By Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing

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This week’s show is called “Why You Need To Be Part Of The Company Thought Leadership Trend” and our guest is Karen Tiber Leland, CEO of Sterling Marketing Group.

Join us as Karen Leland shares what thought leadership really entails, the difference between individual thought leadership and corporate thought leadership and how Karen’s “wannabe cowgirl” enthusiasm relates to it.

Listen in and/or read along with the transcript below.


Matt:     Welcome everybody to another episode of Sales Pipeline Radio. We are now live, every Thursday at 11:30 Pacific, 2:30 Eastern, live on LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook, and are excited to have you all here. A new format for us. We are doing this audio, this video, still from the basement here in the farmhouse, but excited to be doing this every week. If you are watching live, thank you for joining us in the middle of the workday. With joining live, you have the opportunity to be part of the podcast. Any comments or questions you make, we will be able to add to the broadcast and in an ask of our guest today. If you are watching this on demand, listening to this through the podcast, thank you so much for joining us. We do this every week, interviewing some of the best and brightest minds in B2B sales and marketing. So, check us out every Thursday, midday on LinkedIn, and you can find all past episodes of Sales Pipeline Radio audio only at salespipelineradio.com.
Very excited to have with us today, Karen Tiber Leland, who is a… So, your bio in LinkedIn is one of my new favorites, because you basically, the things you have done is impressive: bestselling author, CEO of Sterling Marketing Group, TEDx speaker, dark chocolate lover, and wannabe cowgirl. So the dark chocolate lover part is a little self-explanatory. But tell me about the wannabe cowgirl.

Karen:   Oh, my goodness. I just got back from a week at a ranch of horseback riding in Denver, so your timing is perfect. When I was a kid, I used to do some horseback riding, but when I was a kid, here is how you did horseback riding. They put you on a horse without a helmet, they slap the horse on the behind and the horse just went. And as long as you didn’t fall off, everything was okay. It’s not like I was taking any big equestrian lessons. And then as an adult, occasionally, when I would be in a foreign country, I would go on a ride, same thing. So, in the middle of COVID, I thought, you know what, I am going to take up horseback riding again, but I am really going to take it up as a sport. I am going to learn it the way you should learn it, because I can be outdoors, and you are with the horses. It turned out to be a perfect thing to do during COVID. And I have just become completely, like, “I want to be a cowgirl when I grow up.”

Matt:     I love that. Wannabe cowgirl in New York city and yeah, there is something about horses. So, we were out last week as a family, up a little north of Seattle and were visiting friends who had a horse and a donkey, and our kids do not get a lot of time with them. We have dogs, cats, and chickens. We do not have…

Karen:   Horses and donkeys.

Matt:     Right, so it was just a lot of fun. And obviously, as you would imagine, my kids can’t wait to go back and do it again.

Karen:   Yeah. Horses are really great to be around.

Matt:     Oh man, especially when you get a good horse. Yeah, they are super smart animals, really fun to be with. We could probably spend a whole 20 minutes just talking about horses and getting out on the ranch, but I do want to talk about thought leadership. So the concept of thought leadership, I feel has been around for a while. We think about thought leaders and influencers at companies and people that have influence. You’ve been talking a lot about thought leadership from a corporate and company perspective. So, I wanted to ask you to describe, what does that mean? How is that different and why is it important?

