How to Choose the Right Thought Leadership Topic for Your Next Research Study

To display their expertise and attract the attention of potential clients, many B2B companies spend heavily on research studies. IBM makes big investments in C-suite surveys. Accenture, Deloitte and other consulting and IT services firms have collectively ponied up millions over the years on researching trends and writing reports. Even big law firms increasingly publish studies to demonstrate their knowledge and entice new clients into the fold. 

There’s a good reason for this: The best studies can change the prevailing narrative on a topic and show off the authors’ and firms’ special and essential expertise. And that, of course, produces leads. Yet too many such studies don’t do the job they’re intended to.  Despite all the money spent on them, these studies go to market and generate little press or client interest. Or they produce headlines for a few days and are soon forgotten.

Why does this happen? A big reason is because B2B firms don’t always explore the right issues, either probing the same territory covered by other, longer-established studies, or failing to address issues more relevant to their prospective audience. Often, the research questions don’t enable the firm to display its expertise as they don’t reflect its core service offerings. Sometimes, firms make all three mistakes in one study. That kind of study is a waste of time and money. 

From our experience, the best thought leadership studies are designed to address issues that meet three tests: 

 

  1. There is “white space” on the topic: issues that haven’t been researched before or have been but still lack deep and novel insights.
  2. They are client hot buttons: issues on which clients are dying for insights. 
  3. They are company sweet spots: areas in which the firm has deep expertise and service offerings.

When your study topics pass those tests, they’re on target.

Yet we’ve seen too many studies that don’t meet all three tests, and even some that don’t meet any. That generally happens when a firm undertakes research just to show its target customers that it understands the most strategic issues in their sector. We can identify with the impulse to reflect the clients’ concerns, but that’s not enough to guide the design of a thought leadership study. 

Consider a supply chain consulting firm that wants to grow beyond consumer packaged goods and retail. Believing its expertise also applies to industrial goods, the firm decides to survey heavy equipment manufacturers on all their biggest strategic challenges. The firm’s aim is to show it understands the sector’s most fundamental issues – many of which (perhaps even most) may have little to do with the supply chain. By ignoring or giving little space in the survey to the topic that is its sweet spot – supply chain design and operations – the study is likely to uncover strategic issues that have been covered by others with deeper expertise and experience. What’s more, it won’t allow the firm to show off the expertise it does have and for which it is known: the supply chain.

Most likely, the study’s readers, industrial equipment manufacturers, already will know about the issues the study addresses, and if they’re struggling with them, they’ll turn to firms known for their expertise in their sector, not a supply chain consultant.

And the supply chain firm just sent the money it spent on the study down the drain. 

Too many thought leadership studies fit into this “Let’s show them that we know them” category. Instead, the attitude needs to be “Let’s show them what we know on the issues they would hire us to solve.” 

That requires designing thought leadership studies to meet all three tests of market white space, client hot button and firm sweet spot. Here’s how to do that well.

Meeting the Three Tests

Market white space is a topic that hasn’t been explored before (but is a client issue), or hasn’t been explored adequately enough to produce a solution. The best way to find white space is to begin by conducting secondary research that looks at what competitors have published on the topic in a recent period (the last 2-3 years), and what non-competitors competing for mindshare in that space have published.

List the key findings of each study. Then draw up a list of issues they didn’t explore, well or at all. When we did this for Tata Consultancy Services’ seven Global Trend Studies series on digital topics since 2011 (one of which is here), we found white space even though competitors had conducted studies on each topic (artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, social media, and more). We also looked at studies from firms TCS didn’t compete against -- from business schools, research firms, and other players -- given that those studies nonetheless competed for mindshare.

Our white space analysis helped TCS focus its research on issues where insights were scarce: e.g., how the best users of technology were different from the worst; the operational and financial impact of those technology initiatives on the business, and how technologies were used in key business functions such as sales, marketing, service and R&D. By zooming in on these and other "white space" areas, TCS thought leaders gathered and analyzed data that produced big insights -- big enough to impress a number of top-tier business publications (including Fortune magazine here) and Harvard Business Review (see this article and this article). In fact, TCS recently credited these studies as a factor in being ranked by Brand Finance (a brand valuation firm) as having the third most valuable global brand in the IT services industry this year. 

All to say that knowing what aspects of a topic other entities have explored is crucial. That will show you where the white space is (if there is any). But your study will still need to meet the other two tests before you start investing. 

After white space comes client hot buttons. These are the issues on which your clients are dying for insights. Good ways to identify hot buttons include doing content analysis of topics reported in key trade publications, speeches at industry conferences, and social media topics that are trending in the sector.

As for your sweet spots, your ability to draw upon a deep well of expertise is a big advantage in thought leadership research. We’ve seen some B2B firms use research to put a stake in a new market, but without the resources to follow through. They figure they’ll work that out after they generate the business. However, this rarely works, in our experience. A thought leadership research study should come after a firm has decided to enter a new market and assembled some of the expertise it will need to serve that market. 

Good things tend to happen when research studies score well on these three tests. With the market dying for insights on a topic, competitors not offering much, and your firm possessing deep knowledge on the issue, the research is off to a great start because you’re starting with the right topic.

If your firm wants to become a premier and reliable authority on a topic, you should consider launching a regular series of studies, designing the research so that you can plot trends over time and create insightful frameworks that build on prior frameworks. I’ll examine all that in a future post. 

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