3 Barriers Thought Leaders Face in 2017

Three trends in 2017 will make it considerably harder for thought leaders and the people who work with them to win market attention: more and better competition; an increasingly time-starved and distracted audience, and greater economic uncertainty that will lead to a flight to more established thinkers.

To have a glimmer of a chance that your latest big idea sticks, you’ll absolutely need to say something fundamentally new about how to solve a significant problem in the marketplace. You’ll need to state it clearly and memorably. You’ll have to pack your prescriptions with irrefutable and illuminating evidence demonstrating that they actually work. And you’ll need to go to uncommon lengths to make your ideas go viral, which will include making them visually irresistible.

Let’s look at each trend, and what you – the marketing professional whose job it is to turn your firm’s experts into recognized thought leaders (or those aspiring to be thought leaders themselves) – can do about them. It’s a new year, and there’s new work for all of us.

The Thought Leadership Glut

Your competitors now know all about thought leadership. They’ve seen the value of publishing articles and presenting at conferences; they’ve discovered the consulting industry’s 50-year-old secret: thought leadership marketing generates business when done well. And today the “they” we’re talking about are not only consulting firms. According to our recent analysis of over 200 people with “thought leadership” in their job titles, they include banks ( JP Morgan), software companies (Oracle), computer hardware manufacturers (Dell), insurance companies (John Hancock), and data providers (Nielsen).

Other data points to the ever-rising popularity of thought leadership. According to Google’s Trends analytic tool (which measures interest in topics searched online), interest in the topic of thought leadership has continued its steady ascent since 2004, reaching its peak popularity three times last year.

After a long slumber, the advertising business has woken up to thought leadership marketing, too. Ad industry bible Advertising Age anointed 2017 “The Year of the Thought Leader.” 

So, the cat is out of the bag. Your firm no longer has the only voice. No matter what topic, you’re likely facing a whole roomful of voices you must compete with.

This is one reason why mediocre business books don't sell anymore. The average non-fiction book in the U.S. now sells less than 250 copies a year, according to publisher Berrett Koehler. And with hundreds of thousands of business books competing for space in the book stores, if yours isn’t superb, good luck getting it on the shelf.

So how do we compete against so many firms using thought leadership marketing today to gain attention? The only answer we know is to work much harder to come up with unique advice, whether it’s how to attract top digital talent or how strategic planning must change in industries that are transforming in months rather than years (media and retailing come to mind). 

So how do you create unique advice? Double down on your research, especially when it comes to what the most successful companies are doing. That means you can’t rely solely on your firm’s client work and secondary research. You have to encourage your firm’s experts to study the best companies, or give you the license to.

In 2017, best-practice primary research will separate the real thought leaders from the pretenders.

Executive Attention Deficit Disorder

The executives your firm is trying to reach have less time to read your papers, your emails, and webinars. In fact, they’re drowning in emails. Social media and instant messages haven’t made a dent in the email deluge. According to research firm Radicati Group, the number of emails the average business user receives and sends every day has risen 16% in the last six years, to 122 and Radicati predicts it will continue to grow.

The people you’re marketing to have always been hard to reach; it’s only getting harder because so many others are now trying to reach them, and increasingly doing so with thoughtful content.

This puts a premium on writing clearly, in language your audience easily understands. That is usually not the language that consultants, accountants, engineers, architects and other smart specialists use when they talk with their colleagues. That’s not so easy, and any B2B firm that isn’t employing skilled professional writers in its thought leadership marketing programs is likely to be repeating buzzwords and jargon and difficult-to-decipher language that will turn your clients off.

B2B companies that can make their writing entertaining can gain an even bigger advantage. An excellent example of this is the technology industry research firm CB Insights. Its email newsletter subscriptions have grown more than four times, from 51,000 in 2014 to more than 220,000 today, with an average open rate of 30%. Every CB Insights newsletter is fun; each one ends with its author saying “I love you,” and its irreverence is often hilarious. And you can subscribe for free.

The way to treat c-suite ADD is to wake them up – with great, entertaining writing that presents innovative ideas. And by making your ideas visually arresting with online charts and graphs that let readers easily relate your research findings to their company or industry, you can engage your audience more deeply. The field of data visualization is just coming into its own for aspiring thought leaders, as this 2013 Harvard Business Review article predicted it would.

But great ideas, and great online graphics will need a bigger assist this year to go viral. We look for 2017 to be a year in which B2B firms get more inventive in how they use Twitter, LinkedIn, SlideShare and other social media platforms to spread their concepts and interact with their audiences.

Your firm will need much more of all this in this new year.

Greater Economic Uncertainty

If the economy tanks this year, or even falls off slightly from the strong growth since our escape from the Great Recession, companies that aren’t known for thought leaders will have a more difficult time getting attention no matter how much they publish. Buyers, worried about their companies and their own careers, will flock to long-recognized thought leaders.

The flight to safety in thought leadership operates this way: Customers move to recognized experts with established expertise. If you’re trying to displace one of those brands, the advice you present to the marketplace must be clearly superior. Your diagnosis of the problems your firm solves and (more importantly) your solutions must be special and singular. That begins with framing the problems your firm solves differently, and supplying proof – with company examples – that your solutions work and deliver impressive results.

Anything less will be viewed as interesting but unproven theory. Why should clients give your firm the work when they can give it to a firm they’ve trusted for years?

These are all significant barriers that you will confront in 2017, and it won’t be easy to surmount them. But all three are addressable by firms that take thought leadership marketing seriously, and understand what's required to develop, package and market superior expertise.


Submitted by Bob Buday on

Thank you, Tim, for the gracious comment. And a belated congratulations to you on publishing your book ("The Thought Leadership Manual") last year. We are well aware of the time and agony it takes to produce a good book!



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