March 26, 2008
How To

How to Use Forums to Become a Thought Leader: 10 Steps to Make Your Brand Stand Out

SUMMARY: Establishing your brand as a leader in its field can make a real difference for your sales team when trying to convert prospects, especially if your brand is not well known or difficult to differentiate from your competition.

See how a software firm focused on thought leadership to help get its brand to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Includes 10 steps for using client forums and MP3 distribution.
In a crowded marketplace, your brand can be invisible unless you find ways to distinguish your company from your competition. Few had heard of Callidus Software in the crowded technology market before the marketing team focused on a strategy built around thought leadership, says Bill Schuh, VP for Europe.

They had three objectives: getting the right quality and quantity of customers; building a community for sharing innovative ideas and networking, and developing a trusted adviser status and network. “We needed to cultivate interest and educate them about what we do,” Schuh says.

To accomplish this, Schuh and his team created what they dubbed TrueConnection forums to educate clients about Callidus. The idea-sharing forums and the distribution of MP3 recordings of those events is a “high-value way to stay in touch and cultivate these accounts, keeping them warm until they potentially become hot sales opportunities.”

Callidus interacted with 150 customers at one UK-based event and gained 8-10 prospective clients. At the same time, during the first 18 months of the campaign, the organization saw on-demand growth of its Sales Performance Management software go from zero to 29,000 users.

Schuh says the program also has had a dramatic impact on the supply chain. It has opened up and established a new dialogue with customers. Callidus is now educating rather than pummelling them about their sales management products and services.

Schuh offer 10 tactics to cultivate clients through thought leadership:

-> Tactic #1. Research the marketplace

Researching and understand the dynamics of any market is critical. Consider who you want to target and the format of the forums or meetings you want to use to reach them.

Ask these types of questions:
- When is the best time?
- Will a breakfast or a luncheon event be better supported to deliver the outcomes you wish to achieve?
- Will the forum need to be supported by other events?
- What works best?
- How often should they be held?

-> Tactic #2. Set goals and objectives

Consider what you want and expect to achieve. What will it take to organize a forum? You’re not simply inviting a group of executives to sit around a table. There has to be point of discussion and a commercial purpose.

You also need to consider the costs vs. the benefits of the campaign, the resources and assets that you can employ and how the campaign will be measured.

Objectives could include:
- Determining how many people you want to have attend.
- How many referrals and direct or indirect sales you would like to get out of the forum.
- How many people you would like to have to form an interactive community.

Typical goals might be:
- Differentiating your products, brands and services from your competitors.
- Creating more brand visibility and awareness.

-> Tactic #3. Use sponsors to support events

By inviting sponsors to share your platform, you can extend the reach of your campaign. Work with them and other partners to increase your brand awareness. If you can demonstrate that your own company is a thought leader, sponsors will be more keen to join you.

At the same time, developing awareness of their own brands and how they are perceived are key drivers of their involvement. They should also be willing to interact with forum members and impart their own experience, knowledge and information. Callidus invites firms like Accenture, SAP and IBM to support their forums.

-> Tactic #4. Encourage participation through targeting

Inviting the right people to engage and participate in forums is vital. The forums look at how various topical issues, relating to that audience, have been managed successfully. Your delegates must be able to add value to the event; they need to be prepared to share their knowledge.

It’s vital that you create and communicate the right integrated message for each segmented audience and individual participant. Marketers shouldn’t expect a busy executive to sit down and watch a Web demo or read a 10-page white paper.

-> Tactic #5. Stimulate viral activity

Work to mix in emotion and incentives so participants are encouraged to talk about what they have learned and about their experience at the forums. Through this form of viral marketing, your attendees can become invaluable brand and product advocates.

The forums can also stimulate activities like business referrals because they bring new contacts to the host and the others involved in the community.

-> Tactic #6. Get marketing and sales to work together

There needs to be an open dialogue between the marketing and sales departments, with plenty of information and knowledge sharing.

- The sales team needs the appropriate touch points, media coverage and an array of assets that can improve the performance of the sales campaign.
- Use a variety of marketing techniques to drive awareness and interest in your products or services.

-> Tactic #7. Employ value-based techniques

Make sure that you have the best sales team in place. Train them to sell using value-based techniques. Each salesperson has to be on the same page; each must deliver the same messages and interact with customers at the same level. This consultative sales approach can make them trusted advisers.

-> Tactic #8. Enable peer group interaction

Peer-group interaction can help you keep up with the Joneses. Both customers and vendors like this, and they’ll often comment in advance of attending a meeting or forum.

A private and branded, or co-branded, online forum could also extend the ability of the community to continue the conversation, to organize their own meetings, to make referrals and to exchange knowledge and information.

-> Tactic #9. Use MP3s to further the discussions

Make an MP3 recording of your forum. Then, allow attendees to replay what they heard and discussed at each event. Make the MP3 easy to download from your website.

-> Tactic #10. Be a key networker

Facilitate introductions when customers request them. Make it part of your job to help customers within your database to network, and even with the industry at large. They will remember you in a positive light, and it will reflect well on you at some point in time.

Key Metrics to Track
- Number of invitations vs. actual attendees
Did all of those who accepted your invitations actually come to the forum or meeting? Why couldn’t they make it? What was the feedback of those who attended?

- Levels of brand awareness
Measure whether this strategy led to a significant increase in awareness of your brand, product or service.

- Changes in brand perception
Look at whether you are actually seen as a thought-leader and whether customer and vendor perceptions of your brand have changed -- positively or negatively.

- Community members and advocacy
How many advocates have been created? Also examine whether you saw an increase in active members of your community. Analyze the impact of viral marketing activities.

This strategy is very cost-effective. The biggest investment is time. One sale can cover the cost of organizing these events. Still, marketers need to know how much it costs versus how many leads and actual sales were gained.

You also might want to monitor whether the performance of any individual salesperson was bolstered. Was there an increase in sales conversion rates -- how and why?

Useful links related to this article

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