Six Ways to Make Thought Leadership More Effective

May 29, 2019

The accepted wisdom among those who “get” thought leadership is that it is more effective high up in the marketing funnel – using big ideas, clearly expressed, intelligently argued, and well supported to spark conversations and open doors with clients and prospects alike.

But a 2019 study by public-relations giant Edelman and LinkedIn reveals that such strategic content can create demand too. (The 1,201 respondents were U.S. business decision makers and purchase influencers across many industries and company sizes.)

The results are eye-opening. Just two snapshots: 58% of respondents said thought leadership directly led decision makers to award business to an organization. More startling: 29% decided not to award business to a company based on its thought leadership.

Edelman and LinkedIn follow through with six useful takeaways that they label the “thought leadership flywheel.” Here they are, along with Ergo Editorial’s commentary on each:

1.   Capitalize on White Space

Finding: Fully 60% of decision makers say half or more of the thought leadership they encounter does not provide valuable insights.

Edelman’s and LI’s advice: Analyze the market. Find opportunities where your brand can own and lead timely conversations.

Ergo Editorial commentary: Better and simpler, we think, is to ask your SMEs four basic questions. What is your story, in two or three sentences? Can your 11-year-old kid get it? Why are you telling this story now? How does it advance the thinking on the topic beyond what’s out there in the media and in conferences – and beyond what your competitors have already said about it?

2.   Be Relevant

Finding: Thought leadership only engages when mapped to customer needs, say Edelman and LI. Their survey finds that 66% of decision makers said whether a topic relates to what they are currently working on is one of the most critical factors in getting them to engage.

Edelman’s and LI’s advice: Put customers first. Stay close to customer needs through listening programs; use data to inform insights on relevant topics and trends.

Ergo Editorial commentary: Agree in principle, but…which readers, exactly? More practical: quarterly polls of target readers to uncover and rank-order priority topics, and shortlisting topics based on what’s in mainstream media and conference programs.

3.   Set a Vision

Finding: Almost 9 in 10 decision makers believe it is important for companies to lay out a clear vision for the future, says the research.

Edelman’s and LI’s advice [sic]: Define the future. Inspire confidence by capturing the imagination of what’s possible today…and tomorrow.

Ergo Editorial commentary: Seems obvious, but probably worth restating. Also, really hard to do unless you have some real visionaries on board. Many strategic content providers don’t have the raw idea-power – and even if they do, they’re not often willing to stick their necks out.

4.   Build Trust

Finding: Being a trusted source is key to driving thought leadership engagement. More than 80% of decision makers said that thought leadership being shared by someone they know and respect is a critical factor in getting them to engage.

Edelman’s and LI’s advice [sic]: Establish credibility. Harness the power of executives, subject matter experts and employees to validate your brand.

Ergo Editorial commentary:  Enlist your organization’s top influencers in fulfilment efforts – in disseminating and publicizing your thought leadership content to the many people in their networks who trust them. And of course, determine which influencers are themselves reliable generators of big ideas, with the time and willingness to develop those ideas.

5.   Be Concise

Finding: Fully 57% of decision makers said their preferred format for thought leadership is “snackable” media that can be digested in a few minutes.

Edelman’s and LI’s advice: Think smart but small. Create bite-sized content that can be quickly consumed and easily shared on mobile devices.

Ergo Editorial commentary: Whoa there! How much insight can you cram into 750 words? Long-form content continues to have real value to offer clients who also value more detailed information that enables them to act.

6.   Measure Progress

Finding: Thought leadership cannot be appropriately valued without attribution. Just 21% of sellers have a way to link business wins back to specific pieces of thought leadership.

Edelman’s and LI’s advice: Architect for impact. Align goals across teams, data, and technology to measure success and drive outcomes.

Ergo Editorial commentary: This finding doesn’t surprise us at all. In fact, the number seems too high. A few of our top consulting clients are good at tracking readership and are getting a bit closer to determining the business impact of what they publish or post. But “architecting for impact” is still much more art than science.