12 trends in thought leadership: Our predictions for 2017

Emily Taylor Gregory

As another year beckons, members of the FT Longitude team have been placing their bets on the hot trends and topics that will define thought leadership over the next twelve months.

This time last year, we predicted the rise of leading brands adopting a more strategic approach to content planning, taking into account the current landscape to identify topics that will give them more impact and relevance in the market. We also forecast that 2016 would be the year that tech firms, as well as more traditional industries such as infrastructure and energy, would place more value on thought leadership to make their brands stand out. We’ve seen a marked rise in these trends over the past 12 months, so much so that tech firms, such as Siemens and Hitachi, now represent a significant portion of our rapidly growing client base. We’ve also seen smart organisations such as DNV GL and Lloyds Register successfully position themselves as visionaries in their sector.

With the vast majority of B2B executives recognising that good thought leadership influences their decision-making and builds trust with the brand behind it, visionary thinking has never been higher on the agenda. So here are our 12 predictions for 2017. 

Thought leadership strategy

1. Fewer, bigger, better: marketers will focus on campaigns that drive real value

Marketing professionals are quite rightly fed up of churning out endless reports on ‘me-too’ topics. The good stuff gets drowned out by all the noise. 2017 will be a year of streamlining the thought leadership portfolio and targeting investment into campaigns that can really move the dial on revenue and reputation. The desire to do fewer campaigns better will require organisations to pick their projects carefully and approach the planning process with much more clarity and rigour.
– Gareth Lofthouse, Managing Director

2. Thought leadership will become a tool for employee engagement

Thought leadership can be as important for internal communications as it is for external stakeholder engagement. Millennials are not just motivated by pay and reward – they want to work for a firm with a vision and to understand what makes their leadership team tick. A successful thought leadership programme should capture what your leaders are thinking and how they believe the world will change. In 2017, external marketers and internal communicators will collaborate to build thought leadership platforms that underpin the organisation’s sense of purpose.
– Peter Elkins, Senior Business Editor

3. B2B companies will learn how to use content to drive sales

Businesses need thought leadership to accelerate their sales, but there is poor understanding of how to make that work in practice. Today, there are tools they can use to build a much more systematic approach to using content to drive revenue. To succeed, B2B brands will need to integrate their sales and marketing operations around their thought leadership, and really exploit great insights in order to increase their lead generation and interactions with key accounts. They will measure success not just in terms of press coverage, clicks and downloads, but also by the number of meetings and conversations generated with their top-tier targets.
– Kate de Lima, VP, Business Development

Research tools and editorial techniques

4. Brands will learn new tricks from structured journalism

Championed by mainstream media, including the Washington Post and the BBC, structured journalism constructs multidimensional stories that build relationships between people, places and events. By taking a modular approach, and linking multimedia and data, it allows readers to choose the insight and information most relevant to them. For brands looking to reach a range of audiences with tailored content, this is the digital-first future of long form.
– Sean Kearns, Managing Editor

 5. Snap polls: the agile tool that will help brands shape their campaigns

In-depth surveys are great when you’re looking for deep insight on a topic, but there are times when you need a faster and simpler way to gauge opinion. A snap poll can be a quick and cost-effective alternative to other types of research. For marketers, this provides another opportunity to take the pulse on fast-moving events or issues. At FT Longitude we use polls to test which topics resonate most with C-suite audiences, in order to give marketing directors insights that help them plan their campaigns. It’s a technique that has been underused in B2B, but we expect to see it more in 2017.
– Mike Cuell, Research Director

6. Business leaders will seek a more personal connection

It says something for the power of podcasts that Lance Armstrong chose to use this most personal medium to re-enter public life. His series of interviews for The Forward show a very different side to his personality and have been widely praised. The portability, immediacy and consistency of podcasts make them ideal for consumer audiences. But now businesses are tuning in. With limited opportunity to convince potential clients of the value of their insight, podcasts can create instant, personal connections with listeners. By presenting interesting people with interesting things to say, brands can start to build a loyal following among those who are hardest to reach. In 2017, expect more businesses to take their expert interviews off the page and into the editing suite.
– Piers Tomlinson, Group Editor

