Don’t let your content mark the end of the road in the audience journey

Rob Mitchell

It is tempting to produce zeitgeisty thought leadership that provokes discussion about emerging topics, but what is it all for if it doesn’t go anywhere?   

I recently advised caution to brands planning thought leadership campaigns that are focused solely on lead generation. These campaigns certainly can deliver leads, but they shouldn’t be considered in isolation. Instead, lay the brand-building groundwork with your content first – because a large proportion of your audience simply won’t be ready for a commercial conversation.

Brand-building campaigns, however, face a related challenge. At FT Longitude, we believe that the biggest benefits of thought leadership come from long-term brand-building. The best examples take a long view, and success is often measured over a period of years rather than months; it’s all about building momentum over time and influencing the audience to think differently about your brand or to associate it with a particular topic. Think through the entire audience journey.

Points of view with purpose

But that should not be an excuse to ignore business reality. There’s no point creating content that associates your brand with an emerging topic without thinking through what that means for your business or creating a clear audience journey that leads back to what you do and the conversations you want to have.

There’s a common misperception that brand-building thought leadership should avoid being commercial. And we often see companies creating content that associates their brand with the latest management thinking but doesn’t link back to their business. So while the content might be interesting and spark conversations and press mentions, interest will quickly fizzle out – because there is no next step in the audience journey. The associations these companies have worked so hard to put in place between their brand and a cutting-edge topic simply wither away.

Purist or pragmatist?

I’ve always drawn a distinction between purists and pragmatists when it comes to B2B content. Purists are drawn to ideas, but that is all that matters to them; it’s an ivory tower exercise, and there’s often no link back to the business. This approach is misguided from a marketing perspective: it’s too abstract and the audience has no sense of being taken on a journey over a period of time.

Pragmatists, on the other hand, understand that ideas need context – they should be linked to a business or strategic goal. That doesn’t mean thought leadership should be about selling, but there must be a clear overall narrative that makes sense to the audience and builds over time. A business that latches on to the latest topic and then abruptly changes course when the next one that comes along will confuse its audiences; it certainly won’t forge an emotional connection with them.

So what is the best way to start? First, map out the audience journey – and make sure there are no dead ends. And since a brand-building piece of thought leadership must be seen in the context of the wider business, create a long-term plan to set out why a particular emerging topic is appropriate for your brand and outline the content’s objectives. If your objective is simply to associate your brand with smart thinking, that is not enough; it can be your starting point, but never the goal.

So if your thought leadership deals with an emerging topic it needs to lead somewhere. Either, ultimately, to a commercial conversation that your client-facing teams want to have, or to a stronger narrative for your business that builds over time and starts to reposition your brand. Anything else is just a content cul-de-sac – a short-term indulgence that leaves audiences stranded with no clear next step.

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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