Storytelling is, of course, about telling stories. In the world of thought leadership, we believe these stories are true: the whole point of companies communicating what they know is to provide honest insight and answers that people may find useful. But what about the stories we tell ourselves about thought leadership?
Here are some things we take as gospel. We believe thought leadership is a fundamentally different form of marketing that’s objective and insightful and doesn’t overtly seek to sell anything. We believe that because thought leadership conveys complex issues, it requires lots of words. We believe people consuming it are willing to read all those words. We believe our core audience is time-pressed senior leaders. And we believe there are certain channels—TikTok, X, WhatsApp, and others—that aren’t suitable for delivering thought leadership.
I’m not sure any of these are true.
Even if those of us defending thought leadership as objective and insightful believe it’s a different form of marketing, users know what’s up. When I once asked an author to define the purpose of thought leadership, he said flatly, “It gives me permission to sell people stuff.” Users know that, and they’re fine with it.
Thousands of words can indeed be written on a lot of topics thought leadership addresses, especially if content is attempting to be truly comprehensive. But distinctive, engaging content providing actionable insight? It can often be delivered in far fewer words (or minutes, in the case of video and audio). Instead of a full map, users may just want the flash of inspiration provided by someone saying, “Why don’t you take the next left?”
This also gets to our attention span. The nature of content generally has shifted dramatically in the past two decades. We went from printed newspapers and magazines to digital listicles and live blogs. From lengthy Facebook posts to tweets. From YouTube videos to TikToks. Everything is shorter and sharper, and while companies are making an effort to produce thought leadership in formats such as video, audio, infographics, and interactives, our default remains to demand that consumers pull up a comfy chair and linger with a few thousand words. Even the most insightful content fails if no one sees it. So why do we often assume users consume thought leadership in a fundamentally different way?
This approach is especially odd if we assume the core audience for thought leadership is time-pressed senior leaders. A famous Harvard Business Review study once found CEOs spend about 3 percent of their time on “professional development,” which could reasonably be expected to include consuming content relevant to their industry and operations. That equates to around 13 minutes a day. Do we really think they’re diving into a 3,000-word article?
I’m not sure senior leaders are the core audience anyway. They ultimately may be consumers of core ideas from content, but I suspect that’s because it’s summarized for them by their direct reports and other managers (the same HBR report found about 46 percent of CEO time spent with internal constituencies was with one or more direct reports, with 21 percent of it only with direct reports). Are these C-1 and C-2 cohorts actually the most critical audience? Maybe.
At Leff, these aren’t idle questions: our core mission is getting content to the right people at the right time. That’s why we’re starting a data-driven effort in content innovation that will examine these questions and help clients consider how they can more effectively communicate their insights and ideas in ways that resonate and engage.
It’ll take us a few months to work through the first phase, which is taking stock of what users really want from thought leadership. A lot of content works from the perspective of the companies that produce it—but does it work for users? Is it accessible to them? Can they consume it quickly, get something valuable, and apply it quickly? Does it broaden their industry knowledge or provide the spark of inspiration required to unstick a thorny problem?
We’ll be asking these questions and more, especially from executives who don’t currently consume thought leadership. Preaching to the choir is easy; we want to figure out how to engage everyone else. In doing so, we expect to learn a lot about how, where, and when we can more effectively serve and advise clients.
In the months ahead, we’ll keep you posted on what we’re learning. And we’d love to hear from you, especially about the kind of content you like, what makes life easier and harder, what resonates and doesn’t, and how thought leadership can more effectively and efficiently help you solve problems and feel more informed and empowered. Who knows? Maybe our hypotheses won’t pan out. But I suspect we’ll together overturn a few long-held misconceptions and expand how we tell stories in ways users find even more useful.