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The why, who, what and how of thought leadership

Rob Mitchell

We recently went to meet a new client who were keen to develop their thought leadership capabilities. At the meeting, which was attended by a number of their senior leadership team, we felt that too much time was taken up discussing what topics the programme should cover, rather than addressing other, more fundamental questions.

While clearly a vital part of developing thought leadership, the selection of themes and topics is only one step in the planning process. And, in our view, it is a mistake to start thinking about themes before you have answered the following four key questions.


When planning thought leadership, companies must think carefully about their objectives. What outcomes are they hoping to achieve? What does success look like? And how will they know when a project has been successful?

Many companies have multiple objectives from their thought leadership. They may be seeking to build reputation or brand, generate media coverage, create lead generation opportunities, or establish a need among clients or prospects. Often, the objectives are a combination of these. There is often the added complexity that the thought leadership needs to satisfy a diverse range of internal stakeholders too.

In reality, it is difficult to create thought leadership that achieves all of those objectives, as the type of content and the research tools applied will be slightly different depending on the main goals. We therefore advise clients to prioritise their objectives, and pick one or two that will be most important. A simple mapping process can be a powerful way of thinking through objectives and focusing on the key ones.

At this early stage, it is also important to consider the metrics that can be used to determine success. If the goal is reputation or brand building, the company can put in place ways of measuring share of voice before and after publication.

Media coverage is easy to measure – how many mentions did the research achieve, and were they in target publications? Lead generation is slightly harder – because there may be multiple factors that generate sales meetings. But companies can certainly put in place ways of measuring qualitatively how successful a thought leadership project has been in terms of its ability to generate leads or sales, and in terms of its adoption among internal business development teams.


Good thought leadership needs a clearly defined target audience. Companies planning a thought leadership campaign should consider the range of potential audiences, and prioritise the key ones. The danger with trying to satisfy everyone is that you end up with a diluted piece of thought leadership that satisfies no one.

There will often be multiple targets – both externally and internally – that your thought leadership is trying to reach. External targets may include influencers, such as the media or bloggers. It will also encompass a range of targets within the client base, who may encompass multiple levels, roles, geographies and functions.

Internal audiences, such as the business development executives who will take thought leadership to market, or the PR teams who will develop press releases based on the research, are also key. Indeed, as some of the main channels through which thought leadership is adopted and disseminated, they are arguably the most important audience of all.


Now we get to the topics. As more and more brands become publishers in their own right, thought leadership is becoming increasingly crowded. There are now swathes of “me too” thought leadership that lacks insight or originality.

Companies have to work hard to differentiate their offering and ensure that they grab the attention of their intended audiences. We believe that choosing the right topic depends on three key considerations:

    1. 1. Which topics will most align with the company’s key commercial, marketing and strategic objectives?

2. Where is the “white space” that ensures the company is saying something fresh, original and different from its competitors?

3. About which topics does the company have “permission to speak” and a legitimate, insightful point of view?


Finally, companies need to consider how they are going to take their thought leadership to market.

Good thought leadership requires strong research inputs as well as engaging outputs. Care must be taken to choose the right research methodology, and set the right research hypotheses. Research can be costly, so companies must also make sure that they are asking the right questions and selecting the right sample. Thinking through potential outcomes from the research – and how these could be taken to market – is vital.

Selection of the appropriate content outputs must also form part of the planning process. In our experience, this is becoming increasingly complex, as many companies move away from the idea of a single PDF report to embrace a whole range of different content types, from shorter articles, points of view, infographics, videos and interactive tools. This can be a powerful approach, because it gives companies multiple assets that can be used and distributed in a variety of ways.

The key, however, is to ensure a consistent message across these assets so that, rather than creating a blizzard of mini-initiatives, companies are developing a holistic platform of content that will build momentum and set them apart from their competitors.

Click here to read our step-by-step guide to developing your thought leadership strategy

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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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