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.
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.