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My post today was first published 4/13/11 at the Blog World Expo blog.

Isn’t thought leader just old biz jargon?  After all, the term’s been knocking around for years, like “headhunter” and “game changer” and “team player.”

But no, for a B2B company today, being known as a thought leader demands your attention.  And fortunately, through social media, becoming a thought leader gets easier for small and midsize companies than ever before.

Here’s how elise.com defined the phrase in 2003:  “What differentiates a thought leader from any other knowledgeable company, is the recognition from the outside world that the company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates.”

Why does that matter?

We’re in an economy where customers try to know everything before they buy.  Customers want to know who you are, what you stand for, whether they like you, whether you are telling the truth, will you deliver, are you trustworthy.  And customers want to know what other customers think about working with you and the quality of your products and services.  And customers want to know if you really know your industry, and whether you can help them make a wise buying decision (even if it’s not to buy from you). And whether you will help them make the transaction transparent or whether you will want to leave them in the dark.

And you know what?  Customers will buy from those companies that are the easiest to know.

How do you become that kind of company?

I presented a webinar to a prospective customer last week, a webinar on what frightens buyers about doing business with small companies.  Since I was presenting to one company, I used abundant examples from their industry.  The CEO said at the end, “You took the time to learn about my company.  Your competitor didn’t do that.”  That’s one way to do it—when you have the opportunity to interact with customers, take the time to understand their business.  Train everyone on your team to do that, all of the time.

But aside from when you’re talking to your customers and prospects directly, how can you earn their attention to you by behaving like a thought leader?

One simple way is to offer industry information on your website—make your site a place to which customers and prospects return for up-to-date knowledge.  Here’s one B2B company that does it well:  Walker Information, offering their online “Knowledge Center” about customer loyalty.  They have five blogs, each written by a company expert.  Their library of eBooks, videos discussions, case studies, and white papers is constantly growing.  The Walker site illustrates the high value of producing content.  Walker expects and empowers employees to be thought leaders, and the company continually produces new content of its own based on deep industry expertise.

Another small company doing a good job of thought leadership on their website is Driving Ambition, in the trucking industry.  They offer a newsletter subscription and an “industry resources” page.  Here’s what they say:  “Driving Ambition is committed to helping our customers stay up-to-date on the latest industry trends. Bookmark this page, and you’ll have easy access to the latest transportation news and information,” followed by a list of associations, websites, industry standards, and other information made more valuable because they have posted it in one place.  Their blog features timely, relevant posts about events, industry news, speakers, reports, issues, and so forth.

Driving Ambition differs from Walker in that most of their informative web material consists of link, announcements and references rather than new content production.

The distinction between these two approaches is important; it illustrates that you can demonstrate thought leadership by creating new industry knowledge but also by aggregating and filtering industry information for your customers and prospects.

How you do it depends on choosing a strategy that you can manage, that you can afford, and that will be meaningful to your audience.  Developing a “thought leader” website and embedding a blog that invites interaction is a sensible place to start.

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