PODCAST: Thought leadership trends and predictions 2017

Thought Leadership Insights

Thought Leadership Insights, Episode 1

In this first episode of Thought Leadership Insights, FT Longitude Research co-founders Rob Mitchell and James Watson, together with managing director Gareth Lofthouse, share the firm’s thought leadership predictions for the year ahead. They highlight six key trends from the company’s recently published 12 Predictions for 2017 that will impact the evolution of thought leadership this year, and identify key lessons and strategies to help B2B marketers adapt to these changing priorities.

Read all 12 predictions, including tips on emerging trends in research tools, editorial techniques and tactics for audience engagement, here.

Topics covered

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 00:30 Rob’s thought leadership predictions
  • 01:30 What is omni-channel thought leadership?
  • 02:30 Are companies doing this?
  • 03:30 Designing content for different channels
  • 05:30 The issue of activation
  • 08:30 Dealing with time pressures
  • 09:30 Gareth’s thought leadership predictions
  • 12:00 Measuring thought leadership’s success
  • 14:00 Using intelligent content to drive sales
  • 15:45 James’s thought leadership predictions
  • 16:30 What is structured journalism?
  • 18:45 Multi-media incorporation
  • 20:15 Tackling content promotion challenges
  • 21:45 Emerging technologies for B2B marketers

Or read the full transcript here.

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Listen to our other podcasts:

Episode 2: The power of thought leadership

Episode 3: Interview with Alison Tattersall from Barclays


Podcast transcript

Fergal Byrne (Host): Welcome to the FT Longitude Research podcast, Thought Leadership Insights, with senior figures from the firm together with leading marketing executives, explore key trends shaping the evolution of thought leadership and marketing. I’m your host, Fergal Byrne.

In this first episode of thought leadership insights, FT Longitude Research co-founders Rob Mitchell and James Watson, together with managing director Gareth Lofthouse share the firm’s thought leadership predictions for the year ahead. Welcome to the podcast, Rob.

Rob Mitchell: Thank you, Fergal.

FB: What’s the background here for the predictions?

RM: The background to these predictions is something we try and do every year, and it’s to ask the team that we’ve got here at FT Longitude what they see as the key trends in thought leadership, and what they see as the key changes that they expect to see over the next 12 months. We ask them to look at the whole range of different aspects of thought leadership from thought leadership strategy, to how research gets done, through to how content and research gets activated or launched to its intended audience.

FB: What predictions are you going to talk about today, Rob?

RM: I’m going to talk about two predictions. One is this idea of omni-channel thought leadership, which is a term that’s perhaps more familiar from the world of retail than it is from thought leadership. It’s an interesting concept that I’d like to share some thoughts about. The second is this idea of ideas needing better activation. We’re very used to seeing great insights coming from thought leadership. This is the idea that marketers need to focus more on how they take those ideas to market.

FB: Right, that’s very interesting. Omni-channel, I guess we’ve heard it and seen it in implemented retail and financial services. What is it at heart, omni-channel, what’s the idea here?

RM: Well I think the idea is about offering consumers or your audience a seamless experience regardless of how they engage with your marketing. If you think about it in retail context it’s the idea that you may browse for something you want to purchase in a shop, and then you go and research it online, and then you maybe buy it on a mobile channel once you’ve compared prices across different retailers. I think when it comes to thought leadership, you can apply a similar line of thinking.

Until fairly recently, thought leadership was delivered across a fairly small number of channels. You’d be perhaps pushing out your content to an audience via email, or leaving a physical copy or report on your client’s desk, or maybe pulling them in through web advertising. But, as it is with retail, the world has become much more complex. Your audiences is now used to moving between different channels and formats pretty promiscuously.

FB: Where are companies with this at the moment?

RM: I think it’s still relatively early days, and I’m not sure there are many B2B companies that are offering a truly seamless omni-channel experience when it comes to thought leadership. I do think it’s the direction that things are moving. Following the way that we’ve seen this in retail as you pointed out, in financial services as well, marketers need to think about how their audiences consume content, and recognise that they’re pretty agnostic when it comes to channels, when it comes to devices, and when it comes to formats. They expect to be able to move from one to the other and have a seamless experience.

