Rethinking the thought leadership genre

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All content hews to certain conventions, and thought leadership is no exception. In its earliest form (and sometimes still), it resembled academic papers, with lots of dense prose and a gazillion citations. In many ways, it mirrored the discipline of management thinking—which didn’t gain broad traction until the 1960s—by reflecting an earnest sense of wanting and needing to be taken seriously.

We’re still dealing with the hangover of that approach. Research we conducted at the end of last year found that more than half of all thought leadership was longer than 1,000 words (39 percent were articles and 13 percent reports). That wasn’t a surprise. Drill deeper, and more default habits appear: for example, most thought leadership is broadly structured into a variation of McKinsey’s situation-complication-resolution (S-C-R) model, in which the state of the topic at hand is explained, you’re told why it’s a tough issue to solve, and then it’s revealed how to solve the problem. Voila!

As a senior industry leader told us earlier this month, thought leadership has become its own genre. Companies and authors feel obliged to follow its conventions, and readers to some extent expect them to. The critical driver underpinning our content innovation work is to challenge both sides: Why should thought leadership “look” a certain way? And do readers really want it to?

It goes without saying that conventions are only that, not rules. And while conventions often develop for good reason—the S-C-R model is a classic because it works; when I was an editor at Bloomberg, the structure of articles was literally dictated by the screen size of the standard terminal—there are often occasions when they could easily be cast aside.

It’s not unusual in our world for teams to labor over how they will stretch a piece of content so it fits the “2,000 words and some charts” model, for example. That’s never a great idea: what could be an insightful, punchy single exhibit or blog post instead becomes something that has the form of thought leadership—at least in the eyes of the authors—but is diluted until it’s just a bunch of words.

Similarly, most thought leadership adopts a journalistic approach to ensure content is accessible to anyone; you can read, watch, or listen to it with zero prior knowledge and still fully understand it. Why? If the vast majority of thought leadership is aimed at a specific audience—typically senior leaders in a given industry—can’t certain knowledge be assumed? And if certain knowledge is assumed, do you really need the situation and complication sections? Maybe senior leaders know the big problems and understand the challenges—they just want solutions.

It’s case by case, of course. We endeavor to make content accessible and jargon-free because there’s usually little downside. When done well, you retain the specific audience at which the content is aimed while achieving broader appeal. But there are certainly instances in which short, sharp, solution-only content may make sense—a one-on-one meeting with a senior industry executive, for example; a LinkedIn post to connections who are generally sector experts; or a placemat at a client meeting in which they’ve specifically sought answers, not background.

All of this gets to our broader obsession with content innovation and, more accurately, whether the evolution of thought leadership has kept pace with the people who consume it. It’s not just about formats or channels; it’s about how content is crafted for very specific purposes and circumstances.

That doesn’t mean you have to pick one at the expense of another. Part of the challenge of the trend toward content personalization is that everyone wants something different. This demands not only discipline in identifying and elevating critical insights but also the provision of those insights through multiple channels, in multiple formats, crafted in multiple ways. Will you get some traction from hewing to convention? Sure. But breaking the rules holds the promise of so much more.

We’re undertaking a data-driven effort to examine how content can be more innovative and effective. Here’s the first post on this process; here’s the second. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll release a report on what we’ve found—and we’re always here to help you think about ways content can be more engaging, more compelling, and have greater impact.

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.