Thought leadership’s missing ingredient

All good research starts with hypotheses to be proved or scuttled, and our content innovation effort had a stack of them. We figured most companies defaulted to presenting thought leadership as long-ish articles. That podcasts would be popular and video admired—but not used terribly often. We didn’t expect to see much original content on social media and other channels, but we did expect those channels to be used as platforms for driving users back to core content. And we had a hunch thought leadership is generally presented quite differently from other content marketing.

As we examine about a thousand pieces of thought leadership released by leading companies in the past year, all of these hypotheses are proving true. We’re looking from the outside in, so no doubt there are pieces here and there that our crack team missed—and we can’t wait to chat with leaders within this sector in the coming weeks to get more into the (fully informed) weeds. But, very generally, here are our quick and dirty takeaways:

  • There’s a lot of content being published, continuing the exponential increase we’ve all seen in this space for the past few years.
  • While there’s experimentation and innovation here and there, longer articles with a chart or three remain the default format for thought leadership. But …
  • … companies that are newer to the thought leadership game are veering more toward multimedia and shorter, sharper formats.
  • There’s almost no content produced exclusively for social-media channels such as X (née Twitter)—instead, these channels are used for promoting content published to owned sites.
  • And despite the platforms’ popularity and influence—particularly among younger users—few companies are consistently using the likes of Instagram, TikTok, Threads, and YouTube for thought leadership content, unlike other B2B (and especially B2C) content.

We’ll keep looking through the data and thinking about what it all means. But my early reaction is wanting to know something marketers have long and largely unsuccessfully sought: what’s the return on investment?

It’s fiendishly difficult—OK, largely impossible—to draw a straight line between thought leadership and revenue generation, even if some believe they can. Who knows if an article or video or podcast compels the user to contact a company? Who knows if that contact results in meaningful conversations? Who knows if those meaningful conversations result in actual work? We can trawl site metrics and survey authors months after publication, but anecdotes are the closest any of us really get to answers.

What’s nagging at me as I analyze our data, though, is whether that’s even the right approach to determining impact. It seems unlikely any client or potential client would view content in isolation and decide to hire the company behind it. What happens instead is cumulative: a body of distinctive work is produced, the profile of its authors increases, they and the work are seen as useful and authoritative, the reputation of the organization shines as a result, and (eventually) it results in the serendipitous moment when a purchasing decision is made. Now, maybe that serendipitous moment can be linked to a specific piece of content on the right topic hitting the user at the right time. But it’s not really that piece of content that did the trick—it’s the accumulation of all that went along with it.

We’ll dig into this more in the weeks ahead, and we’d love any and all feedback. But if thought leadership falls into this model:

Impact = Insights x Influence

… one early take from our research is a lot of companies are overindexing on insights, and influence is the missing ingredient. That would mean better leveraging those channels users increasingly rely on to be informed (and, yes, entertained), as well as elevating the profile and reputation of the smart people behind the content itself. More to come!

None of this work would be possible without the contribution of numerous LEFF colleagues, especially Patty Boysen, Joe Danca, Annie Hannigan, Claire Holland, Scott Leff, Tiana Pigford, and George Seibold.

Luke Collins

Luke is a dad and—in his spare time—the SVP of content innovation at LEFF. A journalist in a past life, he escaped the world of increasingly large companies to do what makes him happiest: helping clients tell stories that are engaging, compelling, useful, and (every now and then) a little inspiring. He plays tennis (well) and bass guitar (barely), and he is living proof that Australians are not genetically wired to surf.

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