Donovan Neale-May is leading the charge for something he calls “authority leadership.” He is the president and managing partner of GlobalFluency, Inc., a global organization of independent marketing and communication firms with 70 offices in over 40 countries. But he is perhaps best Donovan recognized as founder and executive director of the Chief Marketing Officer Council, a global affinity network made up of more than 3,000 marketers. He has further driven the concept of “affinity networks” by launching such groups as the BPM Forum and the Coalition to Leverage and Optimize Sales Effectiveness (CLOSE). Neale-May defines peer-based affinity networks as “highly respected membership groups and communities that serve as critical global channels of insight, access and influence.” He argues that such networks represent a powerful way to “enable companies to initiate strategic conversations and knowledge exchange with key stakeholders and purchase influencers.” His work on authority leadership is the means by which he helps clients strengthen their market positioning by staking out a compelling point of view. Britton Manasco interviewed  Neale-May recently for his take on key trends in the B2B marketing arena:

Let me just start by getting your perspective on what you called “authority leadership.” What is it and why is it important?

What we’re doing is, in effect, making an argument for why the solutions and services companies are offering something relevant and valuable – something that addresses pain, vulnerabilities and risks. So the whole point of authority leadership is to have an advocacy position, a point of view. It’s about being able to speak to what is contextually relevant to the customer, not just about your products. For years and years companies focused on their products, functions, features, speeds and feeds.  But nobody has been painting the mural. Nobody has been addressing the key issues, challenges, problems, needs, requirements that truly concern customers. Companies need to directly focus on these issues.
The problem with too many marketers today is they don’t look at the marketplace strategically.  They don’t build platforms that establish credibility. They don’t take the steps necessary to establish authority in the marketplace.

So they aren’t producing relevant and valuable content? They aren’t staking out a compelling point of view?

Exactly. They’re not equipping their executives.  They’re not equipping their sales organization or their channel with meaningful, relevant content.  And it is about content.  It’s about intellectual capital. But most companies today are pretty poor at producing it.

Your content has to be well-packaged.  It has to be shipped and distributed effectively.  Sometimes it’s sliced and diced and presented in different formats so it can be consumed quickly and efficiently.  It may have a very limited shelf life.

Content generation is really what is important today in the marketplace when it comes to complex B2B. That’s because today’s decisions are based on business value propositions, performance requirements and process improvement mandates. They’re not necessarily made from a technical standpoint.  So you’ve got to have an argument for why your solution is going to help increase the efficiency, the effectiveness, the competitiveness or the differentiation of a company.

What then is the payoff for the B2B service or solution provider that embraces this perspective?

It’s essentially a way for B2B marketers to differentiate their enterprises, distinguish themselves, and elevate themselves above the noise.  That’s why they need to embrace authority leadership. 

Tell me more about how you’ve seen the buying environment evolve.

Customers have become more sophisticated and knowledgeable.  They are less reliant on the vendor and the channel partner, and much more focused on peer-to-peer validation and co-innovation.
They’re the experts in many cases, particularly in the world of information technology. The customers are the expert in the application and the delivery and the installation, the implementation.  In many cases, they want to go direct to the software as a service provider because the time to value is quick.  Risk is low and the value proposition is clearer.  They don’t have any cost of ownership issues and implementation. So not only is the technology delivery changing but the sophistication and knowledge of the buyer and the specifier is changing as well. 

The buyer also is very much more empowered to use the Internet to join communities, to get involved with affinity networks and groups to link in. Most of those folks are making buying decisions based on what their peers are saying.  The whole environment has changed because the web has also enabled viral, word-of-mouth and knowledge sharing and knowledge exchange like never before. There’s a place for everybody to go to learn and tire-kick and check and validate and affirm what the solution value is.

So what are smart companies doing that others are not?

There’s a much stronger focus on the business – making a business case for the technology and that’s got to be content-driven.  They aren’t putting out self-serving product stuff.  They’re gathering insights, knowledge. The world today is about conversational marketing. It’s about engaging your customer in a conversation and modifying and adapting and evolving a relationship.  And continuing that conversation so you grow more and more knowledgeable, familiar and tighter and more connected to the customer.

How does the seller remain valuable in a situation where all of one’s prospects are most interested in communicating with their peers? What is the value that the seller has to add? 

