Image by Michelle B., via Flickr.

For some years I have been banging on about how thought leadership is the new sales Trojan Horse – the way to equip sales teams with the game-changing insights they need to differentiate them from their competitors.

Then two weeks ago I came across a wonderfully evocative phrase: “Content is digital bait.”

It appeared in WPP’s Atticus volume 17 as a summary of The Future of Selling white paper produced by OgilvyOne Worldwide and Ogilvy & Mather. The paper delivers a telling insight into how the world of selling has changed, and how it’s all about providing useful, insightful content that shows we understand our customers.

From consumer to ‘contsumer’

The selling game has changed irreversibly. The sheer weight of information available to buyers these days means the buyer is in control. They are less reliant on sales people and they build trust in the brand long before they come into physical contact with it.

I call them ‘contsumers’ (though others have called then “prosumers”). ‘Contsumers’ seek out as much information as possible to help inform their decisions.

And given the amount of information available online (brand websites, review sites, aggregators) they have as much control over the flow of information as salespeople.

Contsumers have conversations with brands via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and blogs – not to mention other consumers – creating their own path to purchase. Salespeople need to identify where the customer is on this journey of discovery and help them by delivering insightful content on whatever platform they want to consume it.

Useful content vs. thought leading content

There is a distinction between useful content and thought leading content. Hints and tips about health and wellbeing, insurance, savings and retirement, the pitfalls of cross-border mergers and acquisitions, for example, fall into the useful content bucket.

Thought leading content is not peddling an opinion, putting out a list of hints and tips, nor curating other people’s content. Instead it is offering a new, fresh perspective, preferably one based on empirical evidence that delivers value beyond the product or service.

Image by Ogilvy

Thought leadership and sales

For brands to lift their content from useful to thought leading content, marketing and communications departments need to be working with their sales teams.

The better understanding a brand’s marketing team has of the day-to-day challenges their sales team faces and the questions customers are asking them, the better their thought leading content will be.

As the Ogilvy paper says, “Selling may have once been an individual event, but now it is a team sport.”

Successful selling has always been about the customer and that should never change. But tomorrow’s successful salesperson is the one who anticipates their customers’ changing behaviour, analyzes their needs and finds ways to solve their problems.

This goes to the very crux of what thought leadership content should provide to a brand’s audiences: Information that delivers insights to help solve a problem or view their challenges in a different light, all the while positioning your brand as the “go-to” expert.

Selling has changed irrevocably

The “Future of Selling” paper saw Ogilvy research more than 1,000 sales professionals in the U.K., U.S., Brazil and China. One of the key findings was that 73 percent of those surveyed said that selling will be radically different in the next five years.

The key difference? Information asymmetry – in other words, the number of online channels and information a brand owns, allowing it to gain a head start on competitors.

Brands not driving new content or demonstrating thought leadership will come second.