PODCAST: Rob Mitchell on successful thought leadership campaigns

Thought Leadership Insights

Thought Leadership Insights, Episode 6

In the sixth episode of Thought Leadership Insights, FT Longitude’s co-founder and CEO Rob Mitchell shares his thoughts on what makes successful thought leadership campaigns as well as discussing how thought leadership fits in with content marketing. We also explore FT Longitude’s latest thinking on measuring the effectiveness of thought leadership campaigns, as well as future trends in thought leadership we can expect to see.

Topics covered

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 01:10 What is thought leadership?
  • 02:20 How to distinguish thought leadership from content marketing
  • 04:10 The relationship between thought leadership and content marketing
  • 05:45 Can you do content marketing without thought leadership?
  • 06:40 The current state of thought leadership today
  • 08:00 Evaluating thought leadership
  • 09:30 Making a campaign commercial
  • 10:50 Measuring thought leadership
  • 12:50 Mistakes people make with their thought leadership
  • 15:00 How will thought leadership evolve?



Listen to our other podcasts:

Episode 7: Peter Richards on managing thought leadership programmes

Episode 5 | Episode 4 | Episode 3 | Episode 2 | Episode 1


Podcast Transcript

Interviewer: Welcome to the podcast, Rob.

Rob: Thank you very much, Fergal.

Interviewer: We’ve spoken on these podcast about various aspects of thought leadership, about some of the research that FT Longitude has done. Today, it would be good to talk about what makes a successful thought leadership campaign. And I’m just wondering … a good place to start would be to talk about thought leadership and how FT Longitude sees thought leadership. And maybe, also, to distinguish thought leadership from content marketing, which … it seems in the market that terms are used interchangeably quite often and just some clarity around that would be very helpful.

Rob: Yeah, a good question. So, I probably should start by giving our view what we think thought leadership is, because, you’re right, there are many different definitions out there. Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different perspective on what exactly thought leadership is. From our point of view, anything about thought leadership has got to contain original thinking. And if you haven’t got anything original to say, then you’re not a thought leader.

The second thing is that thought leadership has to have some kind of call to action, it has to influence people in some way or get them to change their thinking or their behaviour. What I think is really important to add that thought leadership’s not just some sort of lofty, ivory tower activity. Ideas are really important, but it’s not just about those ideas. It’s really important to think about what you do with those ideas. People who do thought leadership well recognise that it’s got to have a very clear marketing rationale behind it. You’ve got to have a very clear line of sight into how your thought leadership is going to enhance your reputation, your relationships and your revenues.

Interviewer: Interesting, that’s very interesting. Now, clearly, content marketing is a much broader term, a much broader area. What are the distinctions, do you think, worth making here?

Rob: You’re right. There’s a lot of confusion, I think, in the market, about these two terms. People very often use them interchangeably. We’ve taken the view at FT Longitude to call ourselves thought leadership specialists. We don’t call ourselves a content marketing agency. And that’s deliberate, because, from our point of view, there’s a very clear distinction between the two. Thought leadership is really just one aspect of a much broader content marketing universe.

I’ve talked already about thought leadership needing to be original and needing to be adding to the conversation. That’s not always true in content marketing, which, sometimes, can just be entertaining and there’s nothing wrong with that. But thought leadership has to be moving the conversation on, adding to it, generating new insight. I think the second difference is that thought leadership is all about quality and not quantity. If you invest in thought leadership, then you know that it’s a long-term game, it takes time and effort, it’s not something that you can churn out quickly. And you’ll also know that companies that do good thought leadership have only a handful of messages that they own. They recognise that there’s a scarcity of good ideas and they need to focus their message around those few key concepts.

One of the trends that we hear a lot of, at the moment, is that companies don’t want to do lots and lots and lots of thought leadership campaigns. That doesn’t really work. They only do fewer, bigger, better campaigns. And that’s quite distinct from content marketing, where my view is that often the emphasis is on quantity and trying to bombard your audiences with messaging, in preview of search engine optimization rankings and just constantly trying to get front of mind with your audience.

Interviewer: Very useful distinctions, Rob. Can you talk a bit about the relationship between thought leadership and content marketing, and how they fit together?

Rob: I think the key point to make here is that thought leadership, as I said, is a subset or subcategory of a broader content marketing industry. To do thought leadership well … and I think you have to embed it into that broader content management framework. So, content marketing for me is all about the funnel, all about the content funnel and the buyer journey, where you’re driving people, your audience, down that funnel. You start at the top with building awareness and then you drive them through the interest or the consideration stage, the desire stage and the action stage of actually buying something, because content marketing is all about driving revenues and getting people to take some action and then, ultimately, selling.

