Thought leadership is everywhere.

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It’s too long, too academic, and asks too much of its audience.

It’s everything and nothing; a dinosaur about to be wiped out by the AI meteorite.

Right?

The Content (R)evolution

hands holding an open book

What’s up with thought leadership?

It’s been thirty years since that term was coined by Joel Kurtzman, the founding editor of strategy+business, who declared thought leaders had “distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

Seen much of that lately?

Thought leadership seems everywhere and published by everyone, making it difficult for even truly distinctive insights to break through. And while it has evolved into an increasingly popular form of content marketing, thought leadership clings stubbornly to several core beliefs.

It’s a different form of marketing that doesn’t seek to overtly sell anything.

It requires a lot of words because it deals with complex issues.

Its sophisticated audience of top executives is willing to read all those words.

Its gravitas means it doesn’t belong on certain channels.

We sought to find out if any or all of these were true. We were wondering if anyone actually spends 20 minutes reading a 5,000-word report. If content is truly consumed by CEOs and senior leaders. And if thought leadership is, by virtue of the complex ideas it often presents, a fundamentally different form of content.

Our starting point? Since everyone is what they publish—thought leadership presents the public face of a company’s intellectual horsepower—we looked at content released in 2023 by a sample of major producers. Here’s what we found.

Visual (1.2%)

Short-form text (17.4%)

Multimedia (24.1%)

Long-form text (53.0%)

Note: We analyzed a total of 953 pieces of thought leadership across 10 companies—around 100 per company. The balance of 4.3% of content types comprised a variety of sparsely used formats. We define short-form text as articles of fewer than 1,000 words and long-form as those of 1,001 or more words.

A decade into thought leadership’s evolution from niche to mass market, companies still love the written word—and produce lots of them. Yet the head of content at one major thought leadership publisher flatly told us, “People just don’t read long articles.” Why does so much thought leadership still assume they do?

Why innovate?

Consumers have embraced an attention economy, moving away from slow, deep consumption toward quick dopamine hits. That’s how newspapers lost ground to newsfeeds, which lost ground to X (Twitter). And albums to singles to TikToks. And films to videos to reels. Yet more than half of all thought leadership is text-based and runs more than 1,000 words; a quarter of those are reports running to several thousands of words. So what gives?

McKinsey & Company’s global editorial director, Lucia Rahilly, told us, “Many companies and thought leaders think they need to follow those genre conventions, which—for better or worse—has come to affect both how thought leadership is created and how it is assessed.”

Those conventions are easily identifiable: thought leadership should be long, analytical, and aimed squarely at senior leaders, and it should reflect the seriousness of the subject matter and its authors. To be fair, that’s often justified and even demanded: 46% of respondents to a content marketing survey in 2022 said research reports produced the best business results, closely followed by 43% citing e-books and books.

The challenge for organizations isn’t that these conventions should be rejected—the default format for thought leadership emerged for good reason. It’s about reconciling the ongoing need for relatively lengthy, text-based thought leadership with both the changing demands of audiences and the evolving objectives of the content itself. That’s a tension many struggle with. One industry leader told us peers remained “a bit precious” about thought leadership: protective about how it looked, its tone, and where it appeared. Yet the reality is thought leadership is today about much more than a content-based demonstration of an author’s knowledge or a company’s expertise.

“You can have really good editorially driven, audience-focused thought leadership. It’s still marketing. What are the three reasons to create content?

To drive revenue.

To drive relationships.

To drive your reputation.

All of those are marketing.”

GLOBAL HEAD OF CONTENT

Driving revenue

For a long time, many of those involved with thought leadership simply denied it was content marketing, arguing it was designed to showcase knowledge and it was merely a bonus if business resulted from its publication. Those day are gone. No one today denies thought leadership’s fundamental purpose is to drive work, even if it’s difficult to draw a straight line between what’s published and the return on that investment.

“My key metric is client conversations,” said Josselyn Simpson, vice president and global editorial director at Heidrick & Struggles. “That’s actually really powerful because it gives a shape to what we do. And I think for a lot of firms, thought leadership is meant to be the solution to all the intractable problems of our brand, of our conversations, of increasing market share. But we are not trying to be all things to all people.”

So what kind of thought leadership works best for moving users down the marketing funnel from awareness to consideration? It’s complicated given its myriad formats, channels, and audiences. Clients and potential clients fundamentally look to thought leadership for answers to specific business problems. For organizations with distinct products and solutions, a single article may be all that’s needed to convince someone. Yet for others, the moment they decide they need a company’s help may actually be the culmination of a long process of consuming insightful thought leadership, with the final tipping point nothing more than a social-media post hitting the right individual at the right moment.

Driving relationships

Push most authors about why they want to publish thought leadership, and the fundamental reason usually comes down to some variation of “I just want something to send to clients.” In the business-tobusiness world, where what’s being sold is knowledge and expertise—not widgets—authors use thought leadership as a calling card that both opens new doors and provides an excuse to reopen old ones. The problem? Companies haven’t cracked it.

“It depends on the agility, the capability, the breadth of the partners, and their ability to play that kind game, that jujitsu sort of process,” the head of thought leadership at a professional-services firm told us. “That is not a capability that exists across the board. Thought leadership requires a whole bunch of stuff downstream and capabilities partners often just don’t have.”

One thing is certain: poor thought leadership doesn’t cut it. Driving relationships through being seen as a trusted counsel to help a client navigate difficult and sometimes seemingly intractable problems requires deep insights in specific domains. Earning the right to be considered within a user’s decision-making journey can be communicated through a traditional article but is increasingly able to be conveyed through sharp, smart commentary via blog posts, op-eds, or even podcasts and video. The key, though, is quality.

