Customers, particularly those in the business-to-business (B2B) space seeking premium services, are increasingly demanding education and advice as part of the sales experience. They see through the bright and shiny marketing speak. They want proof.

Real thought leadership is that proof. And when it's done right, it's proof that monetizes: Thought leadership content helps convert your customers into brand loyalists and your product into a purposeful platform. It challenges. It differentiates. It starts relationships and enhances existing ones. And it drives sales with high-value customers.

Yet identifying the right thought leadership perspective—individually or for your enterprise—requires a framework. For most leaders and organizations, that perspective must be both newsworthy and scalable for the future. It must be specific without being alienating. Thought leadership must be bold without being outrageous. And it must be individually authentic and also representative of the brand.

In our work developing, launching, and managing thought leadership campaigns, we've established a framework for identifying powerful thought leaders and their perspectives. Take these four steps from that framework to find your organization's story and share it in ways that foster engagement with the audiences that matter most.

1. Start with the leaders

Although most marketing efforts start with the customer (especially as customer experience grows as an overall strategic priority), thought leadership starts with the leader. Trying to create a thought leadership platform around what you believe your customer wants—rather than what the leader believes—misses the core point of authenticity and will ultimately fall flat with customers.

Identify the leaders in your organization who are already active on social media, and explore how their perspectives could be supported and amplified by the brand. Thought leaders can come from all functions and levels of an organization: Howard Schultz may be the paramount thought leader for Starbucks, but the company's blog features articles from "coffee masters," baristas, and director- and VP-level employees.

The more publicly recognized the thought leader, and the more credentials he or she has, the bigger the resulting media coverage. But there can be great value in using lower-profile thought leaders to reach micro-communities or to take a position on fringe topics.

2. If the leaders aren't obvious, search for the stories

Identifying thought leaders within an organization can be simple. In the case of Starbucks, Schultz is an obvious choice due to his position and passion, but the CEO of a company may not always be the best option—because of any number of factors, ranging from temperament to ideology.

If that's the case, it may be beneficial for marketing organizations to start with the story.

In 2006, Dove's marketing director was struggling with a moral dilemma. After years of marketing Dove's products using traditional models, Stacie Bright noticed a shift in her daughter's self-esteem, for a simple reason: Her daughter didn't look like the models in Dove's ads. Bright was inspired, and she had a story to tell.

Bright created a mockup advertisement using pictures of the company directors' own daughters with text alongside each image describing how the girls believed they weren't beautiful. The mockups were presented, executives bought in, and a "Campaign for Real Beauty" launched in 2004. It has won a plethora of advertising awards and sold a heap of product. Sales jumped from $2.5 billion in its inaugural year to $4 billion today.

Bright was a brilliant thought leader, even though she wasn't made use of as such. Nevertheless, organizations are full of Stacie Brights, and smart marketing leaders can be proactively identified with internal campaigns that collect and analyze stories and spotlight potential thought leaders.

3. Enter the customer

Great stories—and the thought leaders who deliver them—can contribute powerfully to the bottom line, even if they don't seem to directly tie in to the product or service the company delivers. Schultz, for example, has used his thought leadership platform to promote social causes that have very little to do with coffee.

But a thought leadership campaign, to bring that one great story to live, must give it legs and dimension. Doing that, particularly in the B2B space, where customer preferences are more opaque, requires direct consumer insights to narrow in on the story angles most likely to activate the target audience.

Marketing leaders should consider targeted market research or one-on-one customer interviews to pinpoint where and how a thought leader's story should be expanded. Starting with the story, these consumer insights can help identify specific campaign elements—partnerships, engagement methods and subtopics—that will most effectively drive engagement with an emotional investment in the greater theme.

4. Identify the platforms

The type of content your customers want will help define the platforms on which you deliver it. Thought leadership content can come in any form, from 20-page whitepapers to 20-second how-to videos. Again, market research and honest conversations with your customers can help identify the platforms that will be most compelling and convenient to consume.

* * *

Every leader—and every enterprise—has thought leadership potential. Transforming that potential into an effective thought leadership strategy requires the ability to identify the perspectives and storytelling techniques that will most effectively reach your target audience. It demands authenticity, conviction and purpose.

And it calls for leaders and their organizations to stand for something and to have the confidence that sharing their expertise will not only impact the bottom line but also influence the broader conversations happening all around us.

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How to Find Your Company's Most Powerful Thought Leaders--and Your Company 'Story'

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image of Kelda Rericha

Kelda Rericha is the senior content strategist at Oregon-based PR firm A.wordsmith. She brings a decade of experience in consumer PR and marketing for some of the Pacific Northwest's most iconic brands.

LinkedIn: Kelda Rericha