Rethinking thought leadership from a Challenger Marketing perspective

Far too much thought-leadership content is ‘me too’ these days. It doesn’t engage the audience with new ideas, and it often gets lost in competing noise. Rarely does it lead to meaningful engagements.


So I think we should adopt a Challenger Marketing approach to thought leadership. We should focus on building strong opinions from people who can teach readers something new – and expose errors in their commercial thinking.



As marketers, this will change how we go about developing content altogether. Content strategies will be less planned, less controlled, and more responsive to the thoughts of the individual. We’ll be working more in collaboration with them to develop ideas, as and when they occur.


Why this focus on individuals? It’s mainly due to the recent shift in buying patterns, with social selling and digital engagement playing an ever-stronger role. Buyers now place more trust in the opinions of people than companies. According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers value word of mouth and recommendations over brand advertising.


Find your business brain

This has led to a lot of so-called ‘thought leadership’ content being pushed out from the social platforms of well-followed people. Trouble is, most of that content ends up being a rehash of corporate messaging. Bland, vanilla and very rarely offering anything new.


True thought leadership, for me, has to come directly from the brain of a business thinker, not a marketer. It has to come from those people who have radical ideas and want to disrupt the status quo. Finding them is not always easy, but they’re the ones who will drive content that stands out from the competing noise.


Disrupt traditional thinking

I think of it as being very similar to ‘Challenger Marketing’ because of the focus on commercial insight. Real thought leaders will inevitably want to teach the audience something new, and show them what they’re currently doing wrong.


They won’t speak in broad generalisations or truisms (they don’t have time, and it doesn’t interest them!). But they do want to turn established truths on their head and look at common business concerns from different angles. This is what keeps them at the head of their profession.


In the world of marketing, for example, Byron Sharp is doing just that with his views on customer loyalty, and I’d also consider someone like Mark Ritson to be a thought leader with his arguments against social media marketing. This is the type of person, and the type on content, that really defines a ‘Challenger’ approach to thought leadership.


Adapt your content strategy

There’s a clear role for marketers in supporting this approach. Rather than rehashing existing thoughts or reflecting on what others are saying, we should focus on finding the big thinkers in an organisation, building relationships with them and helping articulate their ideas through fresh, compelling content.


It’s a great opportunity to shift the focus from corporate marketing to people-focused marketing, which I think will deliver greater results. “Customers buy from people, not companies”, as the saying goes. It just has to be the right people, with insightful viewpoints.



Inevitably, this will have a wider impact on how we operate as marketers. Typical content marketing strategies (carefully mapped out in advance on project plans by marketing teams) won’t work. Instead, we’ll have to be more reactive to our thought leaders and adapt content strategies in line with their thinking. After all, they hold the commercial insight – and that should drive everything.


By Clive McNamara | September 9, 2016

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