The Powerful Role Thought Leadership Plays in Your GTM Strategy
Taking a SaaS product to market is more challenging than ever.
Markets are crowded and noisy. New startups are announcing funding every single day while well-established incumbents are innovating faster, either through internal R&D or through acquisitions. It’s harder than ever for customers to leave and take the risk of betting on an early-stage SaaS startup with a limited track record.
You may have built an incredible product, but there’s a reality that all founders eventually have to face: The best product does not win.
To succeed at bringing your SaaS product to market, you need to separate yourself from all the noise. The best way to do this is by incorporating a thought leadership strategy into your go-to-market strategy.
In this article, we’ll explore the tangible impact developing your brand into a thought leader in your industry can have on your GTM strategy. But first…
What do we mean by Thought Leadership?
Thought leadership is a communications strategy that helps companies break through the noise by establishing their position as subject matter experts who understand what the future looks like and can lead their customers into that future.
It leverages a founder’s unique perspectives, experience, and vision and packages them together in a way that builds trust and credibility with ideal target customers.
When we talk about thought leadership, we aren’t talking about the fluffy BS you see out there from most companies. A recent study by Edelman found that 71% of B2B decision-makers say that less than half of the thought leadership they consume gives them valuable insights.
We’re talking about authentic thought leadership that influences behavior by presenting original ideas, teaching customers something new, and articulating an exciting vision for a better future that the target customers can rally behind.
When this approach to thought leadership is embraced, that’s when founders can unleash the benefits of thought leadership on their GTM strategy.
5 Ways Thought Leadership Impacts Your GTM
#1: Thought leadership builds trust with early adopters.
Just because you are a SaaS startup with a few million in the bank doesn’t mean your target customers will immediately believe buying your product will leave them better off than if they just stick with the status quo — whether that’s with an established incumbent, DIY solution, or just living with the problem you are addressing.
When an organization buys a new product, somewhere behind the scenes, someone stuck their neck out for the vendor. Maybe they were CTO and had to convince their CEO to buy in. Or maybe they were a developer who convinced their CTO to buy in. Regardless of the case, at some point, someone said “We need to buy this tool,” then proceeded to advocate and convince others to agree and support their decision. Now, whether they know it or not, that person just put their internal reputation on the line.
Will they be fired if buying your SaaS tool fails? Most likely not. But will their reputation be damaged? Will their judgment be questioned? Of course it will.
Once you come to this realization, it becomes clear how mission-critical trust is for early-stage SaaS startups.
Trust is how you can get more people to be willing to take a chance on you and thought leadership is the number one way you can build trust with your ideal target customers.
No One Gets Fired For Buying … Zoom
A few years ago, we were producing a webinar in which a major client would share their vision for their recently launched project. We were planning on doing an hour-long video recording where I interviewed two of the founders on camera.
As we prepared for the webinar, we started researching a good tool that could host the webinar. I knew that Zoom or Google Meets could do it but was interested in finding the best tool possible. I found there were several new SaaS startups in the space and purpose-built solutions for webinars and podcasting.
I played around with them a bit, but at the end of the day, I was asking myself one thing: Will this make me look like an idiot in front of our client?
See, the purpose-built solutions were for sure better than Zoom. Better video quality, better audio quality, and better features overall. But the amount of “better” was not worth the risk of the tool not working and looking like an idiot when it crashed in the middle of the interview.
If Zoom failed, I could brush it off: it’s just Zoom being Zoom. If a tool that no one had ever heard of failed, our client would wonder why the hell were we using some random no-name tool for something so important?
I consider myself an early adopter of technology, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t willing to risk looking bad by choosing a tool that didn’t work. We went with Zoom. This is the same type of decision customers make every day. The purpose-built tools did not do enough to convince me I could trust them. They simply focused on how much better they were than tools like Zoom instead of earning trust and credibility by demonstrating they were thought leaders that I could put my trust into.
#2: Thought leadership builds top-of-funnel brand awareness within your niche.
Many SaaS founders make the mistake of believing that simply building a better, faster, more innovative product is enough. They will announce their funding, score a write-up in TechCrunch, then the floodgates of new customers will open.
As most founders experience, that’s rarely how things work out. Simply existing does not guarantee that customers will immediately care that you exist and trust that you have a viable solution to their problems.
In the early days, you need to obsess over building top-of-funnel brand awareness and get your company on the radar. Thought leadership provides a unique channel through which to do this.
Thought leadership allows you to insert yourself into the conversations that your ideal target customers are already having.
These conversations can include discussions around emerging technologies, evolving trends, and other news taking place in your niche.
Whatever the conversations are there’s one thing that’s almost certainly true: you aren’t part of them. And that’s where the opportunity is. Thought leadership allows you to join the conversations your customers are having by contributing your own original ideas and perspectives.
By joining and thoughtfully participating in these active conversations, you capture the demand for the existing conversations and can then funnel people having them towards your way of thinking.
How Raydiant Joined the Conversation
Our client Raydiant is a brick-and-mortar tech company that recently raised a $30m series B. When we began their Thought Leadership Development efforts in 2019, we identified a conversation their target customers (brick-and-mortar operators/executives) were talking about: consumer behavior.