Karen:   Well, I think the leading edge of thought leadership right now is corporate thought leadership. We’re all familiar with individual thought leadership where an individual builds their personal brand by becoming a thought leader in a specific space. Right? But I think one of the things that has happened with COVID is companies have stopped doing large conferences. They have been doing things online. But I think even when they go back to doing large conferences and I do believe they will… I think what we’re going to end up with is a hybrid model where you’ll have large conferences with an online component. I think it’s going to be a hybrid moving forward. But I think one of the things companies have seen was that they don’t need to just build their brand by having these big conferences with a lot of speakers. They can build their brand through more internal thought leadership activities.
It is the same idea as individual thought leadership. Whenever I work with a CEO or an executive on their personal brand, we’re always thinking about their thought leadership, but it’s taking that idea and it’s translating it to the corporate world. Meaning that thinking about your company, what are the areas that your company’s an expert in? What are the areas your company wants to be seen as a leader in? What are the spaces your company wants to be seen as a leader in? And then what is the strategy for becoming thought leaders in that field? And it is just as we do it with the personal; you must have a strategy, because if you are a corporation, you must think about the 40 different tactics you could use to become a thought leader in a particular space. Even if you’re a Fortune 500 company, you’re not going to probably do all 40 tactics. You are going to want to strategically figure out what are the four to six tactics that are going to be the most efficacious for you as a corporation to establish thought leadership, which of those go into the strategy.
And so, I find I am working a lot with companies now, on what is their thought leadership strategy as a company, and there is really two parts to it. There’s the overall corporate thought leadership, but then there’s empowering your executives to also be seen as thought leaders. So, many times an executive will call me and go, “You know, Karen, I know I really need to redo my LinkedIn and be more out there, but my company doesn’t want to pay for it.” And I say, “Well, why not?” They go, “Well, they think that’s for me personally.” And I really want to say to every company out there, “No, no, no.”
Right now, today, the world we live in, potential customers, potential employees, potential investors, all those people are looking at your senior executive staff. So it behooves you as a corporation to make sure that you’re not only doing the corporate thought leadership piece, but you’re empowering all your senior executives to really have their act together online so that they’re becoming thought leaders also in the space. And two really big changes that I have seen just in the last I would say year.

Matt:     Let us dig into those a little further, because I think a lot of people will say, “Okay, thought leadership means sort of defining and owning a category”, and maybe that’s part of it. But I think there’s also a distinction between sort of evangelizing the category and evangelizing the problem. Talk about sort of how to sort of build a category and create consistency at corporate level by making sure people understand that the problems needed to be solved before you start evangelizing the solution.

Karen:   It is so funny because people always, every week I get calls from people that go, “I want to be a thought leader” or “my company wants to be a thought leader,” and my not so joking response is, “Okay, but first you have to have some thoughts.”
Right? So thought leadership is not so much about solving a problem as it ultimate in its finest, is about thinking new thoughts. So that means, that if you are a company and you are doing thought leadership at a company, you are not just saying here’s problem A and we are going to solve it by problem B. That’s thought leadership, but it’s kind of a lower level of thought leadership. It is more saying here is the problems, here is the current solutions, here is the current thinking, here is the work, the research, the thoughts that we have gone into creating what is on the leading edge of thinking about these issues and not just solving the problem, but what is the next iteration? What’s the next development? What’s the next breakthrough? And so really companies that are doing that, are not just solving a problem, they are pointing and leading the way towards where we are going next. And that might be through research, that might be through education. That’s through a lot, there’s a lot of different pathways to that, but they really are thinking new thoughts. They’re not just recycling the same old thoughts and the same old solutions.

Matt:     Talk about what it takes to build the habit and discipline of doing this. When I think about where executives or companies sort of fall is by saying, “We want to create thought leaders; here’s some things for you to tweet.” Right? As opposed to like, how do you build the muscle of creating insights, of creating not just the insights, but also creating the habits to start sharing them on a consistent basis.

Karen:   I was working with a Fortune 500 company last year on this very topic of thought leadership, but really getting it into the culture. Not just having it be a little thing they do with a few tweets but getting it into the culture. And one of the challenges was, the mindset must change in a corporation from being what I would call a sprint mindset to a marathon mindset. What happens in a sprint mindset is, “We’re going to hire a PR firm. We’re going to hire an agency. We’re going to have them do a campaign. We’re going to get 20 hits. And then that is it, that’s our thought leadership.” But the reality is, even though that might be a good thing to do, that is a very sprint-like approach. And the truth is it’s a marathon approach that works.
Some of the things that are involved in a marathon approach are a long-term strategy, at least a year long strategic plan; going beyond PR to having the other things be involved, social content development, content strategies, speaking strategies. Right? And again, the speaking might be on podcast or the speaking might be on conferences. You have to decide for the company, which one’s right for you. But having those long-term multifaceted strategies that are not just about PR, that are not just about getting a placement in a magazine. Because even though that’s a good thing to do, that’s one little, teeny, tiny, tiny piece of the picture, right? It’s not the whole thing. And then the third piece of it is really understanding you have to educate and engage your entire senior team in this. It cannot just be, “Oh, let’s give that to the marketing department.”
Now the marketing department might be the leader in it, but you need to engage and educate everyone in your executive team. And that requires some work.  That is making it just as important. But think, the results you get from that kind of marketing are incredibly high. So the cost ratio benefit is extremely good in that kind of thought leadership marketing. It’s certainly less expensive than putting on a conference for thousands of people. Just think about that.

