search for “Sun CEO.” You’ll find Jonathan Schwartz and his blog.

You can leave either a comment and tell them their product sucks and see what they do in response. Or, even better, tell them how to earn your sale. Do they snap into place?

It’s a new world you’re about to enter. One where relationships with influentials AND search engine optimization strategy are just as important as each other. One where your news will be passed around the world very quickly. Don’t believe me?

Look at how the world found out I was leaving Microsoft for a Silicon Valley startup (

I told 15 people at a videoblogging conference. Not “A listers” either. Just everyday videobloggers. I asked them not to tell anyone until Tuesday—this was on a Saturday afternoon and I still hadn’t really told my boss.

Well, of course someone leaked that information. But, it didn’t pop up in the New York Times. It wasn’t discussed on CNN. No, it was a blogger I had never even heard of that posted the info first.

Within hours it was on hundreds of other blogs. Within two days it was on the Wall Street Journal, in the New York Times, on the front page of the BBC, in Business Week, Economist, in more than 140 newspapers around the world (friends called me from Australia, Germany, Israel, and England, among other countries) and other places. Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s PR agency, was keeping track and said that about 50 million media impressions occurred on my name in the first week.

All due to 15 conversations.

Whoa, what’s up here? Well, if you have a story worth repeating, bloggers, podcasters, and videobloggers (among other influentials) will repeat your story all over the world. Potentially bringing hundreds of thousands or millions of people your way. One link on a site like Digg alone could bring tens of thousands of visitors.

How did that happen?

Well, for one, lots of people knew me, knew my phone number, knew what kind of car I drove, knew my wife and son, knew my best friends, knew where I worked and had heard me in about 700 videos that I posted at on behalf of Microsoft.

They also knew where I went to college (and high school, and middle school), and countless other details about me. How do you know they know all this? Well, they wrote a page on Wikipedia about me at—not a single thing on that page was authored by me.

What did all that knowledge of me turn into? Credibility and authority. Translation: people knew me, knew where I was coming from, knew I was passionate and authoritative about technology, and came to trust me where they wouldn’t trust most corporate authorities.

By reading this book you’ll understand how to gain the credibility you need to build your business. Enjoy!

Robert Scoble
Vice President Media Development,
co-author Naked Conversations

Book Review

By Steve Johnson

The New Rules of Marketing & PR by David Meerman Scott

Which is better? A blog mention or a quote in a magazine article? If you said the magazine quote, you need to read The New Rules of Marketing and PR.

Back in the old days, we hired agencies to create ads and PR firms to generate buzz. We used interrupt marketing. We communicated a simple message broadly. And measured results in the single digits; a campaign that generated 1% response was considered a success.

We’ve felt it for a long time: the old rules of marketing don’t work.

David Meerman Scott introduces the new world of product marketing using new tools to direct-cast to those who are most interested: our buyers. Nowadays anyone with a Mac and a mic can create a podcast; anyone with a video camera can post on YouTube. And sending a news release to Google is now much more important than sending a news release to a journalist.

In the new world of marketing, having something to say matters more than ever. This book explains the reasons why the new media works and how to use the new rules. As always, marketers need to understand the product and its value to buyers, and also be able to articulate the value in buyer language. We just can’t continue to offer vague product platitudes and expect to get anyone’s attention. “Everyone everywhere” is no longer a valid market segment (and it never was)!

But perhaps the most important use for the book is to convince your management that blogging is better than advertising, that posting news to your web site is better than posting to prnewswire, and that participating in a small but interested community is better than blasting your message to everyone everywhere, hoping that someone will hear you.

The really interesting part of this book is that it reminds us that the old techniques really didn’t work very well either. While the others spout jargon at you and vie to shout over each other, the new rules of marketing are a quiet conversation, using language both parties understand.



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