Doing thought leadership right: This stuff is hard

A couple of weeks ago, one of the world’s biggest companies published a flagship thought-leadership report. I know the immense work these require, from coordinating a collaborative research effort to undertaking months of data-gathering and analysis, holding dozens of meetings to align on the narrative and positioning, writing the content and developing its visual assets, and working with scores of marketers to carefully calibrate the global rollout. I also know the price tag is rarely less than a number followed by five zeroes. So was it worth it?

Meh.

Life’s easy as an armchair critic, and I’m loath to evaluate thought leadership without a deeper understanding of why something was developed, its intended audience, and how it will be activated. From the company’s perspective, this report may be ideal. Yet as a reader, I found it muddled and lacking in focus, its actionable insights generic, and its web presentation flat. In the ever-quotable words of Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes—admittedly talking about something very different—it was “like a big-budget movie with a story that goes nowhere.”

It was a stark reminder that this stuff is hard. For months, we’ve been examining thought leadership in the broadest terms: whether it’s fulfilling its core purpose of reaching the right people at the right time in the right way with the right insights. We’ve conducted research and spoken to leaders in the world of B2B content. And we’ve promised a report about what we found.

Developing that content innovation report—to be released in a couple weeks—drove home just how complex creating content is and how many moving parts need to coordinate to make something shine. In some ways, writing is the easy part—and writing ain’t easy. Just as with that big company’s report, we’ve had to distill disparate data points to identify core insights, generate a narrative using those findings, think through the most effective way to present what we’ve learned, and then pull the countless levers required to get it into the world.

It takes a team, and there are few guarantees of success (you can freely critique our effort when it lands!). But a few critical universal takeaways have emerged from these past few months of research, development, writing, and production:

  • Quality trumps quantity. Our universe is filled with smart, driven professionals seeking to showcase distinctive thinking that’s too often hidden within organizations. Yet those efforts are regularly swamped by a flood of scattershot content. Making thought leadership stand out requires committing the time and resources needed to give it a moment in the sun.
  • Rules rule. The surest route to publishing too much is failing to institute strong content governance processes. When everyone thinks they have great ideas, you need crystal-clear rules around how thought leadership is proposed, evaluated, and green-lit in parallel with a clear strategy for why, what, and when it’s required—and how it supports the overall business.
  • Less is more. It’s relatively easy to write thousands of words and assume it conveys deep knowledge or gravitas. But getting your point across quickly and with impact is way harder and better demonstrates topic mastery. No one put it better than Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
  • It’s not about you. This is arguably the toughest one. Thought leadership is content marketing: its purpose is to drive a company’s reputation, relationships, or revenue. Yet it achieves one or all of those objectives by, first and foremost, serving the needs of the audience. What problem is it solving? What insights is it imparting? If users don’t find it engaging, compelling, and useful, it won’t work. Pro tip: whenever content seems too long, check if the authors have labored to present it from their perspective, eager to demonstrate their mastery.

Of course, the rub is even when you do everything right, there’s still no guarantee content will be successful. Just as some strange alchemy seems to determine whether a movie becomes more than the sum of its parts, you can nail all of the individual pieces and find your thought leadership fails to hit the mark. Yet getting those pieces right definitely improves your odds, which is why it’s worth the effort.

We’ll have more to say when our content innovation report is released. But my quick summation is companies are working hard to evolve how thought leadership is presented in line with changing user preferences. Creating thought leadership with any degree of sophistication and insight is complex and time-consuming, infuriating, and often disappointing. Yet what our industry does is important—and increasingly so. Let’s keep at it.

We’ve undertaken a data-driven effort to examine how content can be more innovative and effective. Our first post on this process examined our hypotheses; the second looked at how companies adept at deriving insights often overlook the importance of influence in driving impact; and the third challenged the conventions of the thought-leadership genre. Our content innovation report will be released later this month—and we’re always here to help elevate your content efforts.

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.