Joseph Chaney | May 10th, 2019

Well, it’s that time again. Another Star Wars film is only months away, and this is a big one: the conclusion of the original Skywalker Saga that began way back in 1977. As expected, the blogosphere is buzzing with commentary. Millions are ecstatic, savouring every detail in the new trailer. Many others are (still) wondering what the fuss is all about.

So what, you say. What does this have to do with corporate thought leadership campaigns? Quite a bit, actually – especially in the area of audience development.

Let me explain.

At n/n we spend our time advising large companies on their B2B content campaigns. A lot of this work begins with defining a campaign’s audience personas. These personas are best described as investor, professional or stakeholder groups, i.e. This campaign on treasury trends and hedging strategies is targeting Asia-based CFOs. Or, this video series on ASEAN capital markets reform is addressing CEOs of international asset management firms.

Obviously B2C marketing of the Star Wars variety is a different animal. Disney’s goal is to target consumers as individuals. Professional status isn’t a consideration. Come one, come all. They aren’t selling professional expertise or insight like B2B marketers; they’re selling emotional connections. They want not only to sell movie tickets, but also merchandising rights to toy and costume companies, and candy and stationery suppliers.

But in order to do that, or at least to do it on a large enough scale, the films need to connect with audiences in authentic ways that don’t feel cheap or forced. If there’s no meaningful connection to Chewbacca, few kids will beg their parents to buy Chewbacca action figures.

The reality is that the same principle holds for the content you produce under the banner of executive thought leadership. If you fail to connect with your audience in an authentic manner, you just might lose that next M&A advisory mandate. This is often forgotten when B2B marketers are devising campaigns. Worse, some B2B marketers may think that the act of presenting oneself as an expert (but not actually speaking or writing like one) is enough. It’s not.

Let’s dig deeper and analyse the parallels between B2C and B2B marketing. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve divided these into three categories.

First, the believers. These people will see the film just because it’s called Star Wars. The brand alone is enough to secure the ticket sale. (Full confession: your author falls into this category as far as Star Wars is concerned). If the film is good, it’s money and time well spent. If not? No big deal. Little follow-up action will come either way.

In the B2B context, these are the readers who will consume your company’s campaigns no matter what. They are already convinced of your right to speak with authority. They are unlikely to pass harsh judgments about the campaign’s quality; and, they are also unlikely to rave about its value. Easy come, easy go.

Second, the cynics. These consumers have either never seen a Star Wars film, or have maybe watched a few passively, perhaps while sitting on an airplane. They don’t understand what the fuss is about. The most vocal among them might even take pride in not seeing the movies, and brag about that.

In B2B, these are (potential) readers that – even if presented with the most ground-breaking white paper on China’s Belt and Road Initiative – may shrug it off as just another puff piece and never give it a chance. Perhaps as a general rule they think corporations don’t have anything interesting to say; or they’re jaded from reading too many mediocre research reports. It’s a tough crowd.

And finally, the connoisseurs. This is where things get far more interesting. Perhaps the best way to describe the temperament of these consumers is: I’m a big fan so I’ll see the movie, but IT BETTER BE GOOD. These are people who may have seen every film in the series, and who know about most plot twists and character arcs. They may also be film buffs in general, and so will compare the movie – its tone, its structure, its flow – to others in the sci-fi space. In other words, regardless of the hype or cultural pressure to go along, they can’t be fooled. They’ll notice half-baked dialogue and bad narrative flow. They won’t accept mediocrity.

It’s this last group that is often the most valuable audience for many corporate B2B content campaigns. The reason is simple: they hold the magic seeds that will help you grow your influence.

Why? Because these are the readers that are fully invested in the material and are thus likely to be the most vocal about their appreciation of its quality. That gives them the power to convert a few cynics into new readers. You know, something like this: I heard you were sceptical about Bank X’s expertise in regards to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But trust me, this latest paper of theirs puts it all in perspective – both the opportunities and the risks on the execution side. It’s well-researched and chock full of interesting data. Did you know the sovereign debt of 20-plus BRI countries is rated ‘junk’ by the top agencies? Fascinating stuff.

On the downside, the high expectations held by these readers means they are also likely to voice disappointment with the campaign if it’s of poor quality; and they will back up their criticism with real knowledge. That gives them the power to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of your believers – or, the loyal readers you’ve already captured. You can hear it now: That Belt and Road paper that Bank X published was full of holes. They didn’t even address the issue of failed investments or the impact of the trade war. Or the fact that many BRI countries have ‘junk’ ratings. Not much useful data, and it wasn’t balanced.

It might sound strange that your toughest critics can also serve as your most valuable audience. But in the end, it is precisely this double-edged sword – the ability to either boost your profile or inflict damage – that makes this group so valuable.

Of course, it’s impossible for B2B marketers to make guesses about, or precisely quantify and measure, the individual temperaments of readers in its targeted persona group. John Doe asset manager may be a believer while Jane Doe asset manager is a cynic. Nobody knows.

That means the smartest thing you can do is create thought leadership campaigns with your critics in mind. Yes, they will scoff at mediocrity. But if sufficiently impressed, they might just spread the word and expand your sphere of influence in ways you never anticipated, if only because they are the ones that grasp the full value of your effort.

May the force be with you.

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