It's interesting how some companies put a lot of emphasis on interacting with their customers, yet neglect the content of their conversations. They love to converse, but have little that's interesting to ask or say. On the other hand, I have come across companies that put a great deal of energy and thought into their content, but then let it languish in unread books or in the neglected "resources" section of their web sites. They fail to pull the parts together and so they fail to engage the marketplace.
It's simply not enough to generate great content in the form of articles, research, white papers, case studies or best practices. That's necessary, but not sufficient. You must also put those ideas in front of your customers and prospective customers in a disciplined, accessible fashion. As they say, "out of sight, out of mind."
Well, if your customers don't go to your web site to download your white papers, you are out of mind. If they "unsubscribe" from your boring, product-focused, e-newsletter, you are out of mind. If you get lots of media attention in publications your prospects don't read, you are -- that's right -- out of mind.
As I see it, you have to be in your prospective customers' "peripheral vision" all the time. That way, they know they can pick up the phone and call you when an issue arises that matches your perceived area of skill and competence -- whether you are a high value product or service provider (or, preferably, both).
Alternatively, you might actually raise the question that leads to a compelling business discussion. You may have put an article in front of your prospect that asks quite simply, "Are you struggling with [insert symptoms of a difficult problem here]?" Maybe they are; maybe they aren't. But, if they are and you happen to address the issue at the right time, then you will probably be one source they consult.
One company that has long exemplified this concept of peripheral vision is the vaunted management consulting firm, McKinsey & Co. It recognizes that you must have three things to fully execute on this approach:
1) Engaging Communication Vehicles -- You need to have a portfolio of communications media -- both direct (e-newsletters, blogs, direct mail, search-to-site, etc.) and indirect (public relations, analyst relations, partner relations, content syndication, etc.) -- that enable you to reach decision makers and decision influencers on a continuous basis in the way (and in the frequency) they wish to be reached. If you cannot connect on a continual basis (and follow a rigorous publishing schedule), then you will lose their interest and drift from their field of awareness. McKinsey, for instance, has its highly respected journal, the McKinsey Quarterly (which has become a weekly via email).
2) Relevant and Insightful Content -- It's no good to communicate regularly and vigorously if you have no engaging stories to tell. The mistake that too many companies make here is that they focus on their own products and pseudo-solutions and neglect to talk in any depth about the business problems their prospects may be facing. Here's the issue: Unless your prospects are deep into a decision cycle, they don't care about your solutions. They care about their problems (or potential problems) and the implications of leaving them unaddressed. Dive deep into these matters in your content -- study their peers, for instance, and report on your findings -- and you will grab their attention. In the MQ, the media and other vehicles, McKinsey consultants offer world-class perspectives on the issues of the day and demonstrate their insight into critical business challenges.
3) An Opt-in Database that is Actively Tended -- Perhaps this should have been obvious, but it rarely ever is. Too few companies that sell complex solutions in the B2B arena adequately develop, refine and capitalize on customer data. They fail to build the marketing databases necessary to scale their businesses and achieve a critical mass of customer awareness. Often, they haphazardly collect this data or they fail to segment their prospects in a meaningful sense. To go back to my McKinsey example, I note that the company sells proprietary studies to its best customers while selling "premium" journal content to paid subscribers and allowing cheap skates (like me) to subscribe to other free content (so we can recommend the company's ideas to others). This enables McKinsey to build an extraordinary database and segment it by participation level.
Without rigorous development and deployment of all three of these elements, companies are unlikely to project anything that looks like thought leadership in the market arena. These are the core elements necessary to be in the "peripheral vision" of the customers you want to cultivate. Indeed, these are the vital foundations of strategic vision.