After two years of all pandemic, all the time, we expected a breather from global disasters in 2022. Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on global energy prices threw people around the world for a loop, spiking inflation and stalling the postpandemic economic recovery. How were those developments reflected in the publishing agendas of professional services firms, and what should we expect to be reading in 2023? Luke Collins and I tried to figure it out.
Scott Leff, president, Leff: We had two years where the COVID-19 pandemic dominated thought leadership publishing. Other events intervened in 2022, and it really seemed that pieces about the pandemic almost disappeared.
Luke Collins, SVP of content strategy, Leff: You’re right, and I think there were a couple of reasons for that. First, there was a sense of COVID fatigue. You can’t start every piece of content declaring “the pandemic changed everything,” even if that’s self-evident. The second was, frankly, that apart from China, the world seemed to just move on. The New York Times still updates COVID data that show around 400 people continue to die from it every day in the United States—just a staggering number. But it’s become background noise amid everything else that’s happening.
Scott: It’s really something, and it began early in the year. Generally speaking, I feel like the publishing agenda for thought leadership transitioned in 2022 to a handful of big topics: climate change and sustainability; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and talent—particularly talent shortages and what work looks like now.
Luke: For sure. And while we saw content published on some perennial themes—digitization and agile, to name just two—no one seemed particularly interested in reading it. There was a slightly odd lack of content on how leaders can navigate inflation and higher energy prices. Part of me wonders if that’s because of uncertainty about whether the current economic environment is lasting or just transitory. That’s probably a decent segue to 2023. Any predictions?
Scott: We’ve already seen an increase in content on managing the transition to a net-zero world—which kind of assumes the debate regarding the merits of sustainability has been won and attention is now turning to making it happen. It’s one thing for companies to act sustainably through offsets and the like. It’s quite another to truly be a green business, and that’s an area of interest. The looming economic disruption has the potential to separate the true believers from companies that hopped on the green bandwagon primarily to enhance their reputation.
The second big theme I expect to see is economic issues, from growth and resilience in this uncertain geopolitical climate to issues of inclusivity. How will countries like the United States bridge education and opportunity gaps? How will companies think more inclusively about talent strategy?
Broadly, I anticipate content about building fairer, more sustainable societies.
Luke: I agree. The overarching debate about the role of companies in society—Disney versus DeSantis, for instance—remains, and we’ll see content this year related to that and what it means to be a leader in a 21st century organization. Digital disruption—such as advances in artificial intelligence and cloud and quantum computing—is also still upending industries, and automation remains a major factor shaping the future of the labor force and how companies train and reskill employees.
Of course, what we find ourselves reading could all change if one of two things happen. The first is that the war in Ukraine lingers and nothing improves economically. Then we may see organizations that have taken a wait-and-see approach taking bolder steps with cost reductions. The second is the possibility that the geopolitical situation improves, the past year proves to be an economic aberration, and growth resumes. That would see another dramatic shift in the topics firms are pursuing.
Scott: I do sense that firms are shifting their thought leadership approach a little in the current environment. While there’s still a lot of content on a lot of topics, we’ve definitely seen efforts to elevate quality thought leadership related to distinct themes and then to support it over time with follow-up articles, blog posts, social-media assets, and the like. That also extends to formats: while the standard thought leadership article of a couple of thousand words with some charts remains, we’re seeing some real innovation.
Luke: You just forwarded me a major report that was all digital! No PDF! Maybe that shouldn’t be viewed as revolutionary, but it kind of is. And, for me, it’s another sign that marketing’s influence is slowly shifting the nature of thought leadership. There’s increasing rigor related to clearly defining the intended audience and objective of content; crafting it specifically for different users and how they best consume it; measuring the impact; learning from the experience; and then rinsing and repeating—oh, and all of that under a broader umbrella of what the organization wants to say at the highest, broadest level. If the economy remains fragile, that rigor may be even more firmly imposed as demand increases to show the return on investment from thought leadership. We may never get to a world where you can draw a straight line from content to revenue generated, but it’ll definitely become more of a science than it has been in the past.
Scott: We like to say we “turn ideas into assets”; what you’re talking about is shifting the perception of thought leadership from an expense to an investment. People who have been doing this a long time know that’s what it is, but it’s one thing to know it and another to prove it. Anything else?
Luke: Only that I’m excited for the year ahead. Big content on big topics with big impact.
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