Why do companies try, yet fail to become thought leaders? One of the top reasons is the absence of rigor and discipline in their approach.

They treat thought leadership as an ad hoc endeavor as opposed to one that requires leadership,
commitment and consistency. They are imperiled by improvisation, particularly now that other companies — and most, especially, their rivals — are getting their act together. Those who do this well are likely to become a magnet for customers. They will win trust and confidence at a time when those factors come at a terribly high premium. 

That said, it’s understandable that we should fall into this predicament. Thought leadership tends to fall between the cracks. While marketing and marcom might reasonably claim it as being within their immediate sphere of influence, top executive leaders might see themselves as the real thought leaders. Though leadership might also rise from product groups or, in some companies, the professional services team.

Thought leadership, as I define it, is about producing insight to guide customers through complex and demanding decisions. It’s an emerging discipline that stands at the intersection of strategic positioning, demand generation and sales enablement. With that in mind, I am obviously partial to marketing taking the lead.

But will marketing take the lead?

Marketing groups, after all, have a lot on their plates these days. While sales teams are screaming for more (and better) leads and executive teams threaten to freeze budgets, marketing leaders are confronted by an arresting array of media, channels and choices.

This situation can be quite paralyzing. Media, in fact, can quickly eclipse the message.

Think of all the hungry media that now lay claim to B2B marketing budgets and staff attention today: search engines; email; direct mail; social networking; tradeshows; tele-sales; blogging; podcasting; videocasting; webcasting; content syndication; and conventional online/offline advertising. It’s enough to spin heads. It’s enough to send one off racing to the corner where thumb-sucking in the fetal position will momentarily ensue.

But observe that I haven’t even waded into the question of what will be said in all this exploding media. Oops. Didn’t consider that. No one made that an issue — until now.

Unfortunately, companies end up presenting themselves in a drearily dull fashion when they improvise their way through this part. They fall back on the thing they know best: themselves. But even if they give it the old college try and attempt some customer-focused content on the fly, the absence of committed effort (and investment) will soon become transparently apparent.

That’s why this can’t be faked or finessed. Thought leadership — the source of all conversations to follow — requires real effort and real commitment. The beauty, as I have written elsewhere, is that the content you create has many applications. And you may not even have to create it all — merely aggregate it from other sources and present it in compelling new ways. It merely has to be relevant and useful. It has to guide prospects along the decision cycle.

Rather than improvise, I work with my clients to systemize their thought leadership endeavors. I encourage them to develop a strategic content plan: determine the issues they want to own, map content against customer decision cycles, develop editorial calendars, identify key resources and participants, and execute against the plan.

Once they have a steady flow of relevant content, they can actively merchandise it in various media and channels. They set the agenda instead of having it set for them by the fashions of the moment.

What are your thoughts on this subject? How can marketers systemize thought leadership to achieve greater marketing success? I’d love to hear your perspective.