Why should you invest more in thought leadership during a recession? That’s the question posed and addressed by Chris Koch, associate director of research and thought leadership at the ITSMA
, in a recent webinar. His answer: It will differentiate you and drive profitable growth.

To be more specific, he says thought leadership can reduce sales costs (cutting the cost per order dollar) and enable you to reach prospects at an earlier stage in the buying process — both desirable goals for companies who are trying to strengthen their position in a tough market.

According to ITSMA research, some companies are now cutting back heavily on marketing while maintaining or even increasing sales budgets. The problem, says Koch, is that sales is merely being thrown into a lead generation and nurturing role that can be more efficiently handled by marketing. What’s more, buyers are not eager to hear aggressive sales pitches in today’s down market.

Rather, customers seek perspective and education in the earliest stages of a buying cycle. They conduct research on the Internet and elsewhere — initiating buying cycles on their own. ITSMA’s research shows that 69% of respondents first conduct research to find an appropriate solution, while only 31% expect the solution provider to contact them first.

We think this shift
toward the more energized customer gives marketers the opportunity to engage
them earlier than ever before,” says Koch, noting that sellers and solutions providers have an opportunity to position themselves as as advisors in these early stages of a decision.

“While thought leadership marketing delivers
value at every stage of the buying cycle, it’s at this early stage of the
process where we think it can be especially effective,” he explains. “The right combination of
ideas and research at this point can spark an epiphany so customers realize a
business need they never knew they had. And, by being engaged with customers
when they have these epiphanies, companies can help customers shape any
potential projects that develop out of them and perhaps become the preferred
provider going into the later stages of the buying process.”

To be successful in this endeavor, Koch contends that marketers must commit themselves to building “thought leadership content engines.” The key is to develop and disseminate insights — on a consistent and continuous basis — that encourage prospects to explore relevant issues, consider their options and ultimately take action.

ITSMA research further suggests that this is indeed happening. Survey respondents say they are investing more in thought leadership work and less in activities such as trade shows. And while they are in the early stages of experimenting with social media and other Web 2.0 tools, Koch believes they represent a powerful method for developing, refining and distributing a compelling point of view.

Somewhat controversial is Koch’s definition of thought leadership. He believes its value lies “in the eye of the beholder.” While some insist that true thought leadership is founded on rigorous research and fundamentally new and provocative ideas, he contends that one doesn’t necessarily need to break new intellectual ground to be a thought leader — one can merely repackage existing ideas in new and compelling ways. As Koch puts it, “The trick is to create compelling content that mobilizes a group of people you want to reach into thinking and acting.”