Why thought leadership should be like a conversation: Part two

Several months ago I wrote about why thought leadership should be like a conversation, in that it should build on what other experts are saying while articulating a distinctive viewpoint. In a marketplace crowded with ideas, companies can’t hope to stand out by simply parroting conventional wisdom.

Effective thought leadership resembles a conversation in a second way that has lot to do with the B2B sales cycle. Particularly for professional services firms, B2B sales focus on relationships to build trust with prospective clients. Being seen as a credible, authoritative voice on topics or issues that companies struggle with is an important element in this effort. The sales cycle has a long tail, sometimes spanning multiple points of contact over months if not years. The best thought leadership is developed to support these interactions, sustain the conversation, and demonstrate expertise and insight along the way.

Many firms fall into the habit of viewing the content they produce as individual pieces. A number of projects we have worked on were inspired by a client’s exchange with a business-development target. Sometimes this approach works, but when a high-quality article, video, or infographic takes weeks to develop and costs thousands of dollars, it makes more sense to ensure your insights have a longer shelf life and move beyond an audience of one. That’s when viewing a piece of thought leadership as one element of a longer conversation can have a greater impact.

For example, imagine your company has some new insights on artificial intelligence (AI). A large number of businesses are keenly interested in figuring out how they can apply AI in their organization, so you have the potential to garner a lot of interest. The challenge is that everyone’s in a mad dash to share what they know. Your solitary piece of content—no matter how insightful—runs the risk of getting lost in the shuffle, particularly if you’re late to the party.

So how can you elevate your thought leadership, give it more staying power, and sustain the conversation? Three strategies come to mind:

Remain current because topics are constantly evolving. Over the past year, we’ve performed a number of content audits, and one of our recurring findings is that thought leadership, especially pieces focused on digital technologies, can quickly become dated. The shelf life for articles on AI, for example, can be as short as 12 months, so you can’t hope to trot out an article from 2017 and turn any heads. Since a 3,000-word article can take 8 to 12 weeks from inception to publication, a publishing calendar consisting of longer articles and shorter pieces can keep insights on the latest developments front and center.

Bring in multiple voices. One article, no matter how effective, leaves a lot of white space on the page for others to claim. There is strength—and richness—in numbers, so don’t be afraid to reach out to colleagues for their contributions. To go back to the earlier example, AI is such an pervasive and far-reaching topic that it offers numerous angles to cover. By bringing in experts from different industries and regions, you can develop a well-rounded perspective that can be organically extended.

Present your ideas as a campaign instead of a series of one-offs. If you’ve identified a topic that you feel has resonance with a broader audience, invest the time in developing an extended campaign that establishes a strong point of view and then creates a rich tapestry with additional pieces. By giving your audience multiple entries into a topic—and being thoughtful about how to lead them from an introductory piece to more in-depth analysis—you can create a showcase for your ideas.

Approaching thought leadership this way is more complex. It takes forethought and input from others, and that adds time. When executed well, you’ll find that you not only draw more people to the conversation but also keep them engaged longer. When you can elevate your voice to be heard as a credible source for the latest insights, that’s a conversation your prospective clients will want to join.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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