Hello, and welcome to another episode of B2B Marketing & More. I have a special guest today: Erika Heald. She’s a founder and the lead consultant at Erika Heald Marketing Consulting, where she helps a lot of SaaS startups.
Today we are going to talk about B2B thought leadership, in the context of the B2B marketing specifically. What makes it important for marketers and companies and why do they need to be aware of generating thought leadership.
In this episode:
- What is the biggest misconception about thought leadership?
- How should marketers start to craft B2B thought leadership strategy for their company?
- What are the challenges for big enterprises?
- How to find the right B2B thought leadership opportunities within the company?
- How can B2B marketers and subject matter experts create thought leadership content?
- What is the best way to position a thought leadership pitch to the management?
Quotes from the episode:
“You start by thinking about who in your organization is not afraid to speak their mind, even if it might ruffle some feathers. You want to find those who are okay with sometimes being the one who says the not so popular opinion out loud in public and is willing to talk about it.”
“If you’re willing to put in the time with your Legal and Compliance partners and share why you want to change something or where you’re coming from, a lot of times, they will figure out how to help you get towards where you wanted to go.”
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To expand your knowledge about B2B Thought Leadership, check out some of my previous podcast episodes, blog posts, and video.
Welcome to another episode of B2B Marketing & More. I have a special guest today: Erika Heald. She’s a founder and the lead consultant at Erika Heald Marketing Consulting, where she helps a lot of SaaS startups. We are going to talk about thought leadership. Hi, Erika.
Erika Heald: Hello. It’s so good to see you and you in your new house?
Pam Didner: Yeah. I moved to Raleigh four or five months ago, and we’re finally situated. We still have quite a bit of furniture that hasn’t arrived due to a supply chain disruption, but why can’t we do? But if nothing else, I have my desk and my chair. That’s what counts.
Erika Heald: And you guys can always take a Uhaul and drive up to High Point and, you know, buy some furniture samples after the furniture market.
Pam Didner: Have you been there?
Erika Heald: Yes, actually, when I worked for the SF Mart, the building that is now the Twitter building in San Francisco, there was a huge home furnishings marketplace. And it was my first week on the job. And they sent me to High Point with everybody. It was so overwhelming.
Pam Didner: I love High Point. Well, we are not talking about furniture today. We’re going to talk about thought leadership. You and I know that thought leadership is critical, especially for B2B marketing. So can you share with us the definition of thought leadership in the context of the B2B marketing specifically? And why is it important for marketers and the companies that they need to be aware of generating thought leadership?
Erika Heald: So for me–and this is coming from a background of journalism first and foremost, but I’ve also done my time, you know, with a PR agency heading up comms, in-house, all sorts of that stuff, too–for me thought leadership is when you’re putting those unique perspectives from leaders within your company out there in public regularly through various types of content. So it can be everything from blog posts and ebooks to public speaking engagements, podcasts, all of these different avenues.
But the key is people who are subject matter experts and have a point of view. And this is for me where I see the biggest kind of issues come up. Because frequently–and not to disparage PR agencies–but frequently, you will see thought leadership as a couple of slides in a PR presentation, as you know, “oh, hey, so for this month, here’s the, uh, the thought leadership” and it’s a couple of catchy headlines with your CEO’s picture next to it.
And it’s like, well, that’s all great, but they’re not necessarily thought leadership. Often, they’re tied into the PR campaign or what have you, but they’re not focused on that human being and their experiences and sharing them with people in a meaningful way. And from my perspective, you have to have that involvement with that thought leader and have that unique perspective and point of view that they’re willing to share. If they’re going to just tell you everything you already read in HBR that month, that will not work because people want something authentic and real.
Pam Didner: If they know a specific topic or field very well, they can help other people learn or provide some insights that other companies or competitors cannot provide. That’s also a sense of thought leadership. Is that correct?
