Top thought leadership trends to watch in 2018

Rob Mitchell

As we near the end of another busy year for FT Longitude, it’s time to look ahead and consider the developments in thought leadership that we expect to see in 2018. Here, FT Longitude CEO Rob Mitchell outlines 12 key trends that we believe will become more pronounced over the next 12 months.

1. Account-based marketing (ABM) will become even more widespread

This has been a real buzzword throughout 2017. Thought leadership lends itself extremely well to an ABM strategy, because it typically has a similar focus on a targeted list of individuals within key accounts. And, like ABM, thought leadership is all about nurturing a network of buyers and influencers within an account through tailored insights. In 2018, we expect the trend for ABM to deepen among producers of thought leadership, with an ever-greater emphasis on content targeting and long-term engagement.

2. B2B content will get personal

Greater personalisation of thought leadership content goes hand in hand with an ABM strategy. Atomised content that targets particular roles, sectors, company sizes and locations, within a key account or across multiple companies, will provide a much more relevant experience for audiences. In 2018, we expect a continued shift away from one-size-fits-all content. Based on an audience’s preferences for topics and themes, we may even start to see companies offering a tailored content capability, whereby a reader’s demographic criteria and past consumption drive a fully personalised content experience, based on a compilation of multiple, small modules.

3. Expect greater integration with content marketing

Thought leadership and content marketing, although similar on the face of it, have traditionally been poles apart. But these two techniques are increasingly being combined, with thought leadership as the cornerstone, and content marketing techniques being applied to amplify the message, increase reach and deliver tangible commercial outcomes. We expect to see thought leadership practitioners borrowing more techniques from content marketing specialists, and vice versa.

4. Measurement will become critical

In our work with more than 40 clients, we see a wide spectrum when it comes to the adoption of KPIs. Some are fanatical about their measurement of thought leadership success, while others are more laissez-faire. In our view, setting the right KPIs at the outset and tracking against them are key to a successful thought leadership campaign. As our latest research shows companies that are clear about what they want to achieve and that embed a rigorous approach to measuring the impact of their content on reputation, relationships and revenues typically generate better results. We think the adoption of KPIs will become more visible and important over the course of 2018. We also expect the metrics to become more diverse – and richer, given the increased focus on content analytics described below.

5. Primary and secondary research will be combined

Surveys of senior executives are typically the go-to research tool that provides the underlying evidence for thought leadership campaigns. While we don’t expect this to change fundamentally in 2018, we do think there will be a greater focus on supplementing surveys with secondary, or desk, research. When combined into a single overarching research methodology, primary and secondary research can be a great way of overcoming some of the limitations of surveys and bolstering their credibility.

6. Thought leadership will become a key lead generation tool

Traditional thought leadership was all about building the halo effect around a company’s brand and demonstrating its knowledge, credibility and authority on a given subject. More recently, companies have been shifting their emphasis and harnessing the power of thought leadership as a lead generation tool. We’ve seen this most visibly in the technology sector, which typically has a very commercial focus to its content. In 2018, we expect this emphasis on lead generation to grow. Lead capture, gated content and integration with marketing automation tools will be key tactics. A greater focus on demonstrating ROI from thought leadership will make this trend even more pronounced.

7. Content analytics will be a vital tool for optimising thought leadership output

The growing power and adoption of content analytics will provide a more rigorous way of selecting the right thought leadership topics. Search analytics applied across a company’s content assets can provide valuable insight into patterns of usage and readership. This will lead to “dynamic content campaigns” whereby companies react to analytics data to change the emphasis of their content priorities and steer a course towards the themes and topics that are most relevant and valuable to an individual.

8. Co-creation will become more widely used

Sharing published thought leadership is not the only chance that marketers have to build a relationship with their external stakeholders. Savvy marketers start earlier and engage their clients and prospects during the research process. Getting your key stakeholders involved as part of thought leadership development can be a powerful way of engaging them and making them feel special. In turn, it makes them much more likely to become advocates for your brand, as well as key influencers who will share your content among their own networks to widen your reach.

9. The influencer network will become a key distribution tool

Good content without investment in distribution is wasted effort. And one of the most effective ways of amplifying your thought leadership is to get influential figures to do the distribution for you. Getting the great and good across social media to talk about your research is incredibly powerful, and massively increases the reach of your content. It also lends further credibility to the research. Of course, you need to have good content in the first place for this approach to work, but with the right platform and a robust approach to building and nurturing an influencer network, your thought leadership can go much further.

10. Marketers will focus on customer experience as part of the thought leadership journey

It’s no longer enough to create good content. At a time when all B2B marketers are chasing a tiny audience of C-suite executives and influencers, achieving cut-through is becoming increasingly difficult. This is particularly challenging where companies are selling services such as legal or consultancy that, on the face of it, are similar to those of their competitors. No wonder, then, that customer experience (or CX) is emerging as a way of creating differentiation. In a thought leadership context, CX is all about serving audiences with relevant, tailored content that engages them and encourages them to move to the next stage in the customer journey. It’s about capturing attention quickly, making the customer journey seamless across multiple touchpoints, and ensuring a truly consistent brand and messaging experience.

11. B2B marketers will increase their use of content atomisation

Forgive the jargon, but the term “content atomisation” is a good description of how leading B2B marketers are maximising their investment in research and content. The reality today is that there is so much content published that the traditional “Big Bang” approach of focusing the majority of effort on a single, long-form report simply will not work anymore. Atomisation across social media, blogs, paid channels, email, video and traditional media helps to amplify your message and provide greater opportunity for it to resonate with your target audience. It also ensures effective use of resources by reusing and repackaging content in multiple ways.

12. The long-form report will make a comeback

OK, I’m sticking my neck out here. We’ve been hearing for several years that the 6,000-word report is in decline as attention spans shrink and as executives become increasingly time-starved. And yes, I would agree that, if that’s all you deliver as an output to a thought leadership campaign, then you are definitely missing a trick. But, I do think that the long-form report still has a role to play as part of the marketing mix. One reason is that longer content performs much better from an SEO perspective. A study by serpIQ looked at the average length of content in the top ten results of search queries. It found that the top-ranked pieces were well over 2,000 words long. Shorter articles, by contrast, generally ranked lower. Long-form content also adds value to your audience and positions you as an expert in a way that a 500-word blog will struggle to do.

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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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