What good looks like in thought leadership

Professional services firms make significant investments to create distinctive thought leadership that connects with current and prospective customers. But how can you be sure what you produce is effective and provides value?

At Leff, we have spent a significant amount of time thinking about what good looks like in thought leadership. Why is this so important? Two answers come to mind:

First, in a crowded marketplace of ideas, experts need to understand where the baseline is to create distinctive content. If a prospective customer happens across a piece of thought leadership, it should provide insights that help make sense of business problems and industry trends.

Second, as content creators, we can’t help subject matter experts sharpen their ideas and fill in the gaps without a concrete understanding of where the bar is and how to clear it. Knowing what good looks like informs the development process and every interaction with the team.

Being able to articulate this standard is critical. That’s why we have engaged in a prolonged internal discussion to home in on the elements that matter in thought leadership. Our framework has four criteria, and the best thought leadership excels in all four areas.

Fresh, provocative insights. Effective thought leadership should acknowledge the current conversation and move it forward by sharing counterintuitive insights or a fresh perspective on an old problem. The best pieces are notably ahead of those of competitors and the mainstream business media on a given topic. By applying a different lens to a business challenge, readers can gain a better understanding of how to address the problem in their own organization.

Analytical rigor. Some of the most valuable insights in thought leadership come directly from a firm’s work, such as surveys of business executives and the firsthand experience of the authors in serving clients. Notably, this analysis should be used to not only inform a piece’s narrative but also reinforce and amplify key points. The difference between thought leadership and commentary is the analytical rigor that supports the former. In presenting this analysis, authors should take care to accurately represent its methodology and sources.

Depth of prescription. Prescriptions are the lifeblood of thought leadership. While many author teams can diagnose a problem, far fewer are able to lay out a set of recommendations for how businesses can address it. Yet business leaders look to thought leadership for guidance on how to address their organization’s issues. Thus, a significant portion of any piece of thought leadership, whether an article or infographic, should be devoted to prescriptions, which should be actionable, specific (rather than generic), and supported by client examples that demonstrate the benefits of this advice.

Overall readability. Thought leadership is distinguished from marketing collateral by its tone: geared to the C-suite and presented in an objective, logical manner. The language should be concise, carefully edited, and free from jargon or buzzwords. The best pieces mix text and visuals to amplify the main points and use subheads and navigation to make even the most technical topics more accessible. Pieces that are industry-specific should still be understandable to a broad business audience.

This framework is the result of decades of experience in this field and intense study of the marketplace. Over the past 12 months, my colleagues and I have performed in-depth reviews on more than 1,500 pieces of thought leadership generated by leading professional services firms—from 1,500-word essays to 25,000-word reports. As important, we’ve applied the knowledge we’ve gained to help elevate the hundreds of pieces we’ve worked on for clients.

We recognize that other content companies have their own frameworks. But we believe these attributes are what truly elevate pieces. If you’ve read such pieces, chances are your time has been well spent and you’ve come away with a better understanding of a given issue or topic.


In the coming weeks, we’ll share more information on how companies can gauge their efforts in the marketplace.



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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