Matt:     You think about the difference between sort of renting attention from someone else and owning the attention yourself to make you as a business, you as individuals to be thought leaders, like you are a media channel now.

Karen:   Absolutely. And by the way, reporters will come to you, media will come to you, people will come to you. It’s a way to start to establish yourself in that space as someone that’s really trustworthy to talk about that space, whatever that space might be, depending on the industry you’re in.

Matt:     But this does not happen overnight. Doing this well, requires consistency, discipline and takes time. We’ve both probably talked to executives and say, “Okay, well, I’ll try it for a couple of weeks to see if it works.” Like, “Well, if that’s your mentality, then just don’t bother.”

Karen:   Don’t bother.

Matt:     How do you set expectations with people about what it takes to start to build meaningful momentum that will show some of those results?

Karen:   That’s a great question. And so here’s how I answer that, because what happens is people think it’s a one in, one out phenomenon, but it’s really not. It isn’t, “Well, if you do… if you do one podcast, you’ll get this percentage of increase in clients.” It really doesn’t work that way. It has to do with building up a reputation.
I will give you an example for me, because this happens to me every day. Every day I get a call from someone that says, “Hi, I was googling someone who can do some work on thought leadership or personal branding or corporate branding and your name came up and I looked at your website and I really liked your website. And then I saw that you did some videos. So I went and I saw some of your YouTube videos. And then I realized that you were interviewed on a few podcasts. So I listened to those podcasts. And then I noticed that you write for Inc. And so, I read some of your pieces on Inc., and I decided to call you.”
So, my question to people is always, which one of those things closed it? And the answer is all of them and none of them, because they are touchpoints. And the reality is we live in a touchpoint world, it is not one thing that gets it done. Years ago when I was doing this and Oprah had her show on every day, people call me and go, “I got to be on Oprah. I need to be on Oprah. That’s the, you know, that’s what’s going to make my business go crazy.” Now, if you had the right product, it could do that. But it didn’t do that for most people, but we don’t live in an Oprahtized world anymore where one thing does it. It is really all these little touchpoints.
Part of what I tell my corporate clients is I say, “Look, you have to give this at least six months. It’s not that you don’t see movement, but what you’re doing over the first six months is you’re just building the touch points. Then over the second six months, the touch points are what people start to engage with.” And that is when you start to hear people say, “Oh, I saw this,” or “I saw your company did that,” or “I saw this.” And again, it’s usually two to three touch points that are needed to close the deal. Sometimes it’s five touch points. Does that answer the question? Am I answering…

Matt:     It is a body of work, not individual touch points. I think Matt Solomon also asked the question here, “what if you don’t have a year to wait for this plan”? And I think you mentioned in your answer there like “give at least six months” and know that it is going to be a body of work that sort of generates this… I think that’s…

Karen:   It takes a year to see results. It means that from beginning to end, if you’re a Fortune 500 company, you have to be willing to commit to at least a year’s worth of thought leadership activity to see the poll results. You’ll see things before that. But if you are just going to go, “Well, we’re just going to do this for a month,” you may as well just hire a PR firm and get some PR. It will be a lot cheaper and a lot easier.

Matt:     Or just buy some ads. Right?

Karen:   Buy some ads.

