Many companies create content that they describe as thought leadership, but our observation after more than a decade working in this sector is that few do it well. All too often, this content lacks structure, is insufficiently engaging or does not seem to have a clear set of objectives in mind. The result is that a company’s thought leadership output simply gets lost in a sea of similar-looking white papers and reports without a clear purpose or benefit from a marketing perspective.
At FT Longitude, we help clients to create thought leadership assets that cut through the clutter and have a real, lasting impact. Although every project has slightly different aims and objectives, we believe that good thought leadership typically shares a number of common characteristics. It is:
- There is no point creating thought leadership content that fails to connect with people. An effective project requires content that resonates with its intended audience, sparks conversations and stands out from the crowd. To create impactful thought leadership, companies need to seek out the “white space” in terms of themes, and set research hypotheses that are likely to yield findings that cause audiences to sit up and notice. Companies also need to ensure that they can measure this impact – either through the amount of press coverage achieved, or through analysis of the audience’s readership/usage patterns.
- We have all seen thought leadership that is bland, obvious or platitudinous. To really stand out from the crowd, good content needs to be provocative and surprising. All too often, companies are scared of expressing a strong point of view in their thought leadership. But without taking a stand, they will find that their content simply does not resonate.
- Executives today inhabit a world of unparalleled complexity and change. This means that they will value and seek out thought leadership that provides insight into how their peers are thinking, and outlines some of the actions they could be considering to improve the performance of their business. They may not take decisions on the basis of thought leadership alone, but they will associate the decision-making process with the company whose content got them thinking. And they may well get in touch with that company when they need advice or help.
- Our work has shown us that a client’s internal stakeholders matter as much as the external executives that they are trying to reach. Without buy-in from the business, thought leadership simply does not get used – sales teams do not take it to meetings and client relationship managers do not mention it to their own clients. Securing internal support for thought leadership is therefore essential.
- All thought leadership projects must have a clear set of commercial and marketing objectives in mind. Yet, at the same time, companies need to avoid making content too sales or product-focused, as this will alienate the intended audience. A careful balance needs to be struck between these opposing goals, so that commercial objectives are achieved and audiences engaged.
- Time is a scarce commodity for most business audiences. To really make an impact, thought leadership has to capture their attention and serve their needs. Serving up 10,000 word reports is unlikely to be effective on its own. Long-form reports certainly have their place, but companies should recognise that different audiences have different requirements. Supplementing longer reports with shorter articles, videos, infographics and other devices, and using these more immediate formats as “attention grabbers”, helps to tailor content for different audiences and increase reach.
- A common pitfall with thought leadership is scope creep. A company starts with the best intentions to do something focused but then, in order to satisfy the needs of different stakeholders within the business, the theme gets broader and broader. Ultimately, however, this approach satisfies nobody. Stakeholders might get their area covered, but the content becomes so broad and diluted that it fails to engage audiences or say anything of significant value. Keeping thought leadership focused – and reinforcing why this is necessary to internal stakeholders – is by far the better approach.