Four reasons why some thought leadership projects fail (and how to avoid them)

Rob Mitchell

Even the most ardent supporter of thought leadership as a marketing strategy has to admit that there are times when projects don’t work out. Hopes are often high when campaigns launch – not least because they can be expensive investments. But sometimes those hopes are dashed. Business stakeholders may complain that they didn’t see a return on investment, or the halo effect you were hoping to create around your brand just doesn’t materialise.

Does that mean thought leadership should be abandoned as a marketing strategy? Absolutely not. Usually, a few simple manoeuvres will mean you avoid the most common pitfalls and will increase your chances of success. Here are the biggest mistakes companies can make and how to avoid them.

1. Lack of alignment

This is probably the most common thought leadership fail of all. Your stakeholders across the business, from sales and marketing to media and PR, have different expectations for a thought leadership campaign. Your sales team, for instance, may only care about leads and won’t think too much about the brand (although they should). Marketing, on the other hand, sees content as a longer-term investment in strengthening the association between the brand and a particular theme. When this disconnect happens, thought leadership campaigns get pulled in different directions, and lose focus. The result: objectives are missed and no one ends up happy.

How to avoid it

Have clear objectives for a campaign at the outset. Everyone involved – sales, marketing, media and PR, and leadership – should buy into the overall goals for the campaign. But you can still have team-specific objectives that support and feed into the main mission. Don’t be overambitious. Expecting campaigns to solve every sales and marketing challenge is too much. So be realistic. Set clear goals and make sure you have an agreed set of KPIs to track progress and report success to your stakeholders.

2. An inside-out approach

A common error in thought leadership is to project a company’s internal view onto the outside world. There’s a mistaken assumption here that audiences will automatically find this ‘inside-out’ approach interesting – in fact, they get instantly turned off by content that’s about you rather than them. Inside-out content manifests itself in several ways: companies may use internal jargon, categorise audiences by their own structures (e.g. producing content for ‘EMEA executives’: who sees themselves as an EMEA executive?), or overestimate how much audiences care about their products and services. This is thought leadership fail number two.

How to avoid it

Think outside-in, not inside-out. That means focusing on what your audience really wants to hear, not what you think (or hope) they want to hear. Creating outside-in content is harder than it sounds. It requires a deep understanding of your audience’s priorities, preferences, motivations and anxieties. That knowledge only comes from a constant dialogue, and a systematic approach to gathering this information from client-facing teams as well as additional research such as surveys. This intelligence can then be fed into the content strategy so that your thought leadership truly resonates and gets the attention of your audience.

3. Focusing too much on differentiation instead of distinctiveness

A frequent thought leadership fail is worrying too much about the content the competition is publishing. Brands get obsessed with finding the so-called white space, and get hooked on expressing ideas that are different from those of their rivals. In reality, your audience doesn’t care what your competitors are saying – they just want content that’s relevant to their needs and solves their problems.

How to avoid it

Worry less about what your immediate competitors are saying, and think more about what your audience actually wants. This means saying something distinctive. Focus on what sets you apart from the rest, but because it’s fresh and relevant to your audience – not because it’s different from what others are doing. The best content is relevant, timely and adds to the conversation. That’s what will get you noticed.

4. An ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality

In the film Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella hears these words from a disembodied voice, and promptly tears up his corn fields to build a baseball diamond. Companies producing thought leadership sometimes do the same thing. They spend all their time and resources producing well-researched, original content, but don’t give enough thought to how they will bring the audience to it. As a result, that content sits on the corporate website and doesn’t get noticed. It becomes another part of the sad statistic from marketing tech firm Sirius Decisions – that 60% to 70% of all content is completely unused. Thought leadership fail number four.

How to avoid it

Have a clear activation strategy from the outset. Again, this requires a deep understanding of your audience. How do they consume content? Where do they look for insight? And what are their preferred formats and channels? Use a framework like PESO(S) (Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned [and Sales]) to think about how the content assets that form part of your campaign can be used. Also, don’t just take a one-size-fits-all approach when you release material. If you only have a 6,000-word report, it might look impressive and will no doubt have the ‘thud factor’, but it might alienate a large proportion of your audience who want something much more concise and bite-sized. So remember to cater to different needs in terms of formats, channels and depth of content.

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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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