Erika Heald: 100%. You’re so good at that. But I love that you glommed onto immediately because, you know, thought leadership is not limited to your C-suite. Suppose you’re only putting your CEO out there or the other folks who sit on that same floor–you know if you have a physical headquarters anymore. Realistically, some of your best thought leaders will be those folks with deep subject matter expertise who know a lot about your customers or who used to have jobs that are the same jobs that your ideal customers have. They’re going to be those people who deeply feel the pain and challenges your customers have every day. Those folks are gonna be fantastic thought leaders and have so much to offer out there. So I definitely encourage folks to look a little more widely at who could be part of their thought leadership programs.
Pam Didner: Understood. So what is the biggest misconception about thought leadership? You just debunked one myth: hey, thought leadership is just not about the C-suite. It can be about subject matter experts who would know the specific topics or field very well. What are some of the myths or misconceptions out there?
Erika Heald: You know, the really big one is that you can hire an agency to create thought leadership for you.
Pam Didner: A lot of companies do that! (laughs)
Erika Heald: Right? And you know, I get sometimes approached people say, “oh, I know you do ghostwriting, and we want to have some thought leadership, you know, program.” I’m like, “fantastic. So tell me about your, um, primary thought leaders and how do they like to work? What are their topics, et cetera?” And then these folks look at me and blink and say, “oh, well, you would figure that out.”
Pam Didner: That’s not true. I 100% agree with you.
Erika Heald: No. Maybe I can sit and interview them and ask them. But no, I’m not going to tell somebody what they’re going to be a thought leader. You got to figure that out. And you frequently have folks great at writing; some folks hate writing and want to leave you a voicemail. Some people want to shoot you a quick video and show you some things. Other folks want to send you some slides or a doodle.
It’s like, it’s so personal that, and there’s no way that you can just outsource thought leadership to another person. It’s got to be that partnership with that subject matter expert and whoever will help with the content creation.
Pam Didner: You brought up a very good point. I ran into similar issues. I was in the corporate world for 20 years, as you probably know. And I did not actively lead the thought leadership program within the company I was at. Still, I worked closely with the PR and the business units that created that thought leadership program. And I’d agree with you; having a vision and a plan for the thought leadership program is the client’s job, not the agency’s job. They should know what kind of topics they want to go after to have a point of view.
It’s not something that can be outsourced to agencies or anybody specifically.
If there are clients out there and say, “oh my God, you know, agency, you should figure that out.” You at least have to provide some sort of guidance and a brief to help the agencies figure that out.
Erika Heald: And a half-day of access to those thought leaders.
Pam Didner: Yes. Access the subject matter expert and be a conduit right between the agency and subject matter experts who make things happen.
From my perspective, I also firmly believe that the client needs to take ownership of that to figure out why they want to take a stand and what fields they want to shine in as a thought leader.
Erika Heald: Exactly.
Pam Didner: So now let’s talk about, all right, the clients will take the ownership of crafting a thought leadership strategy. With that being said, where should they start to craft that strategy for their company?
Erika Heald: Well, I think you first, you start by thinking about who in your organization is not afraid to speak their mind, even if it might ruffle some feathers. You want to find those who are okay with sometimes being the one who says the not so popular opinion out loud in public and is willing to talk about it.
You don’t necessarily want to pick somebody who is conflict-averse or never engages with people, commenting on their social. Cause we’ve all seen that. We’ve all seen folks who just re-share content and never engage those people. Don’t make great thought leaders because inevitably, someone will hate what they did and come at them. And if they don’t respond at all, that is death to your program right there.
It can’t just seem like a one-way blast of information coming from a brand. It has to be an authentic human being willing to have a conversation. So to me, that’s the first thing to figure out who has those interesting and controversial opinions and is willing to engage with them. Also, what is your goal with them being a thought leader? It’s presumably because you want to learn more about your audience’s needs. You want to get the interest of journalists. You want to give them a wider platform to go and share their values and ideals that then support your brand promise. But again, if all they’re doing is being very lukewarm, that’s not going to work.
