A better recipe for thought leadership

“The food at this place is really terrible.”

“Yes. And such small portions.”

That pretty much describes today’s menu of corporate thought leadership. Much of it is bland, some is pretty poor—and yet there’s still huge demand for the good stuff. They’re hungry out there.

Anyway, that’s been our experience as consumers, creators, and consultants on thought leadership.

But has anyone really studied this? We’ve seen thought leadership work, but we were looking for hard numbers and good intelligence on what kind of thought leadership executives really want and respond to.

That led us to an old-ish but rigorous piece of research: “Thought Leadership Disrupted: New Rules for the Content Age,” by The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies.

The April 2016 study surveyed 1,644 global executives “who either produce or consume thought leadership content;” a third of whom consume it daily. Over half were C-suite executives, and companies ranged in annual revenues. The data was tested at 95% confidence.

The results were even worse—and at the same time more promising—than we’d imagined.

We’ll use the present tense because although the research is over four years old, we believe that the flood of thought leadership has only skyrocketed. And that executives are still starving for the good stuff.

Strong appetites

Executives are committed consumers of thought leadership. At the time of the study,

• One third engaged with thought leadership daily

• 20% had increased their consumption of thought leadership “a lot” in the prior year.

Fuel for action

The effect of compelling thought leadership on executives is nothing short of impressive:

• 70% shared it by email and engaged with more thought leadership from that source. “Consumption… breeds further consumption.”

• More than 75% were influenced in their purchasing decisions

• More than 66% were willing to advocate for the brand

• Over 80% were influenced in choosing a potential business partner

source: The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies

source: The Economist Group in association with Hill + Knowlton Strategies

High-quality ingredients

What do executives find compelling?

• Credible, innovative, big-picture, transformative content.

• High-quality research—their benchmark for “credibility.” Brand strength adds practically nothing to credibility. Executives particularly value “hard facts.”

Changing tastes

Even back in 2016, executives were becoming much more selective in their consumption habits. “… Nearly two-thirds of marketers… agree that it is far more difficult to get on executives’ thought leadership content shortlists today.”

At the same time, ever-increasing demands on time and new consumption habits encouraged by new technology were destroying the “time-intensive idea of thought leadership.” Longform white papers have given way to briefer, more visual content that is shareable and accessible on all digital devices and platforms.

“Format and impact are as important as the value of the insights.”

Making the donuts

Meanwhile, most firms were still chugging along, creating “thought leadership” they thought was compelling but that was rarely informed by their audience’s interests.

That hasn’t changed. We routinely hear from firms that want to drive brand awareness or accomplish other business objectives. Marketing groups are usually strong advocates for audience needs, but they’re often overruled.

“Corporate initiatives are nearly three times more likely to be selected than audience considerations.”

With the profound skepticism about anything marketed as “thought leadership,” it’s much tougher to get on decision-makers’ reading lists. And with more content vying for attention, even great thought leadership has to fight to be seen. That’s the bad news.

But the appetite for authentic thought leadership is still strong and will probably never go away. It remains a powerful way to engage and influence B2B audiences. And, because the world is the way it is, most of your competitors will continue to make the donuts—cranking out the same self-referential content. All good news.

The recipe

So if you’re serious about thought leadership, aim for:

• Content high in analytical quality, backed by credible data. Strive for “challenging… fact-based perspectives.”

• Formats that are more accessible, shareable, and memorable than traditional longform thought leadership. Instead of a sit-down banquet hall meal, serve a continuous offering of outstanding hors d’oeuvres.