Driving reputation

One big shift in thought leadership in recent years has been an effort by companies to tie it more explicitly to broader objectives around what they want to be known for. That’s a good example of the discipline imposed by marketing professionals: having distinctive insights isn’t enough; those insights need to clearly align to efforts to push an organization’s reputation in a specific, clearly defined direction.

“We all started doing thought leadership because it felt like it was a good idea,” another global head of content told us of the long disconnect between what was being published and its relevance to a company’s marketing goals. “I felt like our business partners were doing it already and doing it badly, and they just brought us in to help them do it better. So that wasn’t really starting from a strategic perspective or an objective driven perspective.”

Driving awareness of, altering, and burnishing the reputation of an organization requires more than traditional articles. It demands distinctive, insightful thought leadership that’s elevated and amplified through multiple channels, from earned media to events, social channels, and everything in between. And it needs to be done in a coordinated, strategic fashion.

Where to now?

From something of a cottage industry a decade ago, the world of thought leadership has exploded. The sheer volume of content published is staggering—when we sought to analyze content published by ten organizations in 2023, we quickly realized we had to use a random sample of around 100 pieces of content published by each. That’s because just one of those organizations alone published more than 1,000 pieces of content last year.

This thought leadership arms race risks being accelerated exponentially by the advent of generative AI (gen AI) and its ability to make the crafting of serviceable content so much easier. Yet we believe gen AI could have a different, more positive effect by elevating the impact and value of truly distinctive content—the kind of content gen AI currently can’t create on its own. Our content innovation research identified four clear steps for how organizations can continue evolving their thought leadership efforts.

1. Diagnose:
Know where you are

Every journey has a starting point. Organizations publishing no thought leadership are a blank slate. Many companies publish some content, but it’s opportunistic without an underlying strategy. Still more publish a lot but lack clear strategy, quality guidelines, or governance around how it drives revenue, relationships, and reputation. The first step in evolving a company’s thought leadership efforts is understanding where it currently stands, which requires analysis across multiple dimensions. “Whether it’s marketing-driven or tech-driven, we are now held to a higher standard of accountability for the quality of what we publish as well as the impact of what we publish,” said Melissa Cavanaugh, the head of content strategy at Morgan Stanley. “I think we’ve all finally moved on from measuring the quantity of what we publish, which was the primary metric for a long time.”

2. Strategize:
Pick your path

An organization’s thought leadership strategy depends on both where it starts and what it wants to achieve. But two factors stand out above all others. First, determining the purpose of thought leadership efforts. Are they fundamentally about driving revenue, relationships, or reputation? And if they are about advancing more than one of those objectives, what’s the order of importance? Understanding that balance helps determine not only the critical themes of content to be pursued but also the most effective routes for optimizing its effectiveness.

Second, quality, quality, quality. Thought leadership must be fundamentally distinctive and insightful if it’s to have value for clients and potential clients—and protect a company’s reputation. Organizations may still have 10 pieces of content spread across formats and channels—but it’s more effective to have those flow from a single strong piece of thought leadership. “Marketers understand the argument for atomized content, and they think it can be a useful tactic,” one head of content told us. “But, ultimately, they want a big centerpiece. That’s what makes us credible: not 10 separate and different little things but one big thing at the core.”

3. Execute:
Make it happen

Realizing strategic objectives around thought leadership and driving quality are increasingly necessary for standing out in a crowded thought leadership environment. And both result from taking countless actions, including creating an effective intake process that interrogates the purpose and audience for content, using a governance model that ensures thought leadership aligns to broader marketing objectives, having the editorial expertise to tease out distinctive insights and present them in an engaging and compelling way, and deploying the right formats in the right channels. And everything needs to be wrapped in a clear strategy of using thought leadership to define, advance, and sustain conversations on critical issues—not one-off pieces.

“I always want to be really clear about how users get to that next step down the funnel if they want to,” Morgan Stanley’s Cavanaugh told us. “It’s not just about an individual piece of content. It’s about asking where does this fall in the overall user journey? How is somebody getting to it? Where do I want them to go from there? We’re thinking a lot about evolving metrics from what people do with content—the traffic, the engagement—to what are people doing after consuming content. Because that’s really, in the long term, the reason we do all this in the first place.”

4. Measure:
Track and adjust

Distinctive insights have been identified. Desired results defined. The critical audience pinpointed. Content carefully crafted, shaped for specific formats and channels. It has been released carefully and methodically, hewing to a campaign plan. Even with the best of intentions, planning, development, and execution, content often fails to perform as desired. That’s why measuring against priority metrics is critical, as is being willing and able to adjust to maximize the odds of success (we’ll have more on that in the months ahead).

“You have to be able to demonstrate that you’re reaching an audience,” said Richard Murphy, the editor in chief and director of global brand thought leadership at ServiceNow. “You need conversion data; to show where people go. We’re ultimately in the business of using research and reporting and analysis to build trust in our brand, in an audience that the company cares about. That’s how you justify your budget, at the end of the day.”

The world’s getting faster and attention spans shorter. While longer thought leadership has its place, more needs to be done to provide users with sharper, innovative content. “I think the intro and two, three paragraphs—that’s all you’re going to get a lot of the time,” one content leader said. “And if that’s all someone reads, you need give them enough to walk away with the impression ‘they’re on it, and I learned something.’”