Or if they just really like being educational and teaching, you may do something different with them. You’ve got to have that unique point of view and willingness to kind of throw down the gauntlet and be like, “all right, I’m here. And I’m ready. Who will stand up to me? And let’s have a debate.”
Pam Didner: That’s very challenging, especially in a big enterprise. Many things need to be approved by PR and legal teams.
Erika Heald: And compliance.
Pam Didner: I agree. When you have so many people in the kitchen, and suddenly, once they get to three rounds of approval, everything gets watered down. What is your thought on that?
Erika Heald: You know, when you know, you’re going to be creating some sort of content that has that potential to be a little bit more controversial–so not just like a new approach to something, but something that’s like really big–and, you know, if it’s, you’re talking to a publicly-traded company, and it’s their executive, it could be really helpful to have somebody from legal or compliance that you know is supportive of you doing thought leadership, um, who has the right regulatory certifications have one of those people on the call with you.
That way, you can have that kind of real-time. Caution or guidance upfront while conducting your interview with the subject matter expert. So that way, they can steer you away from things that could be problematic.
For example, I used to work at Charles Schwab and worked very closely with Legal and Compliance. So my stuff would get through pretty quickly for review because I knew things like you don’t use the word “options.”
Pam Didner: You know what to do and what to say and not to say.
Erika Heald: Exactly like by saying, “oh, you have a lot of options for where to do X, Y or Z,” “options” needed to only be used as a word if you’re talking about trading options because that it was a whole other chain of people to review and approve to then look at it and say, “oh, well, that’s not what you’re talking about, but you know what? We hate something else in your content. And then you would just be going around in circles.”
So you’ve got to have that kind of input. I think upfront. And then it gets smooth. And if you’re really lucky, there’ll be somebody on your client’s team who can do some of that kind of pre-review and give you some of that coaching.
Pam Didner: I always feel like when you get PR, when you get Legal, when you get Compliance involved, the sandbox tends to be very small, and the topics that you can talk about tend to be very narrow, and you have to follow a specific script. You are trying to say that you can’t somehow determine what that sandbox will look like. And possibly, you can negotiate with your PR, Legal and Compliance teams and that kind of craft that same box so that you feel comfortable having a conversation.
Erika Heald: Exactly. Even with things like compliance disclosures, there is always a wiggle room. I used to do what I called writing “friendly disclosures” at Schwab, because I felt like I could write, you know, a paragraph and then have three paragraphs of disclosure.
Pam Didner: And disclaimers.
Erika Heald: Yeah. So I was just like, “oh no.” So my friendly disclaimers. That always, you know, and for me, what I took from that experience is if you’re willing to put in the time with your Legal and Compliance partners and share, you know, why you want to change something or where you’re coming from, a lot of times, they will figure out how to help you get towards where you wanted to go.
But it’s all about involving them upfront versus sending something past them for a quick review. Don’t ever do that. You will not get a quick review, and they will not be your friend.
Pam Didner: Exactly. I 100% agree. I always give them a heads up, especially let them know, like I said, “Hey, in the next two days, I’m going to send this to you. So make sure that they have a lot of time to review that.”
Another question I would like to ask is how do you find the right thought leadership opportunities within the company? What are some of the low hanging fruit that the marketers can explore to have a quick win?
Erika Heald: Well, one of the really smart things to do is to figure out those industry associations–both at the individual professional level and the larger corporate level–that you’re taking part in already, that you can get your thought leaders involved with. For example, many brands are members of ANA, the Association of National Advertisers; but what a lot of folks don’t know is if you are an ANA member, they have all sorts of regional specialty subject matter groups. And they have amazing conversations quarterly, or even more frequently, depending upon which region you’re in.