 7. Data visualisation will come of age

Brands have been striving to make their thought leadership more interactive and visually appealing for the past few years – with some faring better than others. In 2017, however, content marketers will raise their game, and we’ll see more thought leadership that truly brings data to life. Much as publishing houses are increasingly turning to data journalists, so thought leadership brands will need data-storytelling experts at their disposal as they factor this into their thinking at the outset of the campaign.
– Joe Dalton, Group Editor

Engaging the audience

8. Big ideas will benefit from better activation

All too often, so much focus goes into creating thought leadership content that there is no time left for campaigning. Many marketers also battle through arduous internal approval processes that leave them under pressure to ‘just get it out’. The roll-out plan ends up as little more than some predictable website copy and a handful of bland social posts. In 2017, the best marketers will take their campaign execution to the next level, spending more time crafting original and attention-grabbing campaigns that unfold over several months. This may involve attracting attention with new digital platforms, interactive content, data visualisation, gamification techniques or slick user-interface design. But it doesn’t have to be high tech – even the simplest campaign can grab the spotlight if it is intriguing, surprising and entertaining.
– Stephen Edwards, Senior Editor

 9. B2B marketers will start testing B2C augmented reality

For more than five years, B2C marketers have been testing a variety of augmented reality (AR) tools, such as Blippar and Playme, to find new ways to bring their campaigns to life. Momentum is building: 2014 saw Dublin host what was claimed to be the first-ever AR event for marketers, featuring brands such as Heineken and profiling campaign examples such as Pepsi Max’s bus shelter AR experiment on London’s Oxford Street. So far, AR has been a resolutely B2C phenomenon, but in 2017, B2B marketers will increasingly dip their toes in the water (virtually, at least). Whether adding pop-up animations and videos to static reports, as Barclaycard has done, or bringing trade-show stands and presentations to life in a new way, AR will make its first targeted appearances.
– James Watson, Co-Founder

10. Thought leadership will go omni-channel

You’ve heard of omni-channel in retail and financial services – now get ready to see it as part of your thought leadership strategy. The concept is similar: audiences today consume thought leadership content on their smartphone, their desktop, in print or on an iPad. They will favour different devices at different times of the day, and they may start reading on one channel before switching to another. In addition, a multigenerational audience is likely to have highly divergent consumption habits, with some accessing content via social media and others favouring more traditional distribution. To respond to this trend, marketers need to ensure that they can deliver thought leadership content across a plethora of devices and channels while providing a consistent experience and message.
– Rob Mitchell, Co-Founder

11. Interactive assets will have to offer real insight

Eye-catching infographics and creative animations need to do more than just look good. As audiences crave a more cooperative interaction with thought leadership brands, the creators will begin to realise the benefits of highly interactive content, such as quizzes, calculators and real-time graders and benchmarking tools, as a way to produce deeper and more meaningful engagements with consumers. This interactive storytelling offers audiences a highly personalised and prescriptive presentation of the underlying data and provides an instant return by giving them something valuable they can share and learn from immediately.
– Miles Weiner, Commercial Director

12. Viral thinking: brands will have to make their ideas shareable

Internal comms and staff socialisation will become a key part of B2B content campaigns. Marketing teams will go beyond explaining the rationale and insights behind thought leadership campaigns to providing staff with the tools they need to socialise the initiative within their own spheres of influence. Our own research shows that recommendations and sharing on a personal level is one of the most powerful ways to get your thought leadership noticed.
– Emily Taylor Gregory, Marketing Manager

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About the author: Emily Taylor Gregory

Emily is our marketing director, responsible for the brand, marketing and communications strategies for FT Longitude and the Thought Leadership Network. Emily leads our content and events programmes, our digital marketing channels, as well as our speaking engagements and PR activity, working closely with our editorial and research teams to develop and promote insight and best practice at the cutting edge of thought leadership.

Before joining FT Longitude, Emily spent 14 years working in various marketing roles in the publishing and technology sectors.

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