by Shama Hyder
It would be difficult to overstate just how game-changing inbound marketing has been for the marketing industry—and for brands at large.
Powered by the emergence and popularity of social media platforms, which in turn gave rise to a more empowered and informed consumer, the shift from “outbound” to inbound marketing meant that brands had to prioritize value-adding content and connection over direct response tactics.
Now, the game is changing once more. Brands have become skilled at creating valuable content—but now, consumers are inundated with it. Putting out valuable content is now the baseline—it’s essential.
In order to stand out today, brands need something more. They need to focus on selectively, strategically positioning themselves as true thought leaders. Here’s why this is happening, and why your brand should be on board.
What we learned from inbound marketing
When inbound marketing first began edging out the more traditional outbound marketing, in the early 2000s, the concept of building relationships with customers was quite new.
Marketing was still largely seen as a transactional affair. You, a marketer, convinced someone to buy your product by touting its advantages. Customers purchased your product, and hopefully they liked it enough to come back and buy again when they ran out.
There were, of course, exceptions to this, but this scenario was the general rule.
The internet changed all of this. The capabilities of digital marketing allowed for a much more equitable, give-and-take relationship between brand and consumer. As brands began to see the value in creating content that brought their customers to them, inbound marketing grew.
This new method of relating to consumers taught marketers and brands the importance of building authentic relationships with the people who purchase from them.
To facilitate those relationships, we started turning to storytelling. Storytelling, we found, was a much more effective way of communicating in this new paradigm than pithy slogans or sales pitches. Brands of all types and sizes started incorporating stories into their branding and marketing, and it’s worked.
That brings us to this next phase of inbound: thought leadership.
Thought leadership and storytelling go hand in hand
Storytelling isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It’s too effective a technique—there’s little else that can bridge the gap between consumer and brand as quickly, thoroughly, or authentically as a strong story can.
This is especially true in the age of the connected consumer, when disdain for anything that sounds too promotional or sales-y has risen to an all-time high.
Thought leadership, however, makes us better, more purposeful storytellers. Becoming a thought leader is all about sharing not only your expertise, but also your unique experiences with readers. To connect with readers on a large scale, you’ve got to tell your story.
Thought leadership helps us serve customers—in the truest sense
Thought leadership channels our creativity to serve our customers—and not just in the typical, business sense.
The best thought leadership helps solve problems, but it also does more. When we share our expertise, along with our authentic selves, with consumers, we can enrich lives and empower our humanity.
Airbnb is a great example. Their groundbreaking Airbnbmag has helped them become a premier thought leader in the travel space—and it’s because they focus on so much more than finding a place to stay, or even travel itself. This article, Traveling While Black in the Jim Crow Era, describes a travel guide from the 1930s-1960s written by an African-American for African-Americans, which was designed to help African-American travelers stay safe while they drove across the country.
The story is fascinating and important, and it illustrates one of the reasons travel can be so transformational: It offers us a new perspective, a new understanding of our world. That’s a true service to Airbnb’s customers—especially to connected consumers, who expect the brands they engage with to stand for more than just turning a profit—as much as the ability to book a room anywhere in the world.
Thought leadership is disruptive
Even though thought leadership is the natural evolution of inbound marketing, it’s also disruptive.
Thought leadership embodies dedication to a particular idea, endeavor, or discipline, and disrupts the dichotomy between social strategy and content strategy. Instead of existing in one or the other, it emerges at their intersection and thrives on their integration.
After all, great content can’t graduate to thought leadership without one crucial element: amplification. Thought leaders, by definition, are people who are considered authoritative voices, and go-to resources, in their industries.
That doesn’t happen without amplification. And amplification requires both strong content and strong social networks, both with your fans and with other industry voices.
Thought leadership isn’t a replacement for all the trappings of inbound marketing—it’s more of a goal to move toward. By creating content and cultivating your social networks with this aspiration in mind, you’ll be able to better serve the connected consumer and gain their trust.