Traditional marketing attribution is all about dashboards and metrics and how inbound affects the bottom line. But thought leadership, says Ashley Faus, is a different beast. It can't be measured using traditional methods.
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"Thought leadership is about trust and affinity," says Ashley on the latest episode of Marketing Smarts. "You can drive those and measure those in different ways, depending on the audience, the platforms, the person. But if the ultimate outcome that you are measuring in the short term is some sort of revenue or sale, you’re not doing thought leadership."
But if you can't measure thought leadership using traditional attribution and it's not focused on making a sale, how do you know your content is having an effect at all?
Sometimes rabid fans come out of the woodwork. Host George B. Thomas relates an anecdote in which he sent what he thought was a "ho-hum" New Year's email only to have someone reply and convert for a huge amount of money. Ashley talks about someone who took the time to screenshot, download, link, and put all of the content that she had created into a folder so it would be easily accessible. "Where does that show up in the dashboard?" Ashley quips.
Realistically, successfully fostering thought leadership looks a little bit like networking, Ashley says.
"First thing is being intentional about the people that you partner with for thought leadership within your organization....larger organizations, they do need to have at least one, if not multiple, thought leaders. In those cases, you can start to look at the direct messages they receive, you can start looking at the quality and quantity of inbound requests that they receive for speaking engagements, podcasts, contributions, etcetera."
Which means, of course, that if you're a guest on the Marking Smarts podcast, it's safe to say you've had some success.
Listen to the entire show from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.
George B. Thomas: It’s one thing to develop a content and social media strategy. It’s another thing to develop a content and social media strategy to foster thought leadership and business growth for you, the B2B marketers and B2B companies. What does that even mean, foster thought leadership and business growth? Good news. That’s exactly what I’m talking about today with Ashley Faus. We’re going to talk about what keeps her up at night when it comes to content and social media strategies, how to get started, hurdles you might face, and of course, words of wisdom.
Let’s get into the good stuff. I hope you know that you’re in for a treat today, because I have a very amazing, fantastic, add any other adjective that you want in here, guest Ashley Faus.
How are you doing today, Ashley?
Ashley Faus: I’m good, George. I was laughing because I was like, I think George is one of the few people that actually matches my very high energy, so I always get excited when I get to talk to you.
George: We can’t have any boring podcast episodes. That just can’t happen. We have to add value, we have to be significant to those who are taking time to press the play button. Speaking of that, let’s go ahead and get right to the question that I love to start every Marketing Smarts Podcast episode with.
Around this conversation that we’re having about developing a content and social media strategy to foster thought leadership and business growth, what the heck keeps you up at night?
Ashley: So many things. I think the biggest thing that keeps me up at night is this insistence that we have to keep doing more, more, more. I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree that more is better. That comes up all the time, both internally and externally, everybody that I’m talking to, this sense that we have to produce more content faster across more channels, more, more, more. But no where in there are they talking about more impact for the audience.
George: I immediately want to go off the beaten path. If that’s the thing that keeps you up at night, what is the alternative, the mirror version, the you don’t need more, you just need to think of your content in, fill in the sentence?
Ashley: A playground.
George: And continue explaining what that means.
Ashley: Okay, good. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to keep going off the beaten path or if you were coming back on there.
George: I think many marketers are stuck in what keeps you up at night, the more, more, more. It’s the hamster wheel. The fact that you’re calling it a playground, I think I know where you’re going. I can go to the swings and I can go to the slide, then I can go over here. I love that it’s playground. Explain how they get off the hamster wheel of more with this mindset of playground.
Ashley: To your point, with a playground, you can play on the playground in any order, you can go up, down, sideways, etcetera. The funny thing is that most playgrounds are actually really small. There’s a pretty standard set of equipment in a playground. Usually, it includes swings, a slide, some sort of climbing mechanism, and then there’s some sort of reasonably safe dirt, sand, rubber pellets, something. That’s kind of the core of a playground. Yet children are entertained for hours by the same playground day after day. How does that happen? There are a couple of reasons that it happens that way.
