Beware of thought leadership that’s deep-fried in data

Apr 26, 2017

Too much of a good thing is… bad. And way too much of it is really bad.

Here at Ergo Editorial, we’ve been seeing far too much of the good stuff recently. Some of our clients are pushing us to craft thought leadership content that is positively deep-fried in data. Stats, graphs, charts, numbers, figures, findings. The data is laid on so thick that readers can be forgiven for wondering what the reports are supposed to convey.

“Hey, wait!” I hear you say. Aren’t you always telling us to include lots of data to support our thought leadership? Isn’t data – especially proprietary data – key to differentiating our white papers and articles from everyone else’s? Yes we are, and yes it is.

But there’s a world of difference between supporting your big idea with data and obscuring it with data.

The point of thought leadership is to have a point of view that is reinforced by data – not to publish data in and of itself. Marketers and authors should use data like any good chef uses salt. The right pinch of seasoning brings out all the great flavor of the dish; too much kills the taste and repels the restaurant’s diners.

But what if your authors just don’t follow the recipe for great thought leadership? Sure, that happens all the time. What you can do is watch for the telltale signs that the report or white paper is headed into artery-clogging territory, and then do what you can to pull it back.

How will you know if you’re entering the crispy coated zone? Here are a few of the signs I see – and the actions I suggest:  

  • Telltale sign #1: The survey is putting on weight. It’s typical for research teams to add just one more question, and oh, just this one, and… The more questions and the bigger the sample size, the more legitimate data points will come out of it, right? Wrong. The scene is set for a battle between the data army and the crusaders for clarity.
  • Healthy moves: Challenge the team to restate the big idea they’re trying to flesh out or have them revisit the original hypothesis – the point they’d like to prove with data. What subset of the questions will achieve 90% of that objective? Couldn’t the questionnaire be split into smaller polls, not only to put less burden on busy respondents but to drive a series of reports to extend the impact of the messages over time?
  • Telltale sign #2: The authors relish every salty little snippet of data. When reports are based on research, authors often cannot resist using almost all of the data they’ve so lovingly created. You might hear things like: “It took us weeks to get the data to this level…it’s the heart of our report. Let’s give it sufficient room.”
  • Healthy moves: Put the same challenge to the team as noted above: what do they want the reader to learn? Push them to examine whether they’re thinking inside-out, (imagining how smart they think all that data will make them look) rather than outside-in – focusing on what the busy reader needs and moving to what actions you want them to take.
  • Telltale sign #3: The report is getting fatter – and fatter. This is a red flag for sure. Chances are that from early on, some authors will be aiming for the “thud factor” – a huge stewpot of a report whose sheer mass they’re convinced will impress clients and prospects.
  • Healthy moves: Challenge again with the “what’s the big idea” question. Then propose a suite of alternate approaches – a series of shorter articles, perhaps, or a mix of longer and shorter reports, infographics, podcasts, and slideware – that can be mixed and matched to support a range of marketing activities and outlets.

To extend the cooking metaphor a bit more, overuse of data is a great way to turn any thought leadership report into an overstuffed turkey. It leaves readers feeling gorged, uncomfortable, and bloated. It confuses far more than it clarifies. It’s just too darn much, already.

Your best ideas should come out tangy and delicious and leave the reader wanting more.

That’s what is going to properly engage them – getting them to see your firm as a source of expertise and innovation and inviting you back to learn what you can do for them.

Great taste – less filling!