Producing thought leadership used to be straightforward. In the days when the printed report or PDF was the primary output, it was easy to get by with a fairly narrow set of capabilities within the marketing team and the broader ecosystem. You needed researchers, writers, and someone to design the charts and reports. These skills could usually be found fairly easily using a combination of in-house resources and a specialist content agency.
How things have changed. The expectations on producers of thought leadership are now much higher. Producing a PDF report is no longer enough to cut through the noise and maximise chances of engagement: as well as long-form outputs, marketers need to think about microsites, data visualisation, podcasts, animations and a bewildering array of other formats. There’s also more emphasis on metrics and ROI, and an expectation that producers will integrate their thought leadership with marketing automation and broader content marketing efforts.
This means that the skills required for successful thought leadership have broadened immensely. It’s almost impossible to cover all these capabilities within an in-house team, and working with a single external agency is also unlikely to provide everything that today’s marketers need. Marketing leaders themselves also need new skills. They must become the orchestrators and coordinators of a broad set of capabilities and multiple specialist providers, to add to their many other hats.
How should they manage this complexity? Here are some ideas based on my experiences of working with our clients:
1. Ensure you have the right blend of internal and external resources
Our recent Thought-Leading Brands research report shows that in-house marketers are investing in new areas to ensure that they have the right talent in their team. Strategy and planning skills are their top priority, followed by digital and content marketing, then research.
Marketing leaders need to think carefully about where they invest. The capabilities necessary to deliver successful thought leadership are highly specialised, and it doesn’t make sense to bring everything inside the organisation. It’s therefore important to map out what you’ll need. Unless you have limitless resources, it’s usually better to invest in broader skills internally and seek specialist input from third parties that focus exclusively on that particular area.
2. Be clear on project governance
With multiple internal and external stakeholders contributing to thought leadership efforts, there’s a real risk of misalignment and fragmentation. To coordinate multiple specialist providers, marketers need a robust approach to project governance, with clear leadership and good communication.
One option is to appoint a lead agency that takes responsibility for coordinating the work of other third parties. This will help to minimise the risk of fragmentation and ensure that all parties are rowing in the same direction.
3. Stay consistent
A danger with using multiple specialists is that they’ll diverge from the brief. Creative people love coming up with their own ideas, which is fine if they stick within the parameters of the overall project goals. If not, they risk incoherence.
A common vision and consistent messaging should flow across the work of all specialists involved. This will ensure that the work is all clearly part of the same project rather than a combination of different creative treatments. Without tight integration and alignment of messaging, audiences will be confused.
4. Be driven by audience needs
There is now such a range of creative content options available that some marketers will try everything in the hope that something sticks.
Although we strongly recommend a campaign approach to thought leadership that makes the most of different formats, a scattergun approach simply won’t work. It spreads investment too thinly and, because it involves too many people, creates needless complexity.
Think first about the needs of your audience: what content do they consume? Where do they hang out? This should drive your selection of content and ensure a clear-eyed focus on a smaller number of engaging and relevant formats. It also means you can limit the number of specialists that have to get involved.
5. Be a thought leadership magpie
“Good artists copy,” said Picasso. “Great artists steal.” The key for marketers, meanwhile, is to borrow as broad a range of ideas and experts as they can. I often observe clients within a particular sector focusing exclusively on what their direct competitors are doing and the providers they use.
But why limit your experts to such a narrow field? Why not look at other sectors – or at B2C, where you’re likely to find a cutting-edge provider producing fascinating work that your competitors won’t have considered? If you keep an open mind about how you approach thought leadership, you’ll produce more innovative work.
To find out which other new skills and capabilities the Thought-Leading Brands are investing in, click here to download your free copy of the research findings.