First, they can go in any order. One day, they go and hang out on the slide all day. One day, they go and just hang out on the swings. One day, they go and play on both the swings and the slide. The next day, they come back and go swing, then slide. If we as marketers think about how to create the depth of journey and the intelligence of a journey that allows our audience to chart their own journey in whatever way they want, and to spend as much time in each place as they want, that’s the first reason that playground mindset helps you get off this hamster wheel.
The second reason is that children have really active imaginations, so they don’t use every part of the playground in exactly the way it was intended. I think that’s a problem that as adults, especially as B2B marketers, we have this objective. “I’m going to force you down this funnel and I’m going to get you to buy my thing.” But your audience doesn’t have that same objective. Your audience wants to learn, your audience wants to be inspired, your audience wants to use something that they’ve already bought, your audience wants to make a recommendation to somebody else to buy something. They have so many other things that they want to do.
If we think about that, our audience has an active imagination. Great. How do we design this intentional journey that allows them to use that imagination without forcing them to say you’re only allowed to go down the slide once per day. No child is going to play on the playground if you do that to them. Right?
I’ll pause there, because that’s a lot of stuff for us to keep going down the unworn path.
George: I love it. That was a great little jaunt off to the side. During that section, you said a couple of things that I wanted to pull out, I was feverishly typing notes. You said entertain, the kids are entertained in the playground. That leads me to as a B2B marketer, if you are developing content, or the historical content that you’ve created, does it stand up to the litmus test of it’s somewhat entertaining as well as educational?
The other thing that you mentioned that I love is can your readers, your viewers, your listeners choose to go deep into one conversation because they just want to play on the slide all day—“I just need to know about SEO tactics and I’m going to listen, read, and watch for the next 12 hours,” or are you creating content that creates insights first instead of trying to get to that product or that service? By the way, insights will equal sales. I’m just going to throw that out there. If you’ve historically been creating content and using it on social, and not thinking of those things in those ways, that is definitely a couple of gold nuggets that you can run with.
I fully know there are some B2B marketers that might not have developed a content and social media strategy that fosters leadership or business growth. We always make time for that which is important in life. Why is slowing down to speed up, why is developing a content and social media strategy for business growth important to B2B marketers in 2023 and beyond?
Ashley: Two big things. One, humans are lazy and platforms are greedy.
Most people don’t come to you for the heck of it and to make you feel good. They come to you to get something for themselves. If you become that destination that they go to get something for themselves, then eventually there is going to be some sort of reciprocity. Build that trust, building that affinity is the foundation. If you don’t step back and know the value that you’re giving to them, if you’re just churning, you’re only doing things for yourself, and your audience is too lazy for that.
The second piece of this is that the platforms are greedy. The platforms don’t want you to go anywhere else. LinkedIn wants you to stay on LinkedIn. Even your own website, you want people to stay on your website. You don’t want them to go off and go somewhere else, unless the going somewhere else is to talk to a sales rep. Again, you still want to keep them in your own little ecosystem.
When you start to realize I’m going to have to fight for attention not only from the humans that are consuming my content, but also from the platforms that are hosting or serving my content, you start to realize you need to suit up for that. You don’t go into a battle with just shorts and a t-shirt. You have to put on some armor, you have to bring your weapons, and that requires some training, it requires some skills, and it requires some thinking.
That’s where you start thinking about that strategy. First is focus on that audience, what do they want, what do they need, how can you serve them. Second is how am I going to win against all of the other things on the platform that are going to keep their attention on the platform and not on my content.
George: So good. I literally have an emoji of a bird next to my notes that humans are lazy and platforms are greedy. I personally have been battling this mental idea of to put all of my video content on my website or on YouTube, and I go back and forth, or both, and then how and which mix. I know marketers are facing this across the board on all of the platforms. How much do you put on LinkedIn or Facebook? What are the right things for those? Now we’re starting to talk about quickly there is a need for a strategy.