How is consumer behavior changing? What do modern consumers care about? How can we best engage with these consumers? This is something that brick-and-mortar retail business executives/operators care deeply about.
To join the conversation, in early January 2020 we launched the first annual State of Consumer Behavior Report. The report surveyed 1000 consumers with a goal of understanding their behavior, habits, and preferences.
We contributed new data to an active conversation and then shared insights from Raydiant’s CEO that provided actionable steps their target customers could take based on the data.
Doing this inserted Raydiant and its CEO into the conversation about consumer behavior. Now preparing for our fourth annual report, this thought leadership asset has served as a way to build top-of-funnel awareness for Raydiant with their target customers. It positioned Raydiant as a company that has its finger on the pulse of the industry that its customers can trust to lead them into the future.
#3: Thought leadership positions you as the leader of a movement.
If your go-to-market strategy focuses on product marketing that touts how your features and capabilities are better and faster than the competition — congrats, you are one of the thousands of companies that do so!
The world’s greatest companies don’t focus just on marketing their products in the early days. Instead, they focus on marketing movements. Instead of focusing on how amazing your product is, you must instead adopt the mindset that you are creating a movement — a true revolution against the status quo.
In your movement, there’s an old way of doing things and a new better way of doing things. This old way could be an established incumbent, a way of thinking, or an acceptance of living with the problem you solve. In either case, the old way is the enemy and your job is to be the rebel general that publicly declares war on this enemy and calls upon others who are like-minded to join forces with you.
This is right out of the playbook that Marc Benioff used in the early days of Salesforce. He didn’t just say, “My CRM is better!” He said, “Software is dead. Cloud is the future.” He created a movement of like-minded people who embraced the cloud. They were tired of the limitations of on-premise software, and they were ready for change.
He positioned himself as the leader of the movement and boldly declared war on software.
This is what thought leadership makes possible: it gives founders a reason to call out what’s broken and paint a clear picture of what life will look like for target customers when they embrace a different way.
When you do that, you create the opportunity to share your vision with others. The more clearly you articulate this vision, the more they will trust that you can lead them into the future.
Creating a movement brings together a group of people who will act as soldiers in your battle to bring change. When you are the one to create that movement, you position yourself to be the one to lead it. As the movement gains momentum, the demand for your product that caters to that movement will be perfectly positioned to become a go-to tool.
#4: Thought leadership opens doors.
One of the best ways to increase both awareness and trust is to align your brand with those who your ideal target customers trust. This could be their peers, authors, or your industry’s version of influencers (every industry has them!).
Thought leadership tactics such as branded podcasts — where the founder hosts industry experts on the show — provide a way for you to connect and collaborate with individuals in your industry to create content that adds value to your ideal target customers and provides an opportunity to share your own perspectives and beliefs about the industry.
In the early days with Raydiant, who we mentioned above in point 3, we launched the “Brick and Mortar Reborn” Podcast where their CEO interviewed different brick-and-mortar experts, executives, and operators. This helped them build trust, credibility, and awareness because every interview was shared by the guest with their own following.
Another tactic you can deploy here is branded research, where you conduct your own original research with the goal of sharing your findings with your ideal target customers. With Raydiant, one of the many research projects we launched was a project where we interviewed 30+ brick-and-mortar experts, analyzed their responses, then created a long-form piece of content based on what we learned:
Each of these experts we collaborated with were handpicked — and they were either a potential customer or potential partner for Raydiant.
While other SaaS companies have SDRs spam their target customers to death, embracing thought leadership allows you to cut through the noise and have them enter your funnel with a totally different path.
#5: Thought leadership reinforces your positioning and messaging.
Once you have clarity on what your core messaging and positioning are going to be, you need to go about establishing and reinforcing that position.
Thought leadership is a highly effective way to do that. It allows you to plant your flag in the ground, then from there, you can continue to establish a foundation upon which to build your company.
Our client Tromzo built a developer-first application security platform. Their positioning is based on the belief that application security must shift-left and make security easy for developers. This is a different approach from how most approach application security.
To support their GTM positioning, for the past year we’ve been blanketing the internet with content under the CEO’s name that helps their target customers operationalize a developer-first application security strategy.
This content didn’t focus on their features or capabilities. Instead, it evangelized for the need to embrace a new way of thinking about application security, then provided tactical steps for how their target customers bring this approach to their own business — with or without Tromzo.
From topics like 5 steps to building a developer-first application security program to Why Developer-First is the Future of AppSec, the steady stream of consistent content published under the CEOs name has helped them establish their position and get their message out there in a non-salesy and self-promoting way.
This is the powerful impact that thought leadership can have on establishing and reinforcing your startup’s GTM messaging and positioning. It gives you the chance to talk about what you believe without coming across like an annoying used car salesman that’s trying to get the sale done.
There’s no silver bullet when it comes to taking your SaaS product to market and anyone who tells you that thought leadership is one is lying to you.
What thought leadership does is provide you with an edge – a unique way for you to communicate what you do with your target customers and position yourself as someone they can trust to lead them into the future.
To succeed in taking your product to market, you need awareness, trust, and credibility. Thought leadership, done properly, is the most effective strategy you can deploy to achieve these objectives.