The Next Wave of Thought Leadership

In a previous post, I explored the biggest changes I’ve seen in thought leadership marketing over the last 20 years. In this post, I predict the biggest changes I see for the rest of this decade. My focus here is on content, specifically what I see companies doing to create better content.

Quality standards will keep rising because more companies badly want to be viewed as thought leaders in their domains. That means on just about any topic, you’ll have many more competitors writing about it than you have today. Consulting firms believe this to be the case. Nearly three-quarters of the ones that we and the Association of Management Consulting Firms polled last year feel the bar of content quality will climb over the next five years.

Maybe this is why so many PR firms are rebranding themselves as thought leadership marketing firms these days; their clients must be imploring them to “Make me famous!” I think I now can sense what James Marshall felt like after he discovered gold in Coloma, Calif., in 1849. In PR circles, thought leadership marketing looks like the place to pan for gold.

Of course, Marshall’s competition was local; the competition for executive mindshare is global. A consulting firm in Australia with a blockbuster concept on digitization can gain a worldwide audience quickly. And Google Trends data indicates lots of people are interested in producing thought leadership content – or at least in the term. It predicts the percentage of searches using the words “thought leadership” out of total searches will keep rising through 2015. Meantime, Google's Ngram Viewer, which tracks the frequency with which words have been used in 5 million books over last 500 years, finds usage of the phrase "thought leadership" has exploded since 2000. Harvard Business Review recently depicted that graph here.

If you believe the bar of quality will keep rising, the question will be how to create better and better content. I see three ways:

 

Data Gathering: Combing the Web to Identify Best Practices  

To generate bigger insights, firms must have better facts for understanding the differences between companies that do things better than others on the topic at hand. That means collecting more data points, both quantitative and qualitative -- especially the latter. Many B2B companies recognize the value of quantitative surveys; much fewer appreciate the value of best- and worst-practice case studies, which are the foundation of groundbreaking insights.

Finding companies that are willing to talk about their practices is so much easier today given the number of video presentations, blog posts and other content these firms are putting on the web. LinkedIn groups can be fertile grounds for trolling for best practices. So can blogs. Senior executives at companies like Citigroup, Ford and Nestle increasingly have their own blogs -- off the company website. (Consider this one from Citi's SVP of social media, Frank Eliason.) That combined with more people marketing themselves and less corporate loyalty means more of them are willing to spill their guts online than they did 20 years, when companies dispensed best practices sparingly at conferences. Today, many best practice nuggets can be found online (this conference site is a case in point); it just takes an inordinate amount of time and skill to find them.

Still, doing better research requires much more than trolling the web. In particular, it means carving up research into narrower topics that fit under a broader theme. Conducting a series of superficial studies on a set of disparate topics prevents a firm from deepening its insights on any one study.

To shed this habit, B2B firms must get their thought leadership topic strategy in order. They need to get practice and lines of business leaders to agree on a common theme and define study topics under it so that each one can build on the frameworks of the ones that preceded it. As such, “creating a cohesive thought leadership topic strategy” will be important to gaining a competitive edge in thought leadership.

 

Analysis: Reflecting More Deeply to Invalidate the Original Hypotheses

Every study intended to place the mantle of “thought leadership” on its funders should begin with a set of hypotheses on the topic at hand (both the problem in focus and how to solve it), which then guide what research questions are asked and how they are asked (survey, interviews, etc.). Providing groundbreaking content on an issue requires being willing to invalidate the initial hypotheses because they usually reflect the conventional wisdom on the issue. Novel points of view happen when research analysts absorb themselves in the data and see new patterns – new insights on the roots of some problem and how the best companies solve it. 

However, far too many thought leadership developers are content to analyze data in a way that merely confirms what they believed before they began gathering that data. The leaders at thought leadership will be companies that view their initial hypotheses as merely training wheels to guide their ride – to be abandoned when the data tells a different story. 

Doing so is more likely to happen when multiple people are on the analysis team, and some are not steeped in the conventional wisdom about a topic. The leader of the reengineering movement, Michael Hammer, didn’t have a business degree. That helped him easily reject conventional wisdom about how businesses should operate.

 

Communication: Creating More Accessible and Interactive Content

Deeper content is necessarily long-form content. It cannot be constrained by target page or word quotas. Great content – even 50 or 100 pages of it – will be read, but only if that content is truly illuminating. Readers of 50 pages of uninspiring ideas won’t go past the first few pages. The companies that gain mindshare through thought leadership this decade will strive to make every page of content insightful and highly readable. 

Nonetheless, with more content coming at them, executives need thought leadership to be boiled down persuasively in upfront summaries. People who can wordsmith the irresistible one-paragraph article description and a compelling title will be as important to thought leadership as crack headline writers are at big magazines and newspapers and book editors in charge of coining titles. 

But getting better at communicating thoughtful content will go beyond words, Excel charts and static infographics. Companies that conduct thought leadership studies based on quantitative data must embrace data visualization – interactive graphics that let viewers play with the data themselves and see what the results mean for their industry, region of the world, business function, or other dimension. Most infographics I’ve seen are of the USA Today variety – pretty but static art displaying data in a more attractive way. 

But static is not interactive. To get an executive immersed in your content, you should be using interactive graphics that let him tailor your results to his situation. Sites like this one (from The Demand Institute on the huge variations in housing markets across the U.S.) provide a glimpse of the interactive future for thought leadership content. I predict that big B2B marketing departments will soon make a run on people who can translate complex, statistics-based concepts into visually engaging content that lets viewers “play with the data.”

Getting better in these three areas will be critical in the years ahead to firms that compete on thought leadership. To stand out and gain mindshare, they will need more, and more profound, insights, backed by real and substantial evidence. And they'll also need words and interactive capabilities that vividly bring their insights to life.

That’s how I see life for those of us in thought leadership for the rest of this decade. What do you see?

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