But what I would say is I think for many companies at the moment, that experience is not very seamless. You may visit or look at some content online, and then go to another part of the website and find that the branding is a bit different, the messaging is a bit different. So it isn’t very seamless at the moment. I think most B2B organisations will probably recognise that and there’s some way to go. But I think this is something we’ll see more of in the next two or three years.

FB: Right, that’s interesting. I can see the delivery aspect of it. What about when it comes to planning and design? Is there certain kinds of content that’s more appropriate for certain media, for certain channels, and is that important to think about that at the earlier stages?

RM: Absolutely. I think that omni-channel is also about the content strategy, so it’s about having a seamless consistent message across all of your content. This is something that I think many became as they’re starting to think about perhaps again, they’re not quite there yet. So, in other words, when you’re thinking about thought leadership, when you’re thinking about your content, you need to think about the message you want to get across to that audience. Then you need to make sure that message is delivered in a seamless way across all the various formats and channels that you’re using from a marketing standpoint.

FB: Right. Then when it comes to delivery, can you talk a little bit about that side of it? Does this mean that you need to have more IT people involved or does the process change? Have you any thoughts on that, Rob?

RM: I think the first stage of the process is to work out where your audience is hanging out. So where are they consuming your content? I think very often companies don’t know enough about that. They don’t do enough research on what are the kind of ways in which their audiences consume content. Are they accessing it via social media? Are they accessing it via events, or email marketing, or web-search? There’s various ways in which they could be doing it.

I think once you know that, then you can start thinking about how you build the content across the various channels that are most widely used by your audience. That gives you this idea of prioritisation because you need to focus on the channels and formats that are most relevant to your audience. Omni-channel doesn’t mean that you have to do absolutely everything across all channels, because that would be probably far too complex and far too expensive, quite frankly, so you need to prioritise and ensure that the audience you’re trying to reach is getting the delivery, and is getting the content, and the channels that are most suitable to them.

FB: You talked also about a second prediction. You talked about this question of activation and this seems to be a burning issue I think for many content marketers. What’s the second prediction, Rob, that you’d like to discuss?

RM: I think going back a couple of years, many B2B marketers would invest a large proportion of their budgets on the research and the content and perhaps not enough on the activation. What we’re seeing is a little bit of a rebalancing where yes, the investment in research and the content is incredibly important as your foundation, but they’re thinking about how they activate it and how they take it to market.

I think it’s quite linked with this idea of omni-channel where perhaps in the past marketers thought about perhaps a fairly small number of channels through which they would activate their thought leadership and their content. I think in an omni-channel world, it is a more complex undertaking, and they’re having to think about a large variety of different channels that they theoretically could distribute their content and activate it. You look at social media and there are dozens of different channels there that you could focus on. There’s the PR channel. There’s events, email, face-to-face meetings. There’s all sorts of different channels you need to think about.

Our view is that companies really need to start thinking about that activation in a more structured way, and ensure that they’re spending as much time and effort on activation and taking content to market, as they are on creating it in the first place. I think what that means is again, this understanding of where your audience hangs out. What are the channels that are going to be most relevant to them, and how are they likely to access your content? Then your activation can be tailored to those needs.

I think another thing that we’re starting to see quite a lot of that relates to this is this idea of KPIs for thought leadership, so Key Performance Indicators, and the idea that when you start a project, you’ve got some metrics that you’re tracking that determine whether or not that project has been a success.

Of course, the project, the thought leadership itself has to be insightful, and great content, and robust research. It also needs to achieve the marketing and commercial objective that was set out in the first place. That, I think the activation needs to be aligned with those KPIs. So in other words, if your key focus is all about brand building, then your KPIs are going to be related to PR metrics, and engagement, and downloads, and you would focus on that as part of your activation. If your KPIs are all about revenue building, then you’re probably going to focus on a different type of activation. Face-to-face meetings for your business development people, for example, or events where you can get your research in front of audiences, and get conversations going between your business development people or your partners, and the audience you’re trying to reach.