Thought leadership, from my point of view, occupies the top layer of that funnel, of that content funnel. It’s all about building awareness and credibility, but also starting to tee up that commercial conversation, because you’ve got to have that line of sight through to the commercial outcome you’re trying to drive. And then, as you get into the content marketing funnel that layers below, that’s when you start to get people into the consideration of your services, it’s when you get them thinking about analysing different offerings from different providers before they actually make the purchase. And those layers require a different type of content, and not so much thought leadership. So when you get into the consideration stage, it’s things like case studies, credentials, product webinars and so on.

So, thought leadership for me occupies the top of the content marketing funnel, but it’s very much embedded into it, and then you drive people down through different sorts of content until you get that commercial outcome you’re looking for.

Interviewer: Right, that’s very interesting. And I guess, on the other hand, what about doing content marketing without thought leadership?

Rob: I think you can and you see lots of examples of this, you know, of content marketing campaigns that companies run. But my perspective on this is that you could do content marketing without thought leadership, but certainly in the B2B space you’re not gonna get noticed. You’re not gonna get the opportunity to demonstrate your expertise to your clients and you’re not gonna cut through what is a very, very crowded marketplace. There’s a lot of content, everyone’s trying to reach the same audience, everyone’s trying to communicate with the C-suite. If you haven’t got thought leadership, you haven’t got original thinking, original insights, then you’re going to get ignored. And you have to establish that credibility with your audience in the first place and that’s where thought leadership can help.

Interviewer: Right, that’s very interesting. Now you’ve talked about the fact that thought leadership … one of the things that, at the heart, it needs to have original insights. What’s your sense of the quality of thought leadership today? Are there a few good exemplars that you can point to?

Rob: Yeah, undoubtedly. What’s interesting has been the evolution of thought leadership over the years. As you know, started very much as something within the professional services space and, specifically, within the strategy consultancies, like McKinsey, Bain and Boston Consulting Group. What we’ve seen over the years is that it’s spread, certainly through professional services to the big four and other consultancies, but also into other sectors, as well.

One of the key trends, from my point of view, has been the rise of thought leadership in the technology sector, the software companies, the technology consultancies, which have really picked up that mantle and are really driving really effective thought leadership campaigns. And also what’s interesting, I think, with the technology companies today is that very often they are very good at embedding thought leadership within that broader content marketing framework that I was discussing. So they take a very robust commercial view of what they’re trying to achieve with their thought leadership and make sure that they’re creating opportunities for conversations with clients, and then building awareness among those clients, driving those commercial conversation in a way that I don’t see quite so much in some other sectors, to be honest.

Interviewer: The whole question of evaluating thought leadership has been getting increasing attention from senior marketing executers. What’s your advice, Rob?

Rob: I think the first thing, Fergal, is you’ve got to have some very clear goals of what you’re trying to achieve. When we talk to clients about what they’re looking for from thought leadership, we often frame the conversation around the three Rs. So, are they trying to enhance their reputation? Are they trying to build stronger relationships with their existing customers? Or are they trying to drive revenues from new customers and existing customers, as well? So, that’s the starting point. It’s really trying to understand what outcome you’re looking for.

And the related part to that is you’ve got to be able to measure those outcomes. So if you’re thinking about reputation as your key objective, you’ve got to be thinking about how you measure that and how you know that that project has been a success. I think the second thing that’s really important is to make sure that you define your audience very clearly. You’ve got to know who you’re talking to and you’ve got to know that the messages you’re trying to land with that audience are gonna resonate with them. I think the third thing is that you’ve got to be very authentic in your approach. You’ve got to be saying things that people are gonna relate to and, certainly, you don’t want to be giving your audience a sense that you’re trying to sell them something or be overly commercial in what you’re trying to do. So it’s got to be an authentic message, which is something that’s gonna have intrinsic value for that audience.

But it’s also very important to remember that thought leadership is part of the marketing mix and, of course, it needs to be commercial, as well. You’ve got to be thinking about that commercial outcome and what you’re trying to achieve there, and have a very, very clear view of what that outcome ought to be.

Interviewer: Right. I know that can be quite a challenge in various ways. We can talk about that, maybe in a moment. But what are your thoughts on making a campaign commercial?

Rob: I think there’s two elements to this: The first is: your content itself has got to enable that kind of commercial conversation. One of the important things I said earlier that thought leadership has got to influence people and change behaviour, so you need to have calls to action within your thought leadership. You’ve got to stimulate that commercial conversation, get people thinking about why they might need your services. So that’s the first thing.

I think the second thing is that it’s really important that you build strong relationships with your business development people or whoever’s gonna be taking this thought leadership to that audience and taking it to market. One challenge we see very often is that that internal engagement is not very strong and, sometimes, their marketing are not talking often enough to the business development people, who are gonna be using that content.

So, our advice to clients is that you need to involve them early, you’ve got to get them on side, you’ve got to make them feel like this thought leadership campaign is something that they partly own and have some kind of influence and control over them. So you’ve got to get them on side.