When we say the word developing, it’s what is the strategy that you’re going to leverage for your content when you put it out on social media that the outcome, the byproduct is thought leadership and growing your business through that. Here's the next question we have to answer, and it’s not an easy one. When we think about the listeners, B2B marketing, how the heck do we start to actually build out or develop this strategy with the outcome of thought leadership and business growth in mind?
Ashley: That is a hard question, particularly for thought leadership, because so many people go to the goals, and usually those goals are around revenue. I think that in many cases for thought leadership you’re going to have to abstract it a little bit away from revenue.
My sense is that thought leadership is not meant to drive short term sales. That’s sales and that’s marketing and that’s product marketing, and that is buy intent content. That is not what thought leadership is meant to do. Thought leadership is meant to attract the right people to the brand and the company. That could be talent, that could be strategic partners, that could be for comarketing opportunities, that could be for investor relations or to improve analyst relations. There are a variety of things that you need to build from a trust perspective.
When you look at your thought leadership, you need to be cognizant of which of those audiences are going to result in the short term and long term outcomes. Yes, being a thought leader in your industry, being trusted, having that affinity across a variety of different audiences will ultimately lead to long term business growth, but that is very different than short term revenue. I think that mindset shift is the big piece.
I hear this all the time, “We’re going to do thought leadership for a founder.” Oh, are you? What are they going to talk about? “They’re going to talk about why our product is the best.” So, they’re going to do sales enablement. “No. It’s a founder, therefore it’s thought leadership.” I’m like, let’s go back here.
Thought leadership is about trust and affinity. You can drive those and measure those in different ways, depending on the audience, the platforms, the person. But if the ultimate outcome that you are measuring in the short term is some sort of revenue or sale, you’re not doing thought leadership. That’s a different kind of content. It should also be quality, it’s also in your strategy, but it is not thought leadership.
George: It’s so interesting. My mind goes in crazy different directions when I get to do these interviews. When you were talking about we’re going to get them to do thought leadership, I literally thought of a marionette and how the person who is supposed to be the leader is now the puppet.
George: Until your puppet can become Pinocchio and become a real boy and have his or her own thoughts, then thought leadership should not be a thing that is on the plane of what you are trying to do.
The second piece of where my brain went on that was marketing, there’s vanity metrics, there’s revenue metrics, and dare I say, with thought leadership it’s more about gut and almost there are no metrics. Things will come out in the wash. I’ll give you an example.
At the end of 2022, I did a post on New Year’s revolutions versus New Year’s resolutions. It was a thought leader piece that was put out there just to tell the world how I felt about goals, habits, and tasks. It was not meant to generate any revenue at all. I wrote the article, sent it out in an email, and within 45 minutes I got a reply, and somebody signed a $12,000 contract. There’s the metrics on thought leadership.
Let’s keep diving in. Is developing a content and social media strategy for business growth only for B2B marketers, or can other folks leverage these strategies as well? We know our audience, we know who is listening, but we also know whose cubicle you might be sitting next to. Who should this be going out to, C-suite, sales, the janitor? Talk us through that, Ashley.
Ashley: I’m going to go back to who is the audience and who do you need to build that credibility with. As marketers, unfortunately, even though we’re very smart, capable, and good at communication, and pretty much the best people in the whole world, there are some people in other crafts and disciplines who don’t really trust us. They think we’re just trying to sell them something.
I would say that depending on who that audience is and how much they trust brands or how much they trust something coming out from a marketer or sales rep, which in most cases is quite low, you’re probably going to need to leverage these principles with somebody like them. Edelman Trust Barometer, a longitudinal study that has come out over the last decade or so every year, overall trust has been declining for a decade, particularly in formal institutions and formal markers of authority. CEOs, religious leaders, government, for example, even the news and the press. People trust people like themselves, they trust their peers and they trust people they have a personal experience with. One distinction from 2022 in the report was I trust my CEO versus I trust a CEO, so that personal connection.
When we talk about should this be a marketing initiative, I think it’s Steve Watt that says that your brand reputation and our marketing is too important and too impactful to just be left to marketers. When you want to go talk to engineers, you need to have practitioners, leaders, and executives to speak to each of those levels within your market with credibility and expertise. That’s where you start to get that subject matter expertise.
