The future of thought leadership

I was channel surfing last week when I stumbled across Something’s Gotta Give, Nancy Meyer’s 2003 film in which Jack Nicholson is dating the much younger Amanda Peet, only to wind up falling for her mother, played by Diane Keaton. Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with thought leadership. But how about that title?

Something’s gotta give. After working for several months on our just-released report The Content (R)evolution, that phrase is about the best description of the state of the world of thought leadership. Our industry is balanced between tradition and revolution, old and new. Actually, for this rom-com devotee, the state of the sector reminds me of You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron’s 1998 film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Remember that one? Hanks owns a chain of book superstores, and he opens one right around the corner from Ryan’s charming independent bookshop. This makes them mortal enemies, yet they’ve connected anonymously online and are (virtually) falling for each other. Cue drama and tears and a very happy ending that involves Hanks’s adorable dog.

I picture the traditional world of thought leadership as Ryan’s cute bookshop, The Shop Around the Corner. It has devotees, a long history, and customers who swear they’ll never shop at a big chain. Never! I can almost picture them snuggling up with a long thought-leadership report filled with footnotes, congratulating themselves on their virtuousness.

Hanks’s chain, Fox Books, represents the revolution. It’s flashy and fast, upending long-held conventions. It also represents the changing way people consume content and brings with it new marketing ideas and energy, offering the same products as The Shop Around the Corner (books!) but complementing and extending that core offering.

Our research found benefits to both old and new thought-leadership approaches. When it comes to clearly communicating complex topics to senior leaders, longer-form content may be preferable. But when it comes to commanding user attention, it’s hard to beat short, sharp content that quickly engages and informs.

That makes it tempting to root for the You’ve Got Mail happy ending, in which both sides win. Yet that ignores two big factors. First, we’re awash in content. Everyone and anyone seem to publish “thought leadership” or some variation of it, making it hard for even the most distinctive and insightful content to reach the desired audience at the desired time in the desired way. Publishing more and more doesn’t seem to be a viable solution.

Second, we’re collectively facing a threat that could end the thought leadership world as we know it. In a world of commoditized content, generative AI is the meteor about to wipe out the dinosaurs. For many companies, the technology can instantly and at vastly lower cost provide content that’s fine. As an aside, Fox Books was riding high in 1998—but guess which real-life online bookseller went public just 18 months before You’ve Got Mail was released? (Hint: it now sells much more than books.)

All of which means something’s gotta give in the world of thought leadership. There’s a battle for the soul of the sector that seems unresolved, even though companies have evolved their content by adopting new formats and channels. And figuring out the best strategy needs to happen sooner rather than later as generative AI looms.

Our take? Quality, quality, quality. When we’re crushed by the paradox of choice, what’s the logical reaction? To fall back on products or brands or sources we trust. In a fascinating recent discussion about AI (behind a paywall), New York Times columnist Ezra Klein noted precisely this tendency—and his own experience with asking AI to mimic his writing.

“I have not found any AI that can, in any way, improve my writing,” Klein said. “And, in fact, the more I try, the worse my writing gets because typically what you have to do to improve your writing is recognize if you’re writing the wrong thing. I don’t find writing hard, I find thinking hard. I find learning hard. How good a piece of writing is going to be for me is typically about, did I do enough work beforehand? And AI can never tell me, ‘You didn’t do enough work. You need to make three more phone calls. You need to read that piece you skimmed.’ ”

I don’t find writing hard, I find thinking hard.

This is where the future of thought leadership lies: in delivering truly insightful, distinctive content. It should be deeply informative, based on proprietary data or experience, underpinned by a clearly defined strategy supporting business objectives, and delivered in multiple formats and through multiple channels for all audiences who can benefit from it. Not surprisingly, it’s hard. Really hard. But we know firsthand the impact of powerful thought leadership, and our report recommends splitting the daunting journey into four steps:

  1. Diagnose: Know where you are. The first step in evolving your thought leadership efforts is understanding where you stand. For a quick assessment, try our free diagnostic tool.
  2. Strategize: Pick your path. What’s the purpose of your thought leadership efforts? Once you define that, how will you create distinctive and insightful content to support it?
  3. Execute: Make it happen. Great content is the product of countless factors, such as a solid intake process, a governance model, deep editorial and design expertise, and effective audience development.
  4. Measure: Track and adjust. Measuring against priority metrics is critical, as is being willing and able to adjust your approach to maximize the odds of success.

The ending of pretty much any rom-com is entirely predictable—that’s kind of the point, right? If only thought leadership were so easy. Even with the best planning, development, and execution, content often fails to perform as desired. Yet we do know that the more intentional you are, the better the odds of success. Defenders of traditional approaches to thought leadership have much to learn from those who are more marketing-driven, and vice versa. Figure out where you are, what you want, and how to make it happen. If you need help, you know where to find us.

The Content (R)evolution is a data-driven report examining 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. The third post challenged the conventions of the thought leadership genre, while the fourth explained why creating truly distinctive thought leadership is so hard.

Ready to begin your journey? Get a quick assessment of where you stand with our free content diagnostic or reach out to me at luke.collins@leffcommunications.com.

Register to join our related virtual event, “The Content (R)evolution,” on May 21 for more on how you can refresh your content strategy.

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.