So I think what we see now is a much more sophisticated approach emerging to how companies are measuring the impact of that thought leadership. And, of course, their marketing, more generally, is becoming much more scientific as a discipline. But from a thought leadership perspective, what you want to measure and the KPIs you put in place would depend very much on the objectives that you’re trying to achieve. So, if your focus and your emphasis is all about reputation, then the traditional way you would think about that is, “How much press coverage am I getting?” So, numbers of articles where your thought leadership’s cited, advertising value equivalent … is one of the industry metrics within PR.

But, I think, beyond that, there is perhaps a more sophisticated approach, as well, which goes beyond those traditional metrics, and thinks about what’s the impact of thought leadership on your brand. You know, how much brand recognition, how much brand awareness are you getting as a result, because thought leadership is part of the marketing mix and it needs to be able to pay its way in the same way that advertising does, and ensure that you’re getting increased brand awareness and brand recognition as a result.

I think the other side of this is the commercial KPIs. And if you’re trying to use thought leadership to drive revenues into your organisation, or to build stronger relationships with your customers, then you need to have KPIs in place that will enable you to track that. A good one that we’ve seen very often is: how many meetings with business development executives has this piece of thought leadership enabled? That’s a good yardstick; if people are using thought leadership to enable and open doors and create conversations. That’s a very good way of measuring the commercial impact of thought leadership.

I think, probably slightly more complex, but certainly something we’ll see a little bit more of, is: to what extent can you attribute sales and revenues back to a conversation that a piece of thought leadership started? That is quite complex, because there are lots of other factors which drive a customer’s choice when it comes to a product or a service, but I think, increasingly, there is a desire to see that return on investment and look at those sorts of metrics to ensure that your thought leadership is generating that ROI.

Interviewer: That’s very interesting to hear, Rob. What are a few mistakes that you see people make?

Rob: Yeah, I think there are a few that come up time and again, to be honest. The first one I would point to is that when companies don’t think enough about the audience they’re trying to reach. And it sounds obvious, but I think in a lot of cases companies take too much of an internal view of what they’re trying to achieve with their thought leadership and forget about the end audience and what that audience wants. So, listening to that audience, asking them exactly what’s gonna resonate with them, what’s keeping them up at night, what would they value from thought leadership, I think is the first thing and, sometimes, that doesn’t happen enough.

I think a second challenge that we see is they’re overambitious, when it comes to thought leadership and they try to do too much with their campaigns. For example, they try and ensure that every service line within the business is represented within the thought leadership and has a voice within it, but that means that the thought leadership gets too diluted, is trying to cover too much ground, you lose focus and, ultimately, the message you’re trying to get across is lost.

Another common mistake that I see a lot is something that I call “initiativitis”, and this is where companies are hopping from one topic to the next, rather than trying to have a consistent message that they’re trying to get out to clients. So what they’ll do is that they’ll produce a piece of thought leadership, publish it, move on, go on to a completely different topic and, from the audience’s perspective, this is confusing, because that company is moving around too much. So I think focus is very, very important and consistently banging the drum of those key messages you’ve got to try with that audience.

A really good example of this, I think, is a piece of work we’re not involved with, but PWC’s CEO briefing … they have been publishing that for more that 20 years. It’s got huge recognition within the market, it gets launched in the world at the Economic Forum in Davos every January and it’s got great recognition. And they’re stuck with it. They’re stuck with it and they continue that conversation and they’ve been rewarded for that. I think that’s an important lesson that focus, consistency, making sure that you own a few messages and not trying to do much, is very important.

Interviewer: Excellent, excellent. That’s very helpful, Rob. Now, there’s been considerable changes in the landscape, not just in thought leadership but in the content marketing world and in general. I’m just wondering, what do you see in the future? How do you see thought leadership evolving, Rob?

Rob: I think the first thing is that it’s getting much more structured and more systematic in how companies think about it. There’s a much greater focus on the return on investment that they’re getting from that thought leadership, and they’re integrating it much better within the broader marketing mix. So, it’s no longer seen as a standalone activity and some of it has to be integrated within your broader suite of marketing activities. So, definitely a greater sophistication there.

I think the second thing is that we’re moving away from the days of the long form report. It’s still important and many companies still value that, but in addition is that focus on shorter, more modular content, more visual content, more interactive content and greater focus on digital. That’s another key trend. But, despite that shift to that shorter, more modular content, you still need depth and you still need rigour. So I don’t think the need for evidence, the need for research goes away. That’s still a fundamentally important part of this. And I think the other trend is just that that integration with content marketing, I just see that happening more and more. There is a view that you have to think about a greater focus on things like marketing automation, thinking about the content, funnel and the buyer journey and making that more sophisticated, as well.

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About the author: Thought Leadership Insights

Our Thought Leadership Insights podcast series, presented by Fergal Byrne, digs deep into some of the key conversations surrounding thought leadership, and its use.

From building brand reputation, boosting client relationships, and having a real impact on a firm’s bottom line, Fergal interviews FT Longitude’s three founders, as well as a number of industry experts in thought leadership.

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