B2B companies today recognize how thought leadership can elevate their profile, build their brand, and support business development. But the surfeit of publishing has created an increasingly cluttered marketplace of ideas that can crowd out the truly distinctive pieces. Often, it seems that everyone is weighing in on the same hot topics—for example, digital transformation, artificial intelligence, and the future of mobility—with the same insights.
Companies are faced with a dilemma: stay silent or join the conversation spouting similar ideas. Those with FOMO (or, fear of missing out) choose the latter, resulting in a chorus of the same insights that, while accurate, don’t advance the conversation or distinguish the authors from the pack—in other words, making good on the “leadership” part of thought leadership.
So, how can companies offer a unique perspective on even the most familiar topics? Find the white space. In the context of thought leadership, white space refers to unplowed ground that others haven’t gotten to yet. White space matters because by offering a unique perspective, authors can be the first ones in a given town square.
What about the worry that all the best insights have already been shared, effectively obliterating any white space? Surely the idea itself isn’t new.
My take is that it’s the expert’s perspective and worldview that infuses ideas with new, relevant meaning. And while experts are often tempted to write sweeping, big-think pieces, they should remember that owning a smaller piece of the discussion is more valuable than joining the larger crowd and struggling to stand out.
Three dimensions of white space
Companies can think about white space along three dimensions: first, by finding truly untrodden ground through proprietary research and analysis; second, by extending the conversation; and third, by presenting a more nuanced solution to a challenge.
It’s rare to find a topic that no one has written on. However, companies can create their own white space by using client work to inform their insights and examples and performing proprietary research and analysis. Similarly, client conversations can offer valuable clues. If clients are grappling with specific issues and raising questions, it can be a valuable indicator of white space. The key is to continue to monitor external developments and then be thoughtful about where the conversation is heading.
Thought leadership on blockchain offers examples of the first and second dimensions. The initial wave of articles heralded how this technology was going to be a game-changer, equivalent to how email transformed business communications. Most of these articles were boosterish, treating blockchain’s seismic impact as a foregone conclusion. A second wave of thought leadership took a more sophisticated approach and extended the conversation through research and analysis, with the authors reviewing progress to date, delving into the benefits and drawbacks, and offering a more realistic assessment of what lies ahead. In this instance, it was their reaction to the initial conversation that represented the white space.
Furthermore, successful thought leaders were more specific and solution-oriented when it came to blockchain, addressing it from different angles. Rather than speaking about all businesses generally, for example, some authors explored the impact on certain industries (for example, financial services or shipping) as well as second-order effects that were missed in the first wave, such as how risk and regulations might slow its adoption.
Concentrating on white space will greatly increase the return on a company’s investments in thought leadership. Instead of echoing others in the marketplace, authors that occupy white space have a better chance of being a distinctive voice and authority. While identifying white space requires hard work and perseverance, the destination and accompanying payoff make the journey well worth taking.