Why Thought Leadership Is Harder Than You Think

There are of course, lots of blog posts that tell us thought leadership is easy, or easier than we think, and I owe it to a recent one of these on HubSpot’s (otherwise) excellent site for prompting me to write this post. 

Stress

The truth is that developing good thought leadership content is hard. That’s why the print version of Harvard Business Review rejects more than 99% of the unsolicited articles it receives, and Forbes.com (which doesn’t have the space limitations of a print publication) rejects more than 95%. It’s the same reason that most thought leadership content published on websites doesn’t get a lot of readers—authors commonly underestimate how hard it is to produce a compelling point of view.

We can debate an exact definition of thought leadership content, but in my view a good enough working one (for the B2B world) is “Material that gives a new insight on a complex business problem or opportunity, and how one should address it.” There are several essential quality hurdles (e.g. here) that content must satisfy in order to be effective, two of the most critical of which are that 1) it says something new and 2) its assertions are underpinned with real examples and/or data. Content that doesn’t meet these criteria isn’t thought leadership; research—ours and others’—shows that executives don’t think so and will neither read nor act on it.

These are substantial hurdles. It’s not easy to say something credible about a complex problem or issue that no-one has said before. A prerequisite is that you are up to date on the broader topic so you know what giants—whose shoulders you will stand on—have already said about it. If you are pitching an article at say, VPs of supply chain in large corporations, you can be sure that most of them will be aware of the state of the art in supply chain. If you tell them things they already know, you will come across as a thought laggard, not a leader. If you plan on dreaming up a compelling idea from thin air, you will be the first. New insights almost always derive from original research; in the B2B world, often academics or consultants observing what leading practitioners are doing in the field and then codifying it into a framework the rest of us can understand. Sometimes new insights are developed and refined by a company in-house. One or other of these approaches gave rise to business analytics, balanced scorecard, Six Sigma and a host of other recent big business ideas. These weren’t made up by someone in a shower one morning.

If you plan on getting your insights from your firm’s professionals or practitioners, these are the challenges you will face. Many professionals are an inch wide and a mile deep in their chosen specialization. If they are working at the bleeding edge of current practice, they will commonly not have a good picture of the bigger landscape in which their work sits. Just as often, if they are doing good, solid repeatable work that generates great client results, it is likely similar to work that their peers at a dozen other companies are doing. In either case, publishable thought leadership will not trip off their tongues. A journalistic approach therefore—interviewing some people and reporting what they say—does not work.

Second, those examples: Many professional organizations struggle to get case examples from their existing client base because they have a policy of client confidentiality, or client acount managers balk at the perceived risk of allowing their contacts to be interviewed. Professionals will sometimes claim to have a portfolio of client work which can underpin a point of view. But unless the firm’s culture rewards intellectual capital development, those professionals reflect on the broader meaning of their work as they do it, and they have a wide base of experience, you may well find that all they actually have is a handful of anecdotes that don’t yield any insights.

If you plan on getting all your examples from secondary sources such as the internet, you will encounter several problems. First, it’s almost impossible to say anything new on the basis of things that have already been published; whatever new angle you are pursuing will not have been covered by the original authors, and if you aren’t talking live with a protagonist, you can’t explore the angle you are interested in. Also, trotting out examples others have already exhausted (e.g. Apple on marketing, Toyota on lean manufacturing) will make your audience’s collective eyes glaze over.

This isn’t, as you can probably tell, a post with a lot of good news. There are however, tons of articles and posts on our site that can help you overcome the hurdles. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy.

Comments

Tim,

Your post notes many of the main challenges in a concise way. In our little Tech Forecast group, we try to distill some good insights from ~15 interviews, voluminous desk research, and a lot of virtual team brainstorming about the implications of the research findings we come up with for each 50-page issue.

It's not easy to try to forecast the implications of IT trends on business, and takes months to do the research, write it up, produce it for publication, and get it approved, Then once you publish it, sometimes people notice, and sometimes they don't. Trying to get your signal above the noise can be a challenge, even when you have distinctive content.

