GET VIRAL! Thought Leadership as Sales & Marketing Strategy

Scaling sales is the number one challenge most businesses face, and the least discussed. Whether you face challenges driving lead generation, responding to incoming leads, staffing a sales team, or determining sales compensation, sales likely takes up more brain space that you may like to admit. In truth though, we often make sales much harder than it has to be.

Although I work as a growth strategist with a focus on sales and marketing strategy, I don’t come from a traditional sales background. I haven’t attended any formal sales training, I’m not “Sandler certified” and I wouldn’t call myself a “sales person.” So how have my startups and business ventures achieved such success, largely without any sort of formalized sales team in place? Often, as owners or managers, we get so focused on the idea of a formalized sales team that we miss the basics behind what DRIVES sales — marketing the brand. Brand awareness and brand loyalty are key sales drivers.

I was once asked “If you had a dollar to spend in your business, would you spend it in sales or would you spend it in marketing.” The two practices — sales and marketing — should not be separated and pitted against each other. This division of sales and marketing is a common mistake I see in many firms, where the marketing team functions separately from sales and, in some unfortunate cases, the sales teams treat marketing like an afterthought or a nuisance. In my experience, there is nothing so time consuming and expensive as muscling through sales without the help of a solid marketing practice to drive brand awareness and, ultimately, lead generation.

Why is a solid marketing practice so paramount to company growth? Anyone familiar with Lean Start Up principles (the growth hackers Bible!) knows there are three engines of growth for businesses:

PAID

I call this the traditional sales and marketing model — throw money at either sales hires or paid advertising to grow the business.

STICKY

Focus on retaining existing customers and growing them

VIRAL

Create brand energy and growth through word of mouth and other non-traditional (ideally, free!) marketing strategies

Companies often resort to “paid” growth models because they simply don’t know any other way to attract new clients. But hiring a sales team and paying for advertising requires a significant monetary investment that either isn’t desirable or isn’t an option for many firms. Viral growth, driven by thought leadership driven marketing strategies can also drive “sticky” growth by utilizing person to person transmission to create brand evangelists among your existing customer base, and is generally an inexpensive strategy that just requires a little creativity and time. Remember, viruses are not optional!

Here’s how I’ve implemented thought leadership driven viral marketing strategies that drive sales and didn’t cost a dime (other than my time!).

Step 1: Hone Your Strategy

A solid thought leadership strategy requires a total commitment to vision. If you’re not 100% excited about what you’re promoting, it’s unlikely your prospective client base will be either. Strategy is also driven by a number of internal factors. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Are you happier behind a keyboard than you are in front of a large audience? Do you have more money or more time? The answers to these questions will drive what type of thought leadership strategy you employ and the platforms you utilize, such as social media, blogs, published articles, or public speaking. Lastly, make sure you define what success looks like via meaningful measurable KPI’s (key performance indicators).

Step 2: Focus on brand positioning and thought leadership

Whether it’s content driven social media posts like the below example from Alter Agents, activating a company blog or contributing an article to an industry publication, generating thought driven content positions your brand as a “go to” in your vertical and drives lead generation.

Alter Agents

OdinText is an excellent example of a firm that has used thought leadership driven content marketing to supercharge brand awareness and marketing positioning. Tom Anderson of OdinText is a content generation machine, and his massive time investment is validated by the firms rise from #36 in 2016 to #4 in 2017 on Greenbook’s GRIT report of the Top 50 Most Innovative Suppliers. OdinText may not be any more innovative than they were a year ago but there’s no doubt the firm’s brand awareness and positioning as an innovation thought leader in the text analytics vertical has shown remarkable improvement.

Think you don’t have anything mind blowing to contribute? The next time you’re afraid to share ideas, remember someone thought “wouldn’t kids love to play with a toy made out of plastic and ball bearings” and invented the “Fidget Spinner”. Still stumped? Ask yourself (and your internal team) the following questions:

1) What topics are relevant to my business?

2) Do I find the topic interesting?

3) Do other people find it interesting?

As a last resort, activate your internal and external networks to generate topics of interest.

Step 3: Create your own army of brand evangelists

Utilize your existing clients to evangelize your brand. Often we’re too shy about asking for market validation, in most cases, happy clients are more than willing to assist. Ask clients for quotes that you can use in marketing or sales initiatives and to co-present on webinars or at industry events. In general, prospective customers are more likely to be swayed by what existing clients say about your business….not what you say about your business. Clients as brand evangelists are an unparalleled secret sales force. Don’t ever underplay the importance of word of mouth to drive sales.

Step 4: Give to get

Build your sales pipeline by developing content driven relationships with organizations or individuals that promote your brand. Offer to curate or moderate a panel discussion at an industry event. Nervous about getting on stage? Guest edit an industry publication or offer to blog at an event. Getting out and in front of people and starting conversations that attract attention and energy to your business is a powerful driver of brand awareness. I’ve even managed to align myself with editors and conference organizers in strict “pay to play” situations by offering something of value, be it time, connections or content, in exchange for stage time or branding.

Step 5: Create emotional attachment through authenticity

Some of the best marketing and brand strategies are the ones that drive growth through the use of emotional attachment. Take for example, the rise of Bernie Sanders as a 2016 Presidential candidate in the US. The #FeelTheBern grassroots campaign plays off of Sanders own authentic brand, and Sanders is proving to be a formidable opponent to campaigns funded by Super PAC’s and the infamous Koch brothers. Ironically, Sanders reputation as a stable and honest individual is a consistent emotionally driven “brand” message that was in place before many of his supporters were born.

Now that you have some ideas for a thought leadership driven marketing strategy, some words of caution. Keep an eye on…..

- Competing personal branding. Your company brand should always lead.

- Bragging versus evangelizing. This includes the “humble brag” (”an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud”) which can also backfire.

- Internal vs external focus. The inner workings of your business are likely only interesting to you and your co-workers. Focus on content that’s externally focused.

You may have guessed by this point that the real secret to creating a humming viral sales and marketing engine is creativity. Determine your unique brand strengths and creatively exploit them.

Is a viral thought leadership driven brand strategy a replacement for a formalized sales practice? Not necessarily. But without a doubt, it’s a strategy that can be effectively utilized for brand activation that drives growth.