Well, the vendors have got to interject themselves into the conversation.  They act as thought leaders when they have something meaningful to say or contribute to the conversation. Thought leadership means you’ve got  followers, right?  So, you’ve got somebody thinking, “Yeah, I want to hear from this guy because he’s actually credible. He’s informed, he’s knowledgeable. He’s got a provocative point of view.  It’s pertinent.  He’s got research and market interaction data to support and make an argument.”

Ultimately, authority leadership marketing predisposes and conditions the market to a need or requirement, elevates or sensitize management to a strategic imperative to adopt or embrace or address a problem that they have in their organization.

How does this drive greater sales?

Maybe it enables you to sell up the food chain and make a stronger business case and make a stronger justification for the investment, and potentially increase the value of the deal, shorten the selling cycle. You’ll have prospects identified who’ve already consumed content that indicates that they are interested in learning more. It’s not just about thought leadership; it’s about demand generation.  I mean, ultimately this is the route to take to actually create a more sales-ready, receptive marketplace.

The way you’re doing it is through the manufacturing of meaningful content and the packaging and the delivery and distribution of that content and the tracking of the consumption of that content. That allows you to you identify specific targets that have already been, shall we say, predisposed or are likely to be predisposed to your selling proposition.

Well, that’s an interesting point you made about sales using it in the field. Are you finding that when this content is available to them they just take it and run with it?  It just seems like there’s a lot of research suggesting that salespeople generally don’t use the content that marketing people create, or they haven’t in the past.

Right, because most of the stuff marketing people create is pitiful. I mean, it’s insipid stuff and it may actually not be created by marketing. It’s more likely to be created by product management or some of the technology folks, engineering. It’s just repackaged and repurposed by marketing.
So the problem with marketing is that they don’t own the customer relationship. They’re not running customer councils or customer communities. They defer that to sales. They’re not intimately engaged with the channel so they don’t have that perspective.   

So that’s the problem we run into with marketing organizations. They tend to be very tactical.  They tend to wait tables in marketing. They're not very good at creating menus and preparing food. So sales people just see them as tactical resources that put together trade shows and events and literature.  Every now and then, they will pop out an ad campaign or hospitality event. They’re not seen as people that set strategic agendas. So that’s the kind of problem that we run into. That’s what I see in the technology sector to a large degree. 

The other problem that you run into is just getting folks to get unified behind advocacy positions and platforms and thought leadership.  A lot of marketers don’t get this because what I’m talking about is multi-level, multi-channel marketing. It’s not about tactics.  It’s about defining strategic advocacy positions or thought leadership platforms that endure and that continue to evolve and grow and multiply. It becomes an ongoing process. But most companies aren’t set up that way.
They are engaged in random acts of marketing.

What is working out there in terms of solid thought leadership?

We’ve had success with programs we’ve done at the BPM Forum and at the CMO Council and at CLOSE, a community we created with Oracle and the Wall Street Journal.

We’ve got 12,000 participants in that community we created from scratch.  We built a thought leadership platform and channel in a community which is self-perpetuating. It’s driven by people contributing content, participating in discussions, posting their views and opinions. So there is sort of user-generated content in that community but a lot of what we’re publishing is thought leadership. We’ve built a channel of inside access and influence, which is important to remember.

It doesn’t have to be a company web site. If you want to build an affinity group, what you’re trying to do is you’re aggregating prospects. You’re aggregating potential buyers and specifiers into a non-threatening environment — a peer-to-peer network where they’re feeding off of one another. Here also you’re actually shaping the discussion. You’re managing the conversations. You’re introducing the topics. That’s what we do.

What would be some key points of advice that you’d give marketing decision-makers with regard to moving in the right direction to become authoritative, thought leaders?

Well, you’ve got to get more strategically embedded in the marketplace. You’ve got to become the champion, owner and custodian of the customer. Customer engagement is what we’re talking about here. Ultimately, it always starts with customer engagement and customer knowledge, customer insight and customer advocacy.

The more you know about the customer, the more you know about the customer’s
market and issues and challenges. The more you know, the more credible you are.  The more you can architect these types of thought leadership programs, the more you can drive conversational marketing campaigns and build communities and channels of inside access and influence.

So, it starts with knowing the market and getting really smart about what’s going on in the marketplace, not just on what you are selling. You have to understand the context, the environment and the strategic issues that matter to prospective clients. It’s surprising how few know this stuff.  Many marketers have very little idea who their customers are.