It's probably clear by now that your growth potential is tied to what sets you apart. You won't succeed in this marketplace if you don't specialize and offer something that is truly distinctive. But it's not enough to provide distinctive value. You also have to communicate that value to the prospects you are trying to reach and the influencers that influence them.
But, believe it or not, that's still not enough.
To win in today's markets, you increasingly must be perceived as a thought leader. These are individuals or organizations that provide relevant insight and perspective to engage buyers and guide them through a demanding decision.
You win by being the one that owns an issue. This is the earliest stage of a buyer's decision process: issue consideration. This is the point where a buyer is asking themselves: Is this issue relevant? Should I be paying attention? Is it a priority?
Many issues may come into play. Prospective buyers might be considering the implication of new regulations or trends in their industry. They might be asking themselves what can be done to enhance customer engagement or optimize supply chains. They may be considering the costs and benefits of outsourcing a particular function.
If you stake out a provocative and persuasive position around a key issue that matters to buyers, you are in a strong position to gain their trust as an advisor throughout a decision cycle. Otherwise, you are liable to be considered late in the decision process -- long after some other supplier has already cultivated this trust and confidence. You become "column fodder" in the supplier comparison process.
The key to enduring growth and differentiation is to continually invest in Thought Leadership so that you can be the one that guides the buyer through their own difficult journey.
Tom Davenport, author of 13 books including Analytics at Work and What's the Big Idea? and himself an expert on thought leadership, offers some key thoughts on this matter. As he sees it, you don't have to come up with an entirely new idea to be a successful thought leader. But if you are relying on an existing idea you probably need to apply it in unique ways or circumstances. "You can be an expert in an industry or a business function," he says.
Take Cloud Computing. It's a hot topic right now. There are many experts on the subject. But who's the expert on Cloud Computing in the travel industry? Or the insurance industry? Who's the expert on how CFOs can take advantage of Cloud Computing to deliver superior financial performance?
You get the drift. Ideas can be given new life as you apply greater context to them. Indeed, the richness of context adds relevance and increases value.
Davenport also encourages aspiring thought leaders to make some investments in their work if they expect to get attention and drive value. His advice:
- Do a substantial literature review. Be aware, in other words, of what has already been produced in the field and what research has been conducted. Not only does this provide a stronger foundation on which to build, it confers true authority and demonstrates command of the topic.
- Engage in original research. By producing insightful research, you will further set yourself apart from existing authorities in the field. You can contribute to the existing body of knowledge and break new ground in terms of findings and analysis. While it takes time, effort and resources, your prospects and other market influencers will recognize the unique value of your perspective. (Quantitative research is particularly valuable in this regard.)
- Actively communicate your point of view. It's not enough merely to have a compelling perspective. You have to express it in various forums and venues, media and channels. That means it's critical to fully leverage the material you produce to reach the audiences you intend to engage. Make it once, present it many times.
Thought Leadership, of course, doesn't come easy. "It’s hard work," says Davenport. "You have to get out and circulate that idea in as many places as possible. You can’t just sit behind your desk. You have to get out there and speak. You have to participate in webinars. You have to write articles."
And while Thought Leadership demands investment, it's increasingly clear that there isn't much alternative for companies -- or individuals -- that want to remain relevant in their own fields. If you want to stand out and reach new levels of prominence, you'll need your own big ideas.