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The Way Ahead: Why the role and purpose of thought leadership is evolving

Rob Mitchell

Business audiences are looking for insights that help them navigate towards recovery. FT Longitude reveals how leading brands are rethinking the purpose of their thought leadership to stay ahead in a fast-moving market. The findings below are detailed in our latest ebook and webinar, The Way Ahead.

Covid-19 has tested companies’ ability to adapt and stay relevant, and in the early stages of the crisis, content marketers everywhere struggled to keep up. But the challenges also forced necessary change.

Thought leadership models were taken apart. In their place, new purpose and different processes: fewer pieces, but more flexible structures. Governance, so often a drag on timely and provocative content, was simplified. Volume and relevance increased.

Businesses felt a renewed sense of connection with their audiences.

Now brands have to move beyond providing day-to-day reassurance for customers and employees. They need to be ready to give their customers a distinctive and compelling vision for the post-crisis world.

But how? In our conversations with content professionals, we hear the same thing repeatedly. Marketers need to get four fundamentals right when it comes to the purpose of their thought leadership: clear objectives that are agreed upon by key stakeholders; the right framework and delivery model; constant reassessment of audience needs; and timely, distinctive content.

Some of the changes we’ve seen over the past few months are temporary, but others are permanent. Now is the time to place the right bets on the future of your thought leadership.

Rethink the objectives

Marketing professionals have complained for years that they never have the luxury of time to use thought leadership to nurture brands over the long term. The business always wants an instant impact. The result? A slide towards short-termism that can obscure the more powerful, long- term benefits of intelligent content.

In a crisis situation, the way ahead for many marketing teams becomes even less clear. Most responded to the early stages of the pandemic by producing practical, actionable content that helped clients to solve immediate problems or just survive. In the depths of the crisis, using thought leadership to drive commercial outcomes was seen, rightly, as off-key. No brand wanted to look insensitive; instead, they dialled up the empathy and showed support.

Greater expectations

Longer-term objectives have also changed. Traditionally, a big part of thought leadership’s purpose was ‘emotional priming’ – building connections between your brand and expertise that would set you up for future commercial conversations. But now, expectations have widened: enabling future commercial outcomes through preference is not enough. Brand also encompasses trust, purpose, authenticity and the broader role of business in society. That is not a new trend, but the crisis has accelerated it.

The objectives for thought leadership may have changed, but most of the ways we measure its effectiveness have not. Objectives are fluid and will continue to evolve as the crisis unfolds, but KPIs are usually static and do not change so much. As a result, marketers may find themselves being measured on commercial outcomes and short- term gains that are inappropriate or irrelevant in the current situation.

Objectives and KPIs have become decoupled.

Have the objectives and expectations for your thought leadership changed during the crisis? Our experts are here to help advise on how to ensure your content programmes get results.

Book your free strategy call here.

Five ways to nail the objectives (and measure them properly)

How should marketing professionals adapt their approach to objectives and measurement? We encourage them to consider five priorities.

1. Align marketing and the business – and keep the conversation going

It is essential for marketing teams and the wider business to agree on the goals and purpose of thought leadership during a crisis. There is no point tracking the number of face-to-face meetings initiated by thought leadership if those meetings are impossible to hold. And it is unfair to track marketing’s contribution to the pipeline if content is specifically designed for something other than short-term commercial outcomes.

Think about what you want your content to achieve, agree on objectives with the business and find ways to track that performance. Alignment, always vital to thought leadership, has become more important than ever. And it should not be a one-off exercise: speak often to the leadership team to ensure that objectives and KPIs remain in sync as the crisis continues to unfold.

2. If you’re not trying to sell through content, don’t focus on commercial metrics

Too many marketers we speak to remain under pressure to demonstrate short-term commercial wins from thought leadership when the content is not set up for that purpose. Sales funnel metrics like conversion rates, SQLs (Sales Qualified Leads) and so on are easy to track (which is one reason why they are so popular), but they are at odds with an environment in which marketers are more worried about brand health, trust and the organisation’s wider purpose in society.

3. Be flexible in your approach

As the crisis progresses through different stages, the tone of your content is likely to change. High-empathy, ‘we’re all in this together’ content will taper off, and you will want to shift from survival and business continuity to recovery and return to growth. As this emphasis changes, so too should your KPIs. Refresh them regularly to ensure they are relevant to what you want your thought leadership to achieve.

4. Put performance in context

It can be misleading to compare performance of thought leadership today with that of just a few months ago. The world has changed profoundly, and this will have a huge impact on your metrics.

Content consumption has increased across the board, so don’t seize on any increase in engagement. Equally, channel and device preferences are also undergoing major shifts: from mobile to desktop and from print and events to digital. Don’t draw too many conclusions from these trends, which are likely to be short term, and make sure you know the difference between changes in content consumption habits that are structural (i.e. longer-term and will take place regardless of the pandemic) and contextual (i.e. related primarily to the current situation).

5. Think about influence and impact more broadly

Our view has always been that thought leadership should not only inform, but also influence and inspire an appetite for change. Pre-crisis, that was often framed around changing purchasing intent. Today, it is much broader, and businesses are under increasing pressure to have a wider positive impact on society. We need to update our metrics accordingly.

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

To find out more about 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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