Thought leadership is becoming an increasingly ill-defined broad church of marketing content, PR commentary, personal points of view, and even sales platforms.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these things — each of them serves a distinct and important purpose. But when they’re mistakenly banded together by marketers under the guise of thought leadership content, it portrays a lack of understanding and a lack of credibility in a brand’s content strategy that will see it fall far short of achieving its desired impact.
To help brands avoid falling into this trap, this post outlines FT Longitude’s ‘litmus test’ for what constitutes true thought leadership. Content that earns the right to be labelled as thought leadership should excel when tested against four all-important dimensions:
1. Why are you creating this piece of content?
It may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how often we have encountered brands and marketers who are clear that they need a certain type of content delivered for a specific time, and yet have only a vague understanding of what they want it to achieve.
Thought leadership content needs to be carefully aligned with a brand’s broader commercial strategy. It ought to be focusing on at least one or more of the following things:
- Positioning the brand: Are you trying to change perceptions about your offering, or to maintain your position as a leader in a specific area?
- Creating effective client encounters: Who do you want to be famous with?
- Linking into your pipeline, revenue or margin: Do you have a clear picture of how you will convert that fame into revenue?
2. Who is the content aimed at?
Once you’ve established the ‘why’, you need to decide on the ‘who’. To do this effectively, you need to draw a clear line of sight from your objectives to the specific group – or groups – that you need to reach.
For instance, are you seeking to sustain and grow a well-established reputation with the direct buyers of your solutions – such as the heads of a specific department like IT – in which case you may need to create granular content on a niche topic. Or are you seeking to raise brand awareness amongst non-traditional buyers of your services – such as the wider C-suite – and do you therefore need content that demonstrates how your vision for the future should influence their long-term strategic planning?
Having a very clear understanding of who you are producing content for, and how you want them to react, will guide you in how to make the content practical and useful for the intended audience. This may mean posing solutions for a particular country or region, or to a challenge facing a specific subsector or business stakeholder.
3. What is your brand’s position?
Even if your content strategy passes the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ dimensions of our litmus test, it still falls down as genuine thought leadership in our eyes without expressing a strong and bold point of view.
This could be your firm bringing a hitherto unknown issue into readers’ consciousness, or offering a perspective that counters the accepted wisdom on a known issue.
However, the best thought leadership focuses on an innovative solution — the ‘so what’ or ‘what next’ is where it really sets itself apart from other types of content. Genuine thought leadership ought to have actionable, evidence-based insights, with brands demonstrating the courage to move beyond discussion to deliver their own clear recommendations.
4. How are you justifying your views?
It’s all very well taking a strong position in your content, but we also believe that content needs to be grounded in robust research for it to qualify as thought leadership. Otherwise, why should anyone take any notice of you? (Unless you’re Warren Buffett perhaps).
Your views alone will never be enough to achieve true credibility — even if you’re 100% right on an issue! Your thought-leading insights need to be tested, improved and refined through interaction with your market. This means combining primary or secondary, qualitative or quantitative data with your own expert view and practical know-how that has been acquired through working with clients over many years.
When scientist Robert Boyle introduced the idea of performing a litmus test for determining pH, chemists the world over were able to immediately distinguish between an acid and a base. Its main limitation, however, was its inability to give an accurate assessment of strength. On that count, FT Longitude’s thought leadership litmus test should fare rather better — if your content passes each of the four challenges above with flying colours, you can be fairly confident not only in achieving true thought leadership status, but in achieving a host of ambitious commercial objectives too.