Thought Leadership Selling: Not an Oxymoron

(An earlier version of this post appeared in The Marketing Strategist, the newsletter of the IT Services Marketing Association.)

Conventional wisdom says that thought leadership isn’t a sales tool. Rather, it’s about reputation and brand eminence. Thought leadership is top-of-the-funnel, awareness- and credibility-building content with a vision and viewpoint that resonates with customers and shifts their understanding of the challenges they face.

Or. as John Shumadine, head of Deloitte's thought leadership practice, put it to me, “The goal of our thought leadership program is to enhance our reputation. It’s not about selling.”

The term "thought leadership" is often used to denote material that educates customers and prospects about business and technology issues and helps them solve those issues—without direct selling. Instead, customers are gradually “sold” as they are educated.

The problem is that most customers don’t get to talk to these experts. There aren’t enough to go around.

In early-stage companies, anyone a customer talks to is an expert because a small core of founders does everything. As companies grow, silos emerge. Sales, marketing, and subject matter specialists form their own tribes. Customers who want insight and expertise often get pitches instead.

The term thought leadership selling was coined two years ago in the course of ITSMA research on sales enablement. It refers to the way buyers, especially buyers of B2B services, want to be sold to now—with compelling ideas.

It’s a useful term because it links thought leadership to revenue. But it’s also easily misunderstood because “selling” brings to mind boiler rooms rather than conference rooms. That’s what John Shumadine meant when he said that his company’s thought leadership isn’t about selling.

John is right. Narrowly construed, it isn’t. But as part of the process leading to a decision to buy, thought leadership is very much part of selling. And although salespeople will never become pure subject matter experts, a little bit of expertise goes a long way—especially when true subject matter rock stars are in short supply, billed out to existing customers and wearing a dozen different hats.

How would your customers react if salespeople became subject matter experts in their own right? It’s not impossible. Becoming an expert is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Think of the one-eyed man—and remember that we’re all one-eyed men, flanked by the blind on one side and the fully sighted on the other. In some situations, your salespeople may already be subject matter experts. In others, a little help from marketing—a 15-minute presentation at the sales meeting, a script, a few slides in the deck—can help salespeople take the conversation further and build more credibility with customers.

Of course you can do a lot more to help salespeople elevate their conversations. The point is that there’s an entire range of subject matter expertise. Perfect is good. Better is best. To the extent you build bridges between full-blown thought leadership content and sales conversations, you’ll be helping salespeople become better at engaging customers.

Aristotle taught that persuasion requires credibility, logic, and emotion (ethos, logos, and pathos). Thought leadership selling provides all three: the credibility that comes with targeted knowledge, the logic of a resonant argument, and the emotional connection that comes with personal engagement. Helping salespeople achieve all three may be the highest form of sales enablement.