Facebook’s #10YearChallenge showed us how two images taken a decade apart powerfully illustrate change over time. So to mark 10 years of FT Longitude, we thought we would do it with thought leadership to see how it has evolved in the past decade.
|Thought leadership in 2011||Thought leadership in 2021|
These images show how much thought leadership has advanced in the past 10 years.
Then, a traditional white paper was enough to satisfy the most ambitious of marketers and the most engaged business leaders. Now, thought leadership campaigns are multi-format content programmes, and audiences expect them to be a stimulating, multi-channel immersive experience.
So what has changed? And what are going to be the thought leadership opportunities of the next 10 years?
1. It’s no longer just for the big guns
Ten years ago, B2B thought leadership was relatively new. Most people saw thought leadership as the preserve of large professional services firms and tech heavyweights, and it was associated with lengthy research programmes and ‘Big Four’ budgets – the kind of investment and commitment only a few organisations could support.
Early adopters (professional services, technology and financial services firms, mostly) were using thought leadership to build their profiles, and started to challenge traditional publishers as trusted sources of information. Then start-ups and smaller businesses began to use thought leadership and insight-led content as a way to enter the market and steal the limelight from their more established competitors. For fast-growing tech companies in particular, thought leadership enabled them to quickly establish themselves as challenger brands, putting them on the radar of senior business leaders for the quality of their thinking and insight.
Since then, thought leadership has evolved and it has become a crucial part of B2B marketing and communications strategies. Companies of all shapes and sizes, including a marked rise in new sectors; notably industrials, engineering companies, consumer goods, now recognise the need to adapt to smarter ways of marketing to their audiences.
2. The topics have evolved
The things companies want to talk about with their thought leadership have also evolved.
Traditionally, a big part of thought leadership was ‘emotional priming’ – building connections between your brand and expertise that would set you up for future commercial conversations. But now, expectations have widened: enabling future commercial outcomes through preference is not enough. Brand also encompasses trust, purpose, authenticity and the broader role of business in society.
So today’s thought leadership is no longer just about the customer. Forward-thinking organisations also see their employees, investors and wider policymakers – those they also want to influence with a wider expression of the company’s mission and values – as the focus of their campaigns too.
3. It’s more centralised
In the past, thought leadership was often a discrete operation, managed and championed by a small subset of the organisation. Now, many organisations have centralised teams that are dedicated to thought leadership and are responsible for setting campaign strategy and direction.
Thinking about content at the portfolio level (across the entire organisation, including teams and divisions that serve the needs of different market segments) and making connections between thought leadership pieces across the organisation, helps to convey a coherent message. Building links between different items of content also helps audiences to navigate them, and it caters for people who at different stages of the buyer journey.
In our experience, this focused approach to thought leadership transforms it from a strategic commercial and marketing activity into a wider expression of the organisation’s values.
4. Insights have got faster
Extensive research programmes are the basis of some of our biggest clients’ flagship campaigns, but they take time – and the current market is unforgiving of slow movers.
So more companies are taking advantage of faster, simpler surveys as a way to speed up the process. In some cases, they can cut down the time it takes to publish insight from several months to a matter of weeks. These shorter surveys also help to ensure that they focus on the stories that really matter, instead of getting distracted developing multiple narratives.
Companies are also saving time by reinventing some of their processes for producing content. For instance, 82% of people who attended a recent Thought Leadership Network webinar said that the pace at which they published content had increased during the pandemic.
“We’ve had to come up with a different thought leadership model, with new tools to support it,” says Marc Appel, managing director of global brand content at Accenture. “One approach has been to shift to a rapid production cycle for creating shorter point-of-views. That enables us to offer clients expert commentary on a specific issue or challenge in a way that’s topical and on point.”
5. Influential voices have got involved
The term ‘influencer marketing’ may be more often associated with fast-moving consumer goods and B2C, but it is now a growing tactic in B2B, too – more and more companies are bolstering their conventional PR strategies with influencer marketing.
Influencer marketing means that carefully selected experts share thought leadership insights on social media to help raise awareness. This can amplify campaigns far beyond a company’s existing network.
Done well, it is a direct route to market and avoids the need for the traditional media. And from an audience’s perspective, hearing something from a trusted individual can have a powerful effect.
6. It’s now part of every stage of the customer journey
Gone are the days when thought leadership messaging was only part of ‘top of the funnel’ activities. Today’s marketers know that restricting themselves to macro, awareness-building content – without middle or bottom of the funnel pieces of content that align with the top-level message – creates a dead end in the customer journey.
They know they need content that will help the audience to progress through the funnel and will meet their needs at every stage. Sustained engagement is more likely to attract attention from new and existing customers and strengthen customer loyalty.
7. Stories are more dynamic and visual
When we started FT Longitude 10 years ago, B2B content was synonymous with the traditional printed reports.
Now, B2B content has migrated away from static, one-dimensional white papers to multi-channel, multi-format, immersive experiences and content programmes. Design is no longer an afterthought: creative content assets are now integral to campaign planning, and marketers need to think about the user experience at the start of the process.
Giving audiences a more immersive experience using interactive stories and data deepens engagement with today’s thought leadership. Dynamic storytelling enables them to personalise the content based, for example, on their location or their industry. And visual storytelling is a growth area: video, images, illustrations and infographics allow companies to tell more compelling stories that connect with their audiences – intellectually and emotionally.
8. Activation strategy is prioritised
Ten years ago, many companies used the ‘big bang’, ‘one and done’ approach to launching their thought leadership.
Today, we are better at understanding how audiences consume content, where they look for insight, and what their preferred formats and channels are.
Content marketing and thought leadership have traditionally been poles apart. But the two techniques are increasingly being combined, with content marketing used to amplify the message and extend reach through repackaging and repurposing content to appeal to different audiences and be used across multiple online channels.
Thinking about the PESO(S) (Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned [and Sales]) model in parallel with content marketing methods has enabled us to think more comprehensively about the activation plan, and gives thought leadership the best chance of success as it explores all avenues for promotion.
9. New skills and talent are needed
As thought leadership campaigns evolve, the bar for quality moves higher. Marketing teams – and FT Longitude as a thought leadership agency – have had to upskill in new areas to keep pace with the latest trends.
Research and editorial talent remain fundamental, but companies also need:
- Strategy experts that understand how to align thought leadership with objectives and can help to position your insight in the wider landscape
- Audio, video and design specialists to create cutting-edge assets that will capture attention
- Project managers who can keep these complex projects on track.
10. Brands are better at measuring results
Companies now spend a sizable proportion of their budget on thought leadership, but until recently not many have known what value they are getting from their investment.
For instance, 68% of webinar attendees told us that they have KPIs for their thought leadership, but they still struggle to measure impact in some areas.
What’s the answer? The Thought Leadership Network report Proving our Value gives marketers a way to use a mixed metrics model that tracks how thought leadership activity affects brand perception and reputation over time.