The five biggest mistakes marketing teams make in thought leadership

Peter Elkins

Thought leadership is no longer primarily the terrain of consultancies and strategy firms. More corporates than ever are getting in on the act as they come to understand its potential to expand their brand reach and spark new conversations with their market.

But few companies are tapping the full potential of thought leadership, as marketing professionals struggle to master this evolving discipline. So what are some of the most common mistakes that get made in the planning and execution of these projects? Here’s a starting list to consider:

1. Attempting to shape research around your own organisational structure.

    Large companies often create sub-departments or smaller teams directed at a particular industry sector because it makes sense for their operating model. However, while this comes to affect the mode of thinking within the company, the terminology, categorisations and approaches used internally may be somewhat alien to the outside industry. The bottom line? A fudged output – it’s vital to think first of your target reader, not your internal org chart.

2. The sales-centric approach

    There is nothing wrong with basing thought leadership around a commercial proposition. Quite the contrary: this is a valuable part of the marketing mix to support sales and marketing efforts. But it’s not advertising, or a brochure – thought leadership must be focused on educating your target market in some way, and feeding your audience something fresh. Holding executives’ attention is no mean feat, and it takes both thought-provoking research and engaging content presentation to do so. If they feel as though they’re reading a sales pitch, they’ll move along. Save the USPs for your adverts.

3. Hopping on the bandwagon

    The platitude that there is no such thing as an original idea should be borne in mind when designing a thought leadership campaign. It’s all too easy to get pulled in by the big themes of the moment – whether it’s ‘big data’ today or ‘sustainability’ prior to the crash. Clearly you should not avoid such themes if they are relevant for your market, but before you proceed, obtain a comprehensive understanding of the material others have produced, and ensure you are adding something fresh and intelligent to the debate. A common technique that can help here is focusing very specifically on a niche: rather than ‘Why big data matters’, perhaps consider ‘Why big data matters for CFOs’. Find the niche, and it’ll help you stand out from the crowd.

4. The ‘hit and hope’ research approach

    All effective research benefits from setting out a well thought out set of hypotheses beforehand. All too often, when drawing up thought leadership campaigns, marketing teams fail to take full advantage of the in-house expertise at their fingertips. The senior leaders at your company are an incredibly valuable resource in the research planning stage. This insight must be fully utilised and a crystallised purpose aligned to the research, ideally well before designing survey questions or framing interview topics. If you want to end up with credible and relevant data that has a strong theme behind it – and that your core leadership team is on board with – then be sure to clearly define the research aims beforehand.

5. Blurring your voice

    Coordination and consistency are difficult to achieve within large organisations, across a whole host of business activities, and thought leadership is no different. Marketing departments will work with various functions and external partners on thought leadership projects, but the content often suffers from a lack of common oversight. Failing to adopt a unified approach in style and theme can blur the brand image and prevent the company’s ‘voice’ coming across to clients.

Oh, and just to wrap up – don’t forget about deployment, which is a whole other topic. All too often companies launch reports on their sites, publish a press release, and move on. You’ve got an asset, make sure you pay close attention to how much you sweat it.

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About the author: Peter Elkins

Peter is a highly experienced thought leadership writer and editor in the professional services sector, with over 25 years’ experience leading significant content-driven communication programs. He has particular thought leadership experience in the C-suite leadership space, having led a number of major global research programs examining the CEO agenda and the changing role of the CFO, as well as finance function transformation. As part of those programs, he has conducted interviews with CEOs and CFOs at some of the world’s largest companies.

Prior to FT Longitude, he worked in content development and communication for a range of major organisations, including Gemini Consulting (later Capgemini Consulting) and PA Consulting.

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