Part 1. Conception
‘Thought leadership’ offers many benefits for organisations and individuals. Executed well, your intellectual capital can generate awareness of your capabilities, expertise, and values, bolster brand awareness, create new conversation opportunities with prospects and other stakeholders, and increase business with existing clients.
There are times, however, when attempts at creating thought leadership can turn instead into ‘thought losership’. This can reduce your ability to cut through the clutter and ensure your voice is heard effectively.
Instead of providing genuinely creative and strategic insights into solving a problem that’s relevant to your audience, poorly-conceived or badly-executed attempts at thought leadership can instead convey the impression that you have little real understanding of the fundamental issues confronting your audience, and that by association, your products and services do not deliver value or meet their needs. Rather than drawing attention to an original perspective on an issue, the time, money, and effort you’ve invested even can lead your organisation to be taken less seriously than it was previously.
Your audiences want original, insightful, evidence-based, well-written and easy to understand content that provides genuine insight into a problem or issue that’s relevant for them, not a thinly disguised product or sales pitch. Instead of aggressively pushing your own messages, good thought leadership content should contribute to wider conversations taking place in your industry, or take a stand on an issue that’s important to your audience, establishing you as a voice that deserves to be listened to – a genuine ‘thought leader’.
Thought leadership has three key stages – conception, execution, and deployment. In this first part of a three-part blog, we’ll discuss the key issues to consider in the first stage. In the final two parts, we’ll discuss successful execution and deployment.
- Identify the key audience you want to communicate with, and a key issue (or issues) for them. Many attempts at ‘thought leadership’ undermine their potential effectiveness by not identifying and addressing the needs, issues, or problems which are truly relevant for their key audience. This is generally because the person creating the content hasn’t taken the time and effort to try and understand these in the first place. Remember the adage that “it’s not about you, it’s about them”, and show your audience that you’re engaging with something that really matters. To them.
- “Me too” ‘thought leadership’ is a contradiction in terms. Be a ‘thought leader’, not a ‘thought follower’. Certain topics appear in thought leadership content with monotonous regularity. ‘The cloud’. Sustainability. Artificial intelligence and machine learning. Big data! Yes, these are all topics likely to be of some degree of interest to your audience. But unless you have a genuinely fresh contribution to make – a new, truly original perspective, preferably with actionable insights – there’s little value in producing content very similar to what’s available elsewhere. You may in fact jeopardise your ability to earn your audience’s attention if and when you do have genuinely fresh and interesting things to say. While it’s often tempting to stick with topics that are being widely written about, don’t be afraid to risk trying to say something new about something different – as long as it’s something that matters to your audience.
- One-off, or ongoing? Before embarking on a piece of thought leadership, consider whether it should be a one-off or an opportunity for recurring content, such as a survey, and structure your research, data-gathering, and content production accordingly. Clearly define the nature and frequency of your content at the outset.
- Get buy-in. Make sure that your key internal stakeholders are on board with your proposed topic(s). Depending how your content is going to be signed off before publication, failing to secure buy-in from appropriate stakeholders can result in changes to priorities, loss of focus, and delays in execution and deployment, generating opportunity costs and potentially jeopardising your ability to maximise your content opportunity.
- Stories matter. Stories involving real people that resonate with your audience – in particular, people they can relate to, people like them – will help enhance the effectiveness and perception of your thought leadership content. Invest the time and effort into gathering them.
Phillip Gray is Head of Content with Madden & Associates. He is responsible for providing strategic communications content services enabling the firm’s clients to enhance their engagement with their audiences, strengthen their reputation and brand value, and support their business and revenue growth.