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What Makes a Manufacturing Thought Leader?

Why your blog isn't solving any problems.


There was a time when serving as an editor of a business resource like IEN was, in many ways, pretty straightforward. There was a monthly or bi-monthly print magazine within which nearly all of the brand’s content was contained. Websites were bare bones; digital communications like email newsletters were issued sparingly because they took multiple people to produce – even hand coding!

It’s hard to identify with this approach when viewing it within the context of what “media” is today.

While IEN still reaches its audience with a regular print magazine, we also offer daily e-newsletters and videos, podcasts, research, social media … the list goes on, whether we like it or not.

The transformation of modern media creates a host of challenges, but one is responding to the expectations that now exist: consider the internet as a 24-hour diner. It never closes, and customers appear day and night at their leisure, expecting something fresh.

And while our work is cut out for us in this regard, it is our work. I know my colleagues and I take a certain satisfaction in the fast-paced nature of the business as it exists today and wouldn’t trade the slow pace of 20 years ago for the ability to chase down an exciting development today.

That said, I can acknowledge that the frantic pace of information has found a way to bleed into other business models, including that of manufacturing, where companies now struggle to find ways to stay “relevant” outside of their product lines. What I mean by this is that a need has emerged for business leaders to establish a brand for themselves, in some sense, and engage with customers and prospects in a way that shares their perspective and knowledge.

The buzzword “thought leadership” was born to embody this approach and, outside of the load it adds to an executive's or marketing team’s plate, it does produce some benefits. For one, it enables business leaders to interact with a customer outside of the sales process. And, if you’re doing it right, it doesn't feel like a sales pitch.

The danger, instead, is in producing content that nobody wants or needs, just to keep your name out there. We all have thoughts – what makes you a thought leader?

If you’re doing it right, it starts with the critical issues impacting the market. That is to say, instead of taking whichever new solution you’re trying to promote and shoehorning it into a message-bearing format, start with the customer: what problems are they trying to solve? What are their pain points? A good thought leader will seek out this information before producing content that is little more than an answer in search of a question.

This basic legwork can be achieved by customer calls, but the challenges that exist in aggregating anecdotal information can make this approach problematic. Instead, consider an anonymous survey of your â€“ or a partner’s – database. Identify the top challenges facing your customers, and spend the rest of the year methodically addressing them through blogs, videos, podcasts – whatever format works best for you.

Because what divides a writer and a thought leader is information. Do you know what matters to the market, and can you address its toughest questions? If you answer the assignment with a stale message or – worse – something obviously self-promotional, you not only turn off your audience, you waste your own time as well. That’s not leadership; it’s just busywork.

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