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The Way Ahead: Meeting new audience needs with distinctive, timely content

Rob Mitchell

Business audiences are looking for insights that help them navigate towards recovery. FT Longitude reveals how leading brands are rethinking their thought leadership to stay ahead in a fast-moving market. If you want to hear more on creating distinctive content and other topics covered in this article, register to join our exclusive on-demand webinar where our co-founders discussed the key findings from The Way Ahead.

At any time, there is usually a handful of topics that most companies want to tackle in their thought leadership. Pre-crisis, for instance, it was ESG, cyber risk and blockchain.

This clustering around a limited number of themes has always been a challenge for thought leadership practitioners, because it is difficult to say something new and distinctive with your content when your competitors are all exploring similar topics.

Covid-19 has made this challenge more acute than ever, because now everyone’s attention is focused on just one issue: the crisis and its implications for business and the economy. Take a look at the content coming out of most B2B companies, and it all feels eerily similar. Lots of talk about remote working, resilience and new models for leadership – all against a backdrop of ‘unprecedented times’.

There is another problem: the rush to get content to market has meant that many companies have made basic mistakes. Too often, they have strayed into unfamiliar or inappropriate territory in the hopes of answering their audiences’ questions. This is tempting, but it is risky. Professional services or tech firms are not expected to take a position, for example, on infection rates. That kind of content can come across as opportunistic and inauthentic.

Five ways to keep your content fresh

How do you make sure your content is distinctive and relevant at every stage of the crisis? We recommend thinking about five key principles.

1. Consider the questions that your audience will be asking

We expect the current crisis to move through three distinct phases from a business perspective: readjustment, adaptation and recovery (see our previous ebook Thought + Leadership: Intelligent Content in a Crisis for more on this). At each stage, your audience will be asking different questions and your content needs to address each one.

As we move out of the earlier stages, the emphasis for your audience will be less on immediate survival and business continuity, and increasingly on how to address medium-term and longer-term challenges. Timing is critical: discuss recovery when the audience is not ready for that conversation, and you will lose them. But get caught behind the curve, and you will be seen as slow and irrelevant. Ensure that you stay close to your audience and listen to them continuously.

2. Bring out your real expertise

Everyone may be producing content about the crisis and its implications, but that does not mean your thought leadership has to be generic. It is vital to use it to express your unique perspective – what is it about your business that stands out, that you are famous for and that is truly valuable? Stay close to this, and you will be more likely to produce content that resonates – even if it does cover similar themes to your competitors’ content.

“At first, our content was just about helping the client adjust to a new world order – it was not appropriate to talk about our solutions. But now the focus is evolving, and clients are giving us permission to change our tone, and to talk about where it’s now right to invest.”

Matthew McGuinness, Content Director Growth & Strategy, Accenture

3. Avoid cliché

We live in unprecedented times.” “We’re here for you.” “In these challenging times.

It’s all too easy for content professionals to resort to such well-worn phrases. The danger is that they undermine the message you are trying to convey and make any piece of content feel tired and hackneyed.

4. Focus on your value proposition and don’t get distracted

Extraordinary events like the Covid-19 crisis can provoke knee-jerk business decisions, and marketing is no exception. Even in the current situation, it is essential to remain true to your value proposition. Deviate from this and your brand and content strategies become decoupled, sowing confusion among your audience and undermining your long-term efforts to use content as an expression of your brand identity. This does not mean ploughing on regardless and ignoring the crisis; instead, think about why your value proposition is relevant in the current times – and use it as the lens through which you view all your ideas and content.

5. Develop a unified message

Your audience has been bombarded with content for years; during the current crisis, it has become a deluge. No wonder, then, that the overall corporate message often gets lost in the noise.

The problem for many large multinationals is that they are highly diversified and publish multiple content pieces on a regular basis. But without some form of thematic coordination, those outputs can seem disjointed, contradictory and sometimes downright confusing.

A unified message structure can combat this by creating a central theme that links disparate content campaigns under one consistent and memorable banner. The unified message must be concrete and substantial enough to mean something, yet also flexible enough to encompass a diverse range of content outputs. Recent examples include Accenture’s Outmanoeuvring Uncertainty and EY’s Now. Next. Beyond.


“Never let a crisis go to waste,” as the old saying goes.

Many marketing professionals have taken that advice and are changing the way they produce thought leadership.

Some of the changes are long overdue, and the pandemic has just made them more urgent. The old model of spending six months conducting research and developing content for every campaign, for instance, has been fraying around the edges for several years. The crisis has provided the catalyst for refreshing that approach.

Not every aspect of thought leadership has changed forever. Its purpose and role within a business remains the same: thought leadership should, as before, express a company’s core purpose, message and expertise in a way that strengthens brand associations and creates opportunities for commercial conversations. The balance may have shifted away from the commercial goals for now, but that is likely to be temporary.

Smart brands have always known that thought leadership should be much more than a peripheral marketing activity. Done well, it will form part of the company’s DNA and be a key component within its overall narrative.

The crisis has strengthened the need to think of thought leadership in this way. To stay relevant, retain trust and remain at the front of audiences’ minds, companies should move thought leadership to the centre and further strengthen the ties between marketing teams, client-facing executives and company leadership. Do that, and your distinctive messages and content will resonate with your audiences, inspiring them in a way that creates valuable long-term relationships.

This article draws on the insights from our latest ebook: The Way Ahead.

To find out more about distinctive content and how the crisis is changing the direction of thought leadership, including access to our thought leadership measurement framework and how to apply it within your organisation, download the complete ebook here.

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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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