There's a lot of content out there that''s catchy, perishable, and rather shallow you're essentially competing with on the Web. The deeper insights often get buried, unless you have something like HBR as a channel to publish through. Would be interested in your thoughts on packaging and distributing thought leadership more effectively, so that it can rise to the surface and become more visible and accessible to readers.

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Alan: Thanks for your comment. Good content is an essential prerequisite and it sounds as though you guys do a thorough job in that regard. Then cutting through the clutter to get it noticed is still a challenge, but here are some things that help:

  • Make sure every client manager who might have a client for whom it is relevant gets a copy they can personally deliver - nothing cuts through the inbox clutter faster than a personal delivery
  • A good database of course can help with that, and with targetted mailings to people for whom it might be especailly relevant, but for whom there is not an assigned contact
  • A good POV can often be the source of multiple articles, white papers, presentation decks etc. If you have a good POV, put it out in varous ways through various channels
  • Social media obviously - if you (or relevant other professionals) have built a twitter or blog following, promote it through them
  • Get it out to other prominent bloggers and tweeters in thespace and have them promote it for you - if it's interesting and relvant enough to them they will

Just remembered, we have an article pretty much on this topic here.

I hope that helps.

Tim

Submitted by Jeff Pundyk on

Tim,

you're absolutely right.  Good, distinctive, effecitve thought leaderships is hard.  Good, distinctive, effective ANYTHING is hard.  Still, you raise a few of the significant issues and you hint at the remedies.  One more reason it's not easy, it takes an ongoing commitment of time and resources.  It's not something that you do once and are done.  Getting the most out of thought leadership requires not just a distinctive point of view, well executed, but a distritubtion strategy and, if you're lucky enough to get some traction, it's just the begining of an ongoing dialogue.  then you do it AGAIN, and AGAIN. 

yes, not easy at all.

So why bother?  Because the benefits can be substantial.  By offering content with real value, utility and a credible editorial position focused on topics of affinity to customers, you can:

•    Lay claim to your areas of expertise
•    Sharpen and validate your point of view
•    Collaborate with other experts
•    Get market feedback
•    Deepen your connection to existing customers and their engagement with you
•    Broaden your reach
•    Be relevant

Given the difficulty and the value, one key question a CMO should answer before jumping in is scale.  There's lots of ways to use thought leadership toward these ends, some are very ambitious, some less so.  Find the right scale pilot and then watch the return carefully.  Based on that, you can make smart decsiions about the level of investement going forward.

Really strong piece, Tim.  An example of good thought leadership in action. Keep 'em coming.

 

@jpundyk
 

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Jeff, thanks for your comment. I hadn't thought about it in the broader context of anything worthwhile being hard, but of course you're right. It's a point that Hugh McLeod makes incidentally, in a fine book he published last week called Evil Plans. The way he puts it; "The day-to-day modus ope­randi of your “Ave­rage Total Fai­lure” is quite straight­for­ward. Being suc­cess­ful, howe­ver, is a whole dif­fe­rent ball game.

And thanks for pointing up the reasons why it is worthwhile; I omitted those on purpose - this post was about why it's hard, but as a result it's a bit bleak, and it benefits from your reminder about why it's worthwhile. I think you're too kind to say I hint at remedies, but we do get pretty close to laying out a repeatable methodology in some detail in an article here

Tim

In my experience thought leadership is often the result of observing and understanding what others are saying and doing in related, sometimes unrelated fields, and synthesizing those ideas, adding a pinch of insight, and applying them in a previously not considered or unsuccessful way.

This was true when Richard Nolan and Cyrus Gibson applied the ideas behind the Diffusion of Innoavations to how corporations understand, consume and manage IT.

Submitted by Tim Parker on

Doug, totally agreee. I think it most often results from analysing a bunch of situations and then synthesising a model of how it works. E.g. Tom Davenport and business analytics; look at companies that are successful at using business information and figure out what they have that others don't (in his case, across lots of kinds of information). And there are many more examples. Tim.

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