FB: When you talk about activation, what have you in mind here, Rob?

RM: Essentially, what we’re talking about is how research and content gets taken to market. In a thought leadership project, you’ll do your research and you’ll produce your content, but what’s the next step after that? These days it’s much, much more complex than simply posting it on a website and sending out a press release. Activation is all about thinking about the different channels that you could use to take your thought leadership to market, and ensuring that you’re optimising the use of those channels in a way that’s as relevant as possible for your intended audience.

FB: That’s very interesting. I guess with the planning is one thing and with the best-laid plans in the world. When it comes to actually delivering content, there are pressures as well, particularly time pressures, deadlines. A lot of energy can go into actually creating the content, and then just by virtue of the timings and so forth, there may be less time available when it comes to actually delivering on the activation. What advice have you got for companies here?

RM: I think the key is to think about thought leadership as a campaign. I don’t think that on the launch of a project every element of the activation needs to be synchronised and ready at one go. In fact, I think it’s better practise to release different pieces of content across different channels over a period of time because that allows you to build momentum, and sustain conversations with your intended audience, and is actually a much better approach than the old big-bang idea where everything got launched in one go, and then you had quite high impact for a short period of time but it then tails off quite quickly.

FB: Thanks, Rob. If I can turn to you, Gareth. What predictions are you going to talk about?

Gareth Lofthouse: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of predictions that I think are going to be huge trends for the months ahead. The first of these is that brands are really going to start focusing their marketing firepower on doing less volume of thought leadership but much better quality of thought leadership campaigns. When it comes to planning that content, the mantra for marketing directors is going to be to do fewer, but to do it bigger and much better.

I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. For a lot of the clients we work with, we’ve seen a proliferation in recent years of all sorts of content programmes. You get theses pet projects which there’s some business leader or perhaps a business partner who thinks it’s a good idea, but it’s not really being tested with the audience. Those sorts of things, too often they fall flat, or they may not be joined up with the overall marketing and corporate strategy. There needs to be a good clear-out and sort of audit if you like, of these programmes to see which ones of them really make sense, which ones really resonate with the brand positioning and with what audiences want to read and learn about. That certainly helps to validate which programmes to back.

The other aspects of this streamlining of thought leadership, if you like, is that these investments in thought leadership to get the right impact, it’s a fairly substantial investment that brands are making so you’ve got to be sure that they are targeted strategically in the right areas for the business, that they’re going to achieve the right critical mass to be noticed against all this other noise. Sometimes we had that clients are saying, “Well, we’re competing with ourselves. There is so much coming out from some of these larger B2B organisations, whether it be the professional services company, or a bank, or a big tech company. They churn so much out that they’re actually competing with themselves, and tripping over themselves for the attention of their audiences. We advise clients to pick your three, four, five flagship programmes and really get behind those before looking at some of the other pieces that might build around that.

FB: You mentioned some of these important questions about whether or not the thought leadership resonates, whether it reaches critical mass. How good that companies at evaluating this answering these questions. Have they got good information on how well their thought leadership is doing?

GL: Well, I think that the whole area of how you target your thought leadership campaign and how you measure its success is becoming more important. Brands are certainly wanting to do it. Marketing directors are looking for the tools to do that well, but it’s still an area which companies are learning about so I think to start with what does success look like. It’s a pretty obvious question to ask yourself when you’re planning these campaigns. But as I said before, it’s not something that companies are necessarily spending enough time or put enough rigour into thinking that through.

We like to advise clients to be thinking about what’s the ultimate purpose here, are you going to measure the success in terms of what impact it’s going to have for your reputation. Are we talking about media coverage here? If it’s media coverage, what titles and media channels are we targeting? It’s not just ticking the box in terms of the volume of media coverage, but what message, what issue are you going to own when it comes to getting those headlines? There needs to be alignment between not just column inches, but also is it on the right stuff.

That’s one of the areas that you might target your plan around. You might also be thinking about engagement from a sort of revenue point of view. How is the thought leadership going to build commercially valuable relationships, how is it going to ultimately help the revenue line? Again, there are lots of ways that thought leadership can do that, but you need to think very carefully about how it’s going to be used therefore by the sales organisation when it comes to that end of the spectrum.