Matt:     Yeah, I mean if you need it right away, go buy some ads. You’re going to pay a premium for someone else’s [crosstalk 00:13:55] for someone else’s attention. All right. We have got a few more minutes here with our guest, Karen Tiber Leland. She is the CEO of Sterling Marketing Group. We may get back to chocolate or cowgirling in a minute, but I wanted to ask-

Karen:   Matt, I just want to say that on my… because I just redid my website finally.
On my website, there is a free quiz people can take to assess their marketing and they can do it either personal or business or whatever. But if you want to know where you are in terms of the level of thought leadership, you can just go on and take that really simple nine question questionnaire for the marketing pyramids. Free and it’s an easy way to see where you are.

Matt:     And this is just the sterlingmarketinggroup.com ?

Karen:   Yep, or karenleland.com. Either one goes to the same place.

Matt:     Awesome. So thought leaders, oftentimes or you may get this question, if someone says, “Okay, what do I need to do on Facebook?” Or, “Everybody seems to be on Clubhouse today,” or, “We’re doing this on LinkedIn live and it’s also a podcast.” Can you help people differentiate between the thought leadership of the thoughts, the channels and the tools? How do those mix together? How should it be?

Karen:   That’s a great question. So, the thought leadership is really claiming a space and looking at a space and saying, “I’m going to be someone” or “I’m going to be a company” or “an individual that’s seen as really being at the leading edge of creating the next thing and really a deep expertise in this space.” My space is branding. Right? CEO branding, personal branding, executive branding, corporate branding; that is my space.
I understand digital marketing, but digital marketing is not my space, right? That is I would never say I’m an expert in digital marketing. So the thought leadership piece is claiming a space or space is… The channel piece has to do with where your particular consumers, where your particular audiences consume their information. So what happens is Clubhouse is a perfect example, because I’ve had so many clients calling me hysterical, “I got to get on Clubhouse. I’m not on Clubhouse. I’m not doing Clubhouse.” So Clubhouse is great, but it might not be the right thing for you. Right? Facebook is great, but it might not be the right thing for you. Right?

Matt:     Right.

Karen:   So, part of it is determining which of those channels, and it is not all channels are not all equal; which of those channels are right for you, given your audience, where your audience consumes information, who your audience is, what your expertise is, what space you are in. So, all what the demographic is of that channel…. all of that must go into the mix. And what happens is people do what I call… this is actually the title of the next book. The next book is called No More Drunk Marketing or The End of Drunk Marketing. We have not quite decided yet, but I call all of that, Drunk Marketing. It’s like just throwing all of this time and energy. I got a client, she was throwing all this time and energy into Clubhouse. And she was complaining that she wasn’t getting anything from it. I said, “Well, your audience probably isn’t on Clubhouse. The people that would hire you probably are not going to find you on Clubhouse. So that’s probably not a good use of your time.” So that is the channel piece of it.
And then what was the third piece of it?

Matt:     Just the tools. Right? With sometimes there’s a little separate piece as well.

Karen:   Well, tell me what you mean by the tools?

Matt:     Well, oftentimes we get people asking us, like, “What are the technologies? What are the marketing and sales technology tools you should buy”? Strategy, first. Process, second. Technology, third. So, the tools you use only matter if the channels support them.

Karen:   Exactly. So people often look at the tools like the tools are going to do the work and they often get sold like, “Well, the tools will do the work for you.” The tools never do the work. Tools are just tools. That’s why we were talking about the cowgirl thing earlier… That’s why the ranch I was just at, you had 30 people of all different skills. You gave everyone the same reigns; you gave everyone the same saddle. You gave everyone the same tools, but boy did they do different things with those tools.
So, tools are just that. They’re just tools and they get driven by the thought leadership space you’re in. They get driven by the mediums that you use and the platforms. And then you have to pick tools that are congruent with those things.

Matt:     I love it. Well, we are about out of time, Karen. Just want to make sure people go to sterlingmarketinggroup.com. karenleland.com. Check out your book, the Brand Mapping Strategy. I’ll definitely look forward to Drunk Marketing. That analogy is now immediately one of my new favorites. Karen, thank you so much for doing this and joining Sales Pipeline Radio.

Karen:   My pleasure. So good to see you, Matt, as always.

Matt:     Well, thanks again. Thanks everyone for watching. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll be here again next week 11:30 Pacific, 2:30 Eastern, every Thursday. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you next week.

 

 

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