I actually saw something the other day. This fellow Jeff Winter in the manufacturing industry, he’s built a massive following and he talks a lot about digital transformation. He has that credibility because he’s literally in that industry with those peers, talking about that subject matter expertise.
I would say that this does need to be a shared vision across the organization. Then the pillars within that strategy have different tactics and execution based on the skills and the craft and the audience, kind of matching all those things up, playing that matchmaker. If you have people who are really into slides, cool, here’s the slide people, let’s talk about building slides and how best to do that, should you put water on the slide or should you put Vaseline on the slide to make sure you go fast. That’s something you can talk about, if we stick with that playground mindset. Yes, the marketing team may be the architects of the playground, but you would bring in specific craftspeople for each piece of equipment to make sure that it’s sturdy and behaves in the way that it is expected to behave.
George: So good. I love that response. It’s probably a second rewind spot in the podcast.
A thought just came slamming into my forehead like a Mack Truck when you were talking to that point. Back to the whole marionette and Pinocchio funny scenario that I threw out there. You can’t be a thought leader until they trust you and your ability to lead. If you haven’t put that in place beforehand,… I love the fact that you brought up pillars, that whole system. Until you have things going on like that…
Anyway, let’s keep going because I think this is important for everybody. I think there is something that they can do. However, it is going to be a little bit of a bumpy journey. I think there’s going to be some potholes in the way. I think there’s going to be what I lovingly like to call marketing hurdles. So that we can help the Marketing Smarts folks either jump the hurdle or maybe swerve around the pothole, whichever analogy you want to use, what are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve seen B2B marketers have to overcome when developing what we’re talking about, this content strategy plan of attack that is focused in social corners, ending up with business growth through thought leadership?
Ashley: I think the biggest thing is, we are still stuck in a lot of the attribution mindset from 10 years ago. Before social media really became a place that individuals could own and that businesses could partner with individuals to improve and share and grow that audience, everything came back to—it was brilliant when it came out, when inbound with the methodology of fill out the form, be able to track it and nurture it, that sense that you wanted to bring people in, educate them, nurture them, and then sell to them after you had built that, that was super smart a decade ago. HubSpot has continued to evolve their own model, but a lot of marketers are still trying to implement that same measurement strategy, and therefore the approach in their creation and their tactics from 10 years ago.
It’s hard. Your comment about you sent out that newsletter and you got a $12,000 PO or engagement, you can see that, that one click is worth $12,000. Right? But I don’t actually know what the click through rate overall on the email was. If you were to send me that dashboard, it would not surprise me if it potentially had a lower click through rate just because it was the holidays. A lower open rate and potentially a lower click to open rate. Me as an outsider without that context, I might look at that and say, “Clearly this content didn’t resonate,” or, “This was not your best email.” But for you, you’re like one-to-one, it generated this much revenue. It’s the same thing on social media.
I had somebody very kindly comment, “I think I should make a folder on my desktop for all of the posts you’ve made that I think are valuable.” I jokingly said, “If you could make that public, that would be amazing. It helps me so I don’t have to do it.” An hour later, he sends me a link to a Google Drive of all of this content that I’ve created that he has saved. I don’t know how you measure that somebody has taken the time to screenshot, download, link, or whatever, and put all of the content that I created into a folder so that it’s easily accessible for themselves. Where does that show up in the dashboard?
George: It doesn’t. That’s the problem. I feel like reporting and attribution mindset could be an entire podcast episode itself. It is amazing to me how SaaS software and the birth of inbound marketing and the software that came along with it are really great at organic, email, referrals, social, but I love attribution and I hate attribution at the same time. While my SaaS software tells me it’s organic, it’s actually because Jimmy told Jenny and Jenny then searched for George, so it really was word of mouth, or it was a podcast. A whole other episode.
George: What does content and social media strategy for thought leadership success look like? They have the gold medal, they’re on the number one podium. If you can arrive, how do you know that you’ve arrived?
