Thought leadership

Do you want to be a thought leader?

Q. What is the quickest way to prove you’re a jerk?

A. Call yourself a thought leader

I came across this when I was googling ‘thought leadership’ recently: many a true word is said in jest.  Thought leadership is one of those terms that makes me wince a little bit.  You’d think we were all churning out mind-blowing insight after mind-blowing insight the amount it gets bandied around in the PR and marketing industry.

Let’s face it though, what is currently put in the thought leadership bucket comes in many forms – from whitepapers, to blogs to videos to infographics.  It has effectively become a catch-all term for marketing collateral that isn’t explicitly selling a product.  And most of it isn’t genuinely mind-blowing.

That’s not to say that all thought leadership needs to be – but it should, at the very least, be useful.  Get it right, and content that makes people stop and think, whether that’s because it sparks a new perspective on an issue, or offers practical information that isn’t available elsewhere, can genuinely add value to a brand.  It can open conversations for sales and marketing, raise the profile of executive teams trying to show strength and depth, shift brand perceptions, help attract investment by building the story of the brand, shape perceptions pre-IPO.  But it needs strategic thinking behind it to make sure that the right topics are being championed at the right time, so:

  1. Think audience first

This might sound blindingly obvious, but so much content is drafted without the audience in mind.  It pays to work out exactly who you are talking to – whether, for example, it’s CMO or a marketing manager, a CFO or a junior accountant – and invest in getting insights into them and what makes them tick.  They’re different people with different mindsets and will have a different perspective on your content.  Even consider A-B testing to see what’s resonating the best.   Also, rather than churning out reams of content, take your time to develop quality pieces that are absolutely right for your audience(s).  It’s more powerful to share less, but more inspiring stuff.

  1. Know what you want your audience to do

Once you’ve worked out what your audience is interested in, work out what you want them to do when they’ve read your content.  Invest in your company?  Pick up the phone?  Think about your organisation in a different way? Whatever it is, give your content a purpose and work from that. There’s even an argument that some people find generic thought leadership hard to make sense of, because you’re trying hard to sell without selling.  You might actually be better off selling more explicitly or prescriptively, as my colleague Armand David notes in his post on the subject.

  1. The clue’s in the name – make it thoughtful

Real thought leadership should be challenging, inspiring, wow people, start to change the way they think. Even if you’re developing content that is useful rather than inspiring, do your research and make sure you are saying something that’s either different to your competition, or is executed in a different, more engaging way. Thought leadership doesn’t have to take the form of a 1,000-word essay.  At the heart of the Cyber Investigators campaign my colleagues created for our client Gemalto was a 25-page graphic novella – a lot more engaging than your standard by-line!

  1. Keep it simple

Think about your messaging and make it simple for people to understand why you think like you do.  It’s easy to get introspective and over-complicated when you’re developing content, and only think from the inside out rather than the outside in. It’s always worth getting someone unconnected with your business to read it before you publish it to check it makes sense and isn’t just a load of marketing blurb.

  1. Target cleverly

If you go to the effort of developing thought leadership content, think about the best way of sharing it.  A blog might be great, but putting some paid spend behind a LinkedIn post might be better. And doing targeted spend with a variety of digital creatives would allow you to pitch parts of a long-form piece of content to different audiences, reaching more people in the customer buying journey. Don’t underrate the value of doing broad-brush brand promotion if the content is right for it, though. The balance between direct response and brand engagement is an important one to strike as you try to engage customers in a transaction but also build equity in the long term.

  1. Recognise that some forms of thought leadership take more effort than others

It’s fairly straightforward to create good thought leadership over a customer-led technical issues, for example, the best way of building a smart home or building the smart cities of the future.  But it’s more difficult to be credible on brand-driven topics and corporate issues such as women in the workplace and corporate sustainability where you need to put your money where your mouth is before you stick your head above the parapet.

Nearly half (49%) of comms directors in our latest Communications Director report said they are planning to increase marketing and communications to fuel growth ahead of Brexit and 48% are investing in their online and social media presence to reach new markets.  Getting thought leadership – in whatever form it takes – right as part of these investments will be key.  As I said earlier, not all thought leadership needs to make you want to run out and change the world (although we should probably ditch the term thought leadership unless it does). But it should offer useful insight – and make you stop and think.

Written by Adele McIntosh,  Director, Corporate and Brand.

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