The power of outside-in thinking

Rob Mitchell

A few months ago, a potential client called me and said she wanted to discuss a project. As ever, the first thing I wanted was to know the objectives for the campaign.

“Oh, that’s easy,” she said. “My boss said that I have to beat our biggest competitor and get more engagement with our target audience.”

It sounds like a clear goal but, in the context of producing thought leadership content, it was completely misguided. The intended audience couldn’t care less whether a piece of content is slightly better than one produced by a competitor. They only want something that meets their needs and solves their challenges.

Change your perspective

In our view, there are two ways of thinking about thought leadership as an approach to B2B marketing. The first is “inside-out” thinking, and the second is “outside-in”. This particular conversation was a classic example of inside-out thinking. Instead of starting with what the audience wants, she was instead focusing on the internal objective of beating the competition.

Other forms of inside-out thinking are subtler. For example, marketing teams often look at the world through the prism of their own internal structure, so they might produce content that aligns with their own sectoral or regional groupings. Technology, media and telecoms (TMT) is a great example of this. Have you ever met anyone who says they work in TMT? No, me neither. So why do companies insist on producing content for this imaginary grouping?  It’s simply down to how they are structured, and a classic case of inside-out thinking.

Another common mistake is to focus too heavily on internal capabilities and using those as the foundation for insight. Surrounded by peers and colleagues, it’s easy to see how this happens as you all have a similar mental model of what’s important that’s framed around the internal business. But this is not the lens through which your audience views the world.

An outside-in approach to insight turns this model on its head. The starting point is the audience, and the problems that they are trying to solve in their own business. Understanding this perspective demands deep market insight as well as a willingness to be collaborative in how you develop insight-led campaigns. It is impossible to produce true outside-in insights without listening to your audience and really understanding their needs.

So, how do you develop this approach? In our experience, there are several vital steps.

1. Maintain constant dialogue

A common approach to developing thought leadership insight relies on conducting research, producing content and then broadcasting it to the outside world, hoping the message will land. Often, though, it doesn’t and that’s because this is an inside-out way of thinking. Outside-in marketers engage in constant dialogue with their audience, find out what will resonate and talk to them throughout the process. They continually refine the focus and message based on this input, thereby ensuring that the insight is as relevant as possible. This becomes the cornerstone of trust between the brand and its audience.

2. Collect data and act on it

Dialogue with the audience is paramount, but data also plays a vital part. Outside-in marketers focus obsessively on audience data and constantly collect information about how they are engaging with their content. Readership and engagement data using Google Analytics and other tools is part of this, but so too are social media listening tools, search keyword tools and other tactics. Don’t just rely on metrics from your owned channels – this is too myopic. You also need to understand how audiences are behaving on other channels to form a complete picture.

3. Rely on “pull” rather than “push” marketing

Traditional interruption marketing is all about pushing a message out to the audience. Think advertising, telemarketing, unsolicited emailing and so on. But this is fast running out of road. Audiences, and particularly sophisticated B2B audiences, are highly adept at tuning out unwanted messages. They will only engage with your messaging if it speaks to their needs and if it helps them. Relevance is what matters, not throwing your content out as many times as possible and hoping that some of it sticks.

4. Look at competition in the broadest sense

Too often, thought leadership insight is created in a vacuum, with not nearly enough thought given to how it fits within the broader competitive landscape. Sure, companies might look at what a handful of direct competitors are doing and try to come up with something different. But your audience does not see you in relation to your direct competitors – that distinction is irrelevant. Instead, they will see you in a much broader context, encompassing content from publishers, business schools, media and brands in other sectors. Remember that you are competing against everyone for your audience’s attention, not just two or three of your closest rivals.

5. Think win-win

Ultimately, outside-in thinking is all about mutual benefit. Creating insight that helps to land your message will, in turn, help your audience solve their problems or grow their business. When we asked more than 1000 senior business decision-makers what they wanted from branded B2B content, they said that “actionable insight” was the most important feature of all. If you can deliver this to your audience and help them to make better business decisions, you will almost certainly build a valuable, long-term relationship with them.

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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