A lesson in how not to write thought leadership

Oct 11, 2017

Originally published by Rachel Ainsworth, Head of Thought Leadership Strategies and Solutions at Source Global Research 

I didn’t set out to find a really bad example of thought leadership. In fact, I set out to find “different perspectives on strategic planning” and only came across the report I’d like to tell you about because the FT paid Google to promote it to me. It’s probably worth acknowledging, at this point, not only that the FT is justifiably venerated for the quality of its content, but also that this report is almost certainly a rare exception to a famously laudable rule. Nevertheless…

My suspicions were aroused by the landing page. Not by the title “Plan your way to business success” (great–sounds both actionable and relevant) or the promise “Learn from other business leaders and gain fresh insights” (lovely–real world examples), but by the statement “based on extensive research…into business leaders’ views on the economic challenges and priorities required to grow your business through strategic planning”. Sorry–say that again. Business leaders need “economic challenges” and “priorities” in order to carry out strategic planning? Already, and I had yet to hand over my contact details, I was confused and wary. And it didn’t get any better. Here are three more lessons from this publication:

Don’t promise one thing and deliver another. To readers who make it past the landing page, it very quickly becomes clear that this report provides no useful information about strategic planning. In fact, even the summary admits as much: “This report looks at the key challenges facing senior executives and business leaders.” At this point, most readers will feel misled and probably fairly annoyed with the FT for having been suckered into giving away information under false pretences. My positive view of the FT was suddenly being stress-tested.

Don’t write a white paper about how you can help. Sometimes a piece of thought leadership slips into the category of thinly-disguised sales pitch. This publication takes this mistake to the extreme, to a level even we have not seen before. At this point, having got your details, the FT makes no attempt to hide its intentions and highlights on the front page that it offers “Insights into key challenges facing senior managers and how the FT helps”. Unlike the promise to deliver useful advice about strategic planning, this promise to discuss how the FT helps is honoured. See page 3: “The research concludes that more opinion leaders describe the FT as influential than any other publication.” Or the case study on page 5: “The company’s corporate subscription to the FT helps the business to shape its macro views of the markets in which it operates.” Not a page goes by without this type of self-promotion.

Don’t cobble together pieces of information without a clear story. The FT is incredibly good at creating meaningful stories underpinned by data and evidence. But this report skips merrily from the need for information, to expectations for  the year ahead, to goals for organisations, to thoughts on the quality of the FT, to big organisational challenges. And, just in case this isn’t infuriating enough, the headlines don’t even reflect the content. For example “How to stay agile in an ever-changing model” heads up a page of text about primary measures of success, yet another quote about how useful the FT is, and–just in case the message hasn’t yet landed about how the FT is the answer to all problems–a sidebar on the FT’s management coverage. How on earth did this get through any kind of editorial process?

There’s a risk, in highlighting an extreme example, that we all think: I would never do that. However, our experience of reviewing over 1000 pieces of thought leadership each year is that it’s surprisingly easy to slip into promising something and not quite delivering, to become overly focused on the firm’s approach or methodology, or to create something that doesn’t have a strong engaging story. If the FT can get it wrong, we can all get it wrong.