Five common pitfalls of thought leadership projects

Rob Mitchell

Thought leadership projects are often large and complex, requiring many different stakeholders to work together as a team. And like anything with multiple moving parts, there is scope for things to go wrong.

In our work with clients over the years, we have seen a number of such problems emerge – and made a few mistakes of our own. The key is to learn the lessons from these challenges, and put in place processes to prevent them recurring in future.

In this post, we have shared five of the most common pitfalls that we see in thought leadership projects, along with some thoughts on how they can be avoided.


    This is an unfortunate condition that afflicts some companies’ thought leadership departments. Its main symptoms are hopping from one initiative to another, publishing a report on one topic and then, a week later, forgetting all about it and moving onto the next theme. The result is that no single topic builds traction, and audiences become confused by this blizzard of mini-initiatives. In our view, the most successful thought leadership
    projects are long-term investments that build momentum over time. Companies that stick to their guns, and create content that builds around a small number of consistent, core themes or repeatable projects, will typically achieve better results.

If you build it, they will come

    In the film Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character is a farmer, called Ray Kinsella, who builds a baseball diamond in a field in the hope that some legendary, dead baseball players will come to play there. And miraculously, they do. Sometimes, the creators of thought leadership behave like Ray Kinsella. They spend months, and a lot of money, crafting a great piece of content, then stick it on their website as a PDF hoping that visitors will find it. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, if you just build it, they won’t come. Good thought leadership does not end with publication. It must be backed up with a clear, multi-faceted campaign for how to drive traffic to the report, and how to proactively reach the company’s target audience with it.

Navel gazing

    It is all too easy for companies to forget that external audiences do not see the world in the same way as they do. For example, many companies think about their clients as part of a sector group that they define internally. The problem is that clients don’t see themselves that way and might wonder why they have been lumped together in a report with other businesses that, from their perspective, have little in common with them. The same issue applies to companies that build thought leadership around their business units. These categories might make sense to an internal audience, but the external world might wonder why they have been grouped together. The solution is to think about the needs of the external audience first. And if this means stripping out a sector-based or business-unit based view in a thought leadership report, then so be it.

Everything but the kitchen sink

    When a company embarks on a thought leadership project, it is good practice to seek input from a wide range of stakeholders across the company. There is reason to be cautious about this, however. Of course, all of them want their particular business area to be represented in some way in the survey or report. The result can be that the company ends up tackling a topic that is far too broad, and tries to address too many content areas without really doing any of them justice. By trying to please everybody, they end up satisfying no one. Our advice to clients is to take a more focused approach. Choosing a smaller topic, or a facet of a larger one, is much more likely to lead to a genuinely insightful report. It also makes it easier to differentiate the content from competitors and come up with a topic that is original.

Hit and hope research projects

    As any inexperienced pool player knows, you can always just hit the cue ball as hard as possible in the hope that the coloured balls will bounce around so much that one of them lands in a pocket. Some companies take a similar approach to the research that underpins a thought leadership project. They field surveys covering a whole range of topics in the hope that at least one of them will yield an interesting outcome. Sometimes this works, but usually it doesn’t. In the same way that a good pool player will plan their shot carefully and think about where each ball will land, companies that do thought leadership well think carefully about their commercial and marketing objectives, and how research can support them. This means setting strong hypotheses, envisaging different outcomes from the research, and having a clear vision of what they plan to say about them. Research is never entirely predictable – surprises should and will emerge along the way – but having a sense of the destination in mind is vital.

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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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