Ashley: There’s a couple of things on this. First, getting back to you do need to measure it somehow. You have to be able to see that amazing $12,000 engagement and that amazing folder of stuff that has been created.
I think the first thing is being intentional about the people that you partner with for thought leadership within your organization, or if you’re partnering with somebody externally. I tend to think that, particularly in larger organizations, they do need to have at least one, if not multiple, depending on how many audiences they’re serving, thought leaders. In those cases, you can start to look at the direct messages they receive, you can start looking at the quality and quantity of inbound requests that they receive for speaking engagements, podcasts, contributions, etcetera.
Then you can start to look at what kinds of conversations ultimately come out of them going to a conference or them publishing an article, or what are the comments that are happening in the threads on LinkedIn, or the Twitter threads. Look at the quantity, quality, and nature of the replies there, and you can start to see those relationships developing. Yes, it is a more manual task to measure it, but I think that’s the first thing is being able to see the quantity and the quality of the engagement going up for these curated thought leaders.
I think the second thing in terms of how this shows up for the brand and the business is how many people cite that topic or that person once they get into an engagement. We hear this all the time generically, “Oh my gosh, Atlassian is on my target list of companies to work.” Why do you think that? “I don’t know. Just everybody that I see talks about how great the culture is and how strong the values are.” Mark that down. “Everybody talks about this. Everything I see from everybody.” Who is everybody? You don’t know. That is an element. Obviously, there’s some brand and reputation sentiment analysis you can do, but there’s also the people side of it. I think that’s a way that you can start to attribute it.
When somebody gets into a deal, when they do finally raise their hand to say they want to buy, when the sales rep gets in and starts talking to them, are they referencing, “I first heard about you guys at some conference. I don’t even know, maybe somebody was speaking, I don’t remember.” Those types of comments and triggers start to get at that mindshare in the market that you can measure outside of impressions, likes, comments, direct messages, etcetera.
George: I love this so much. It almost ties a little bit into our attribution conversation that we had just a second ago. I had to paint a picture in my head, I’d love to see what the company HubSpot has for my original source for me as a human, because it might be, if they’re lucky, the world’s largest webinar back in 2012 that the HubSpot Academy put on, but that’s not the true attribution. The true attribution is that a social media guy came running into our office and said, “You have to check out this webinar.” If they don’t have attributed to John the social media guy of the agency, then it’s wrong. So, I love that success is like there’s different verticals and vectors that you can look at.
Ashley, this has been absolutely amazing. The final question that I love to ask on the Marketing Smarts Podcast is to give you the opportunity to put what it is that you want to put into the world around this topic or anything that you want to give. We’ve all been through a journey, we’ve all learned things along the way. What are some final words of wisdom that you want to leave the Marketing Smarts audience with before we send them back to their regularly scheduled day?
Ashley: I think the crux of this whole conversation, from my practice of marketing, is to fall in love with the humans. That is the humans that are consuming the content, the humans that are using your offerings, and the humans that are enabling the humans behind the screen. For me, if you can fall in love with the audience and fall in love with the humans behind the screen, that is where you start to really get the magic. Yes, there’s numbers, there’s revenue, all of the things, but if you can fall in love with the humans, you’re going to continue to see those other outcomes for years to come.
George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.
I also have to ask are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to Mprofs.com/mptoday. You won’t regret the additional B2B marketing education that you’ll be adding to your life.
We’d like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we’d love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk with Mike Alton about B2B marketers and influencer marketing, the good, the bad, and the ugly, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you’d like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B marketing human. We’ll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.
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Published on March 2, 2023
Ashley Faus, a marketer, writer, and speaker by day, and a singer, actor, and fitness fiend by night. Her work has been featured in TIME, Forbes, and The Journal of Brand Strategy, and she's shared insights with audiences at Harvard Business Review, INBOUND, and MarketingProfs. She works for Atlassian, a collaboration software maker on a mission to unleash the power of every team.
LinkedIn: Ashley Faus
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