Those are a really good way to get your thought leader’s feet wet in a positive, kind of low stakes environment. And I don’t say low stakes because the content isn’t valuable, but lower stakes. After all, these are private conversations. They usually ask you not to tweet things, not to record things. So it’s, you know, you’re in a safe group with your peers, but you’re also making connections with other folks you might want to interview for future thought leadership or collaborate with. So to me, it has a lot of really obvious, quick upsides without a lot of the scariness that can cause some folks to say, “no, I don’t want to do public speaking.” If you give them a friendly environment to start in, you can quite frequently convince them to do more of it.
Pam Didner: Yeah. So give them exposure. Right. Uh, find opportunities for them and make them comfortable and build up their confidence. And then eventually they can be kind of like a brand ambassador or a subject matter expert, very much public-facing.
So that’s great in terms of low-hanging fruit. What about writing content? Many subject matter experts don’t like to write. Do you have any suggestions in terms of what they need to do?
Erika Heald: Totally. I’ve had a lot of CEOs that I’ve worked with who 100% we’re not writers. And who also on the flip side, 100% we’re thrilled to send out pieces I go ghostwrote for them and say to everyone, “look at this piece I wrote”, because they had that ownership and felt like it was, you know, me inside of their head. And that’s because I do a couple of different things that anybody can and should be doing. First of all, I try to get a couple of bullet points, and I mean sketchy three-word bullet points—
Pam Didner: The key points they want to get across.
Erika Heald: Yeah. Super high-level bullet points. I’m like, “just tell me at a high level, what are you thinking or what was something you read that you want to write a response to?” So just getting that kind of like a super sketchy outline so I can go away and do some research.
And then I always want to make a conversation. From a process standpoint, it’s like an intake call where I’m making sure that I understand their perspective and want to understand anything that they think that’s a little different from other folks. So you do some interviewing. And so either doing that live as part of a conversation–like an hour-long conversation where I’ll do intakes for multiple different topics–or I had one CEO who liked to phone me whenever he was stuck in the car or, you know, stuck travelling. He would call and always tell me, “put me into voicemail.”
And I would put them in my voicemail, and he would talk to my voicemail. So I would have a recording of him, you know, riffing off of something that he was thinking about. And then I would write it up and send it back, and we do, you know, back and forth iteration. So it’s really about figuring out: Is your person a talker? Are they a scribbler? Like, do they want to draw you a picture and send it to you–understanding how they think and want to share things.
Right now, I have a client who very much likes to use mind-mapping software. That’s one of the products they have, and he likes to put it through and think it through that way. And so I always have him start by sending me a mind map, and it’s fantastic. It’s the best way to get started on something, but it’s also just about whatever they’re comfortable with that makes them feel like you will get what they’re trying to do and that it won’t take too much of their time.
Pam Didner: Anything that they can do to get themselves to share the knowledge is a good starting point.
Erika Heald: Exactly. And then, of course, I always ask whenever they’re doing any kind of public speaking, even if it’s just setting down their phone and hitting voice memo and recording, to always record that stuff; because if you get a recording, you can go and get a transcript. and then, all of a sudden—
Pam Didner: That can be a blog post, too (laughs)!
Erika Heald: Yeah. Right. So you have all of these, like great one-off ideas in exact turns of phrase that then help you make sure that you’re writing in their voice. So I love that, too.
Pam Didner: Awesome. I have one last question. So thought leadership is a great idea. Therefore, if many companies want to differentiate themselves and put such a unique lens in terms of who they are, having a thought leadership content and having a thought leadership position would differentiate them. But that’s such a long play. And if you want to do a thought leadership, it’s not like, “oh my God, I’m running a three-month campaign.” This is a long play.
Erika Heald: It is.
Pam Didner: Many marketers are hesitant to do it because you cannot show a quick result. Like you cannot demonstrate, oh, you know, it quantifies certain dollar of the pipeline opportunities, or you quantify how many leads that you have generated. So it does not have that direct tie to sales, and many people tend to allocate the budget to do something that will show quick results.