FB: Thanks, Gareth. What’s the second prediction you’re going to talk about?

GL: For my second prediction, I think companies are going to get a lot smarter about using intelligent content to drive sales. A lot of people think that the thought leadership is a fluffy or somewhat academic exercise, but done right we think it’s precisely the opposite. It only really works if it drives engagement with the sort of decision makers and audiences that really matter for you as a brand.

The best companies know how to use original research and powerful insights to open doors with their prospects. I guess it’s to create a foundation for the engagement and the conversations they need to be having with decision makers. It’s hard to get time if you’re trying to target as a company 100 chief executives that really could make the difference to your growth plan. It’s hard to get the conversations and the right strategic discussions with those types of decision makers. We’ve seen how good thought leadership planned in the right way, targeted in the right way, and carefully mapped into the way clients work with their key accounts, it can really open doors to these kind of brands.

FB: Lots to think about there, Gareth. Thank you for your predictions. What predictions are you going to talk about, James?

James Watson: Yeah, I’ve got two things I think are going to be interesting in 2017 for B2B marketers. One is around structured journalism and the wider trend of corporate brands becoming more like publishers and what this is going to mean for them as they seek to act a bit more like publishers, so that’s going to be an interesting area. I think the second one is a bit of a lighter topic. It’s around the emergence of issues and opportunities like augmented reality. As consumer B2C marketers start to make more and more interesting use of these kinds of tools and techniques, I think we’re going to start seeing more B2B marketers wondering what they can do in this and how can they take advantage of that.

FB: So it’s structured journalism, James. What is that and where has that emerged from?

JW: Yeah, so this has been a talking point in the media and journalism sector for some time and I think the BBC, in particular, has taken a particular driver in trying to be at the forefront of this. I think it comes back to the realisation that a lot of the stories that we grapple with today are complex by their very nature and they’re stories that evolve over time and it’s difficult to just give a snapshot of them in one place.

So what you start to see happening is when you’re reading a story about a complex issue, like let’s say the American election, there’s the update on what’s going on in the story, but you usually see today more and more, and we’ve become familiar with it, there’s a set of links and boxes and sidebars all embedded within the story that are telling you what’s the timeline around this thing, or where’s the background on the characters involved in this, or what do these issues mean for people? It allows people to not just get to grips with a particular issue, but also get the context around these issues and how this all kind of links together and feeds into each other.

I think the same is going to start becoming true of a corporate B2B publishing where a lot of the stories that we’re trying to tell are complex by their very nature. They’re dealing with issues, or technologies, or themes that are multi-dimensional and have a lot of different facets to them. I think we’re going to see B2B marketers wanting to draw on some of these structured journalism techniques to be able to tell complex thought leadership stories, but in a way that is accessible readers, and that they can draw in and drill down on the different related elements within this as opposed to the sort of, “I’ve told you all of this in a sixty-seven-page report that you have to download and read from front to back.”

That linear approach I think is going to give way to something that is a little bit more embedded, lots of links within it, they can take you around, and hop you around from one part of the story to the other, depending on where your interest might lie and depending what you want to get more insight into.

FB: You’re talking about a more modular approach, I guess. Are we also talking about different forms of maybe multi-media and data incorporated here?

JW: Absolutely. I think that’s a real part of it. A lot of the studies that we get to grips with have a rich underpinning of data, and yet it’s often difficult to find ways to extract the insights from that data and to share it. I think a lot of people that are reading these things would love to be able to access them and play around with the data more. So I think you will increasingly start to see, we’ve got examples of this with some clients that we know. Accenture, for instance, has worked with tools like Tableau to help provide and embed data in a way that you can not only see what the insights are from it, but you can start filtering for yourself as a reader to say what does this mean for my sector, or how does this differ in my region of the world, or whatever the case might be.

Having that data embedded within the wider story as one of the elements that you can go and look to, and in combination with a lot of other elements, whether it’s case studies or what particular things are going on, whether it’s the narrative around what this all means for your business, or indeed the data that you point out. I think depending on where your interest lies as a reader, depending on what you want to get to grips with, you can dive in and out of this as you see fit to access and understand the story from your perspective.

