Why It's Time To Compete on What You're Thinking

[Our guest blogger is Ian Sanders. He runs an ideas consultancy where he creates and delivers ideas to solve challenges, facilitate growth, and help businesses stand out from the crowd. His new book Zoom! The Faster Way To Make Your Business Idea Happen is due out in November 2011.]

It's the holy grail for every business, whether you're a freelancer, a start-up, or an established brand. How the heck do you stand out in a crowded market? Awesome product functionality or a niche specialty may only get you so far as a differentiator. So instead of marketing your product benefits, try communicating what you're thinking: your personality, your ideas, your attitude. Communicating your thinking—thought leadership marketing—can be really effective in resonating and engaging with your target audience.

Of course this is nothing new. We've always made brand choices based on what businesses think. That's why we fly Virgin, drink Starbucks, ride a Harley. We get what a brand stands for and we either line up behind it, or we run a mile.

Here's the opportunity. There's a long tail of small businesses right down to the one-person work-at-home enterprises that spring up by the hundreds every waking hour. This is where the marketplace is at its most abundant: similarly qualified, similarly positioned, similarly priced, smart boutique businesses. Creative agencies, digital companies, copywriters, web developers. Who do you pick if there's only a cigarette paper between their offerings? You pick the woman who demonstrates her expertise via her weekly blog; the business that provides a monthly video update of industry news; even the business owner who posts a daily picture of her products on Instagram. In sharing their expertise they're also giving an insight into their personality. So let's redefine the genre here: "thought leadership marketing" doesn't just have to be about publishing academic papers or writing posts for the Harvard Business Review. It's whatever content works for you, your business, and your audience. A blog post, a tweet, a newsletter, a video sharing your business tips, even a blackboard out on the street communicating your "Thought For The Day."

Back in 2008, Tom told the audience at the Inc. 5000 conference "If you're not blogging, you're an idiot". He was right. And he'd probably say the same today about Twitter. Because together with LinkedIn, Google+, (and whatever next month's hot new platform is) we have a bunch of tools available that provide a free platform for thought leadership.

The good news is that communicating your thinking does not discriminate on size: instead of s/he with the biggest budget wins, it's who can demonstrate the original ideas or the fresh thinking. So if you're a freelancer or small business, why aren't you blogging? Why don't you put your thoughts out there, why aren't you shining a spotlight on your DNA? Don't assume it doesn't matter—customers want to deal with experts and they need to see evidence of that. There's no point making claims about how innovative your business is if you can't back it up, if you can't prove you're living and breathing it.

King Of Shaves is a shaving brand that's become a success in the UK and is now entering the US market. Founder Will King may not have Gillette's ad spend but he plays out a David vs Goliath tale, competing with the big guys via Twitter and social media. Will is doing more than selling razors and shaving foam; he's engaging with his audience 1-to-1 through storytelling and giving advice to the entrepreneurial community. That's how he—and his business—stand out.

Don't miss out on the thought leadership marketing opportunity. Remember, you don't have to be the biggest or the best to stand out; you just need to have something interesting to say.