So how should they deal or position in a thought leadership pitch to their management when the direct tie to the sales is not necessarily very clear?
Erika Heald: I think it’s about two different things. One is figuring out how you can show some ROI from those specific things they’re going out there and sharing. And then the other one is understanding what opportunities you pick that have an intrinsic ROI.
So for the first part, things that I’ve done successfully to have a direct ability to show ROI from speaking at an event are doing a text response. Having “text your email address to this cell phone number” and getting a packet with a workbook along with the session. Or I’ve had it where it’s like, “here’s a special Bitly URL that you get this template if you go to this page and fill out a lead capture form.” Or you have like a special code that you’re only giving out in this session or that you’re only using in UTMs on a link in a blog post.
So there are some things you can do to more accurately–and of course, no, you know, no attribution is 100%. That’s like a big thing everyone’s arguing about now. It’s like attribution is never a hundred per cent; of course not. But there are some things you can do.
Pam Didner: If you do offline stuff, it’s very hard to quantify online attribution.
Erika Heald: Exactly. Exactly. So, and of course, you can give away swag too. When that swag starts turning up on social or you see people wearing it or carrying it around, that’s another way that you can say there was some real ROI because now this person who is, you know, part of our target community, they’re out there running around, repping our brand. So we made a good impression. So those are the like kind of really easy ways of showing the ROI.
Now, on the other side of it. You can also prioritize those places where, let’s say if you’re talking about HR technology, probably your company–unless, you know, you have a huge budget–and you’re not going to have the money to take out a series of ads in SHRMs magazine. So if you’re a startup, you’re going to want to figure out how can I get in front of that audience without spending, you know, a hundred thousand dollars a year with SHRM, right?
The way you do it is you come up with an amazing topic idea, and you partner with one of your customers who has a really good title in a relevant industry and put in a speaking submission. And so then you’re able to get in front of and be promoted to SHRMs entire membership across the United States. That is something where you can say: “hey, my session was promoted and X, Y, and Z ways, and so my name, our company name, and associating us with this topic, that’s going out to all of these people.
And so I think if you were making strategic bets and strategic investments on trying to get out in front of those right audiences, then I think 100% you can have a more provable, concrete ROI for your thought leadership efforts.
Pam Didner: I think the key takeaway from why you just said is whenever you create a thought leadership content when you write a copy to promote that content, make sure you have a very specific call to action. It doesn’t matter if you are speaking at events or promoting it on social media posts. Or if you have a very specific call to action that you can drive to fill out a form or is a contact sales or download certain content pieces, but have a very specific call to action.
If you are promoting it and make sure you document it. If the content has been shared or highlighted in a certain industry, journal, or a specific event or media outlet, take that document. Sare that to quantify in terms of, yes, these content pieces or the events you do, or the activities you do related to thought leadership have a certain kind of impact.
Erika Heald: Exactly. I should hire you.
Pam Didner: Thank you, Erika. You’re so sweet. So, to end my show, I would like to ask you one more question. And this is kind of like a fun question usually. So why shows are you binge-watching?
Erika Heald: Well, I mean the last show that I was like every week Oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-wait-to-see-it was the Mandalorian, I mean, hello. That was one of my favorites. And you know, I’m waiting for the great British Bake-off to come back. And I feel like that will be good.
Pam Didner: Oh, me, too. And that would be what, Season 12 or something? I love the Bakeoff! I love that show.
Erika Heald: Me too. And I love Noel Fielding as one of the presenters cause he’s amazing. He’s such a great comedian. He had a cool BBC comedy show called “The Mighty Boosh.” It’s super weird. I usually don’t recommend it to people because it’s super trippy and weird, and it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it.
Pam Didner: I think he’s a musician. He’s a comedian and writes scripts. He’s incredibly talented. All right. Wonderful, Erika. Thank you so much for coming to my show.
Erika Heald: Thank you so much for having me.