FB: It suggests, as you say a rather different way of the way many brands have been looking at promoting content. So what are a few of the challenges for companies here and have you got any advice?

JW: Yeah, so this all fits with the wider theme that we’ve been talking about for some time around brands becoming publishers in their own right. This is not a new trend. We’ve seen it for some time. In fact, some of the B2C brands like Coca-Cola have been quite serious publishers for a long time. They own radio stations in some markets, and they’re really taken content to heart as they sought to communicate with their audiences.

As these companies start to think of themselves in this way, and as they make content a bigger part of their marketing mix and that they go to market with, they’re going to have to think more about how they can act like publishers too. What are the skill sets that they’re going to need to bring on board to help deliver on this, how will they have to start thinking differently within their organisations to handle this better? And I think very few have taken significant strides in that direction. We have seen emergence of a range or new roles. For example, around people with dedicated functions on head or thought leadership and so on and so forth, that’s really interesting. But where are the corporate journalists, or where are the corporate data researchers and these types of functions? for those companies that are going to invest more and get more to grips with this kind of structured journalism approach, they’re going to have to start thinking more about the skills that they tap into, whether internally or externally.

FB: Fascinating, James. Thank you. Can you talk a little bit about your second prediction?

JW: Yeah, so this is a bit of a lighter one. Over the past few years, we’ve seen in particular consumer marketers starting to make interesting use of an emerging set of technologies that are variously kind of around virtual reality, or augmented reality, or things like that.

One of the great examples in London I recall was a brand, I think it might have been Pepsi, that put an augmented reality display against the London bus stop, and had all these scenes playing out that looked like they were really happening. You had aliens landing on the sidewalk and all kinds of things going on. Of course, it wasn’t real, but it got people excited. It got a tremendous amount of traction. They got videos of this that went viral and that were being shared all over the place.

I don’t think B2B marketers are going to be taking an approach like that, but it does suggest to me that they will increasingly start to experiment with tools and techniques, whether within their reports, or within things like events and shows that they might be participating in, to gain attention, to stand out from the crowd, to do something a bit different.

One of the examples we saw this year with one of our clients, Barclays, was great to see. They did a retail report and they made use of the app called Blippar which allows you to scan the page with your smartphone. It brings out and essentially provides an augmented reality experience. Where they provided, for example, data within the report, you could scan over with your phone and it would bring the data to life. It would provide an animation explaining what was going on, or to embed a video of someone talking about what this meant for retailers, and so on and so forth.

Today, probably only a small fraction of readers actually makes use of that. As smartphones become more ubiquitous, and as people become more familiar with interesting approaches like augmented reality, I think more B2B marketers will start testing the waters with this and seeing what they can do to get attention for their output.

FB: Great. Great. Maybe one final questions, James. What does this mean for companies? You’re talking about some pretty advanced technologies. Presumably, they need to get technology people into the team. More generally, one or two things you suggest companies should think about exploring these exciting technologies?

JW: I think it goes back to a theme that we have studied a bit in some of our research around the increased need for marketers to wear a technology hat, or at the very least to collaborate much more closely with their technology and IT support functions within the business. I think we’re going to see more and more the embedding and interlinking of technology and content, not least in terms of what different channels do you go to market on.

One of our clients, Capgemini appointed a lead function that is all around digital distribution of their content. That’s what his focus is all about. That’s what he thinks about a lot in terms of how best to do this, how to break up content for different verticals, how to take advantage of new kinds of emerging social media that might be more visual in form or just take a different approach. So it’s great to see functions like that emerging. I think many companies are still struggling with that. They have a lot more to do to become more accustomed to technology and to take advantage of the opportunities it might hold for them.

FB: That’s a lot for marketers to think about and I think we end here today. Thank you very much, Robert, Gareth, and James for your time today. Thanks to all of you listening. If you’d like to find out more information about these predictions, please visit longituderesearch.com where you can also subscribe to this podcast.

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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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