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The golden opportunity for modern thought leadership

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Thought leadership is one of those things many brands and leaders want–but very few do well.

It’s always been that way. Clients come to agencies all the time with the goal of “thought leadership.” Translation: We want our execs to show up in the media more often. We want our execs and leaders on TV. And, more recently, we want our execs to have huge followings with massive engagement scores on LinkedIn.

And that leads me to a recent report from Edelman + LinkedIn titled “The 2021 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study.”

The key learnings, as identified by the two companies:

1: There’s been a glut of crappy, low-quality thought leadership content during the pandemic.

2: However, good thought leadership remains as important as ever even though it’s harder than ever to cut through the clutter.

3: To produce this good thought leadership, execs need to be authoritative, opinionated and human.

I would 100% agree with all those points–especially that third one. Now, let’s look at them one by one.

First, yes, the pandemic did drive a glut of low-quality thought leadership. One big signal: All the C-level folks we’ve been pleading with for years to join LinkedIn, suddenly did during the pandemic. Only problem has been they’re sharing a lot of sub-standard thought leadership content. 

Second, valuable thought leadership content is still in demand. This stat from the report says it all: “71% of Decision-Makers say that less than half of the thought leadership they consume gives them valuable insights.”

Edelman points out throughout the report that people are consuming thought leadership content online. They continue to seek it out, despite most brands less-than-stellar efforts. So, the opportunity remains, but man, execs need to figure it out: Your customers want your POV. They want your opinions. They don’t want you to play it safe. 

Finally, execs and communicators just don’t seem to be getting it when it comes to how to create thought leadership content their audiences want. 

These stats from the report paint the story:

  • Almost half (47%) of buyers say that most thought leadership does not seem to be created with their specific needs in mind (read: we’re not listening!).
  • 67% want the content to prominently feature the POV of an identifiable author (read: we’re not opinionated enough!)
  • 81% want content that offers provocative ideas that challenge my assumptions regarding a topic (read: I repeat, we’re not opinionated enough!)
  • 62% want content to focus on analyzing current trends that are likely to be affecting my business today (read: I want content that matters to me–not you!)
  • And 80% want content to Include 3rd party data and insights from other trusted organizations or people (read: I repeat, I want content that matters to me–not you!)

Yeah, crappy thought leadership content sucks. Because most of it focuses squarely on the company and its products or services–and only the company and its products or services. 

What’s more, most thought leadership content, interestingly enough, doesn’t truly provide a unique perspective. Oh sure, the execs will say they’re sharing a strong opinion. But let’s be real. Most are playing it safe, sharing opinions so vanilla they don’t consume customers attention for more than a fleeting moment.

Finally, consider this data point–which says it all: 64% of buyers say that an organization’s thought leadership content is a more trustworthy basis for assessing its capabilities and competency than its marketing materials and product sheets.

So, the focus on good thought leadership content is magnified even more!

To me, this is really quite a simple challenges to solve. Too many “thought leaders” want to: 1) Only talk about issues relating to their products and services, or 2) Share boring or extremely vanilla “opinions” on industry issues. 

Most “thought leadership” content falls in these two buckets. Sad, but true.

So I would argue this is a much more effective approach for execs to take:

  • Start by listening. Read industry publications. Subscribe to their e-newsletters. Follow editors and influencers on Twitter. Your simple goal–find out what your customers are talking about/interested in. Look for recent case studies you can comment on. Look for industry trends you could weigh in on. Look for topics you could discuss and form a strong opinion on.
  • Formulate a strong POV–and pressure-test it with peers. Once you’ve identified a topic that’s relevant to your audience by listening, start crafting a strong opinion. This is a good way to think about it: You want to have a perspective on an issue that you haven’t seen anyone share yet in that listening phase above. That’s what you’re shooting for. It may be an unpopular opinion. It may even be contrarian. Whatever course you take, just make sure it’s unique. That’s the key to this whole thing.
  • Work up a list of industry publications, bloggers and key opinion leaders that you can work into your pieces. This will give you instant credibility–and score you karma points with the KOLs when they see their stats/findings in your content.

At the end of the day, I think a lot of brands and leaders forget one simple premise: thought leadership is all about building trust–it’s not about driving leads. Work on the ideas above and you’re bound to create more compelling thought leadership content your customers actually want.

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