It seems as if everybody wants to be a thought leader nowadays, and to publish insights that are going to somehow miraculously transform market perceptions and make the sales process easier.
A growing share of marketing budgets is being directed towards this goal and being used to create, publish and share white papers, executive briefings, blog articles, events, podcasts, videos, webinars and the like.
But there’s a problem: if (as I believe it should be) the primary purpose of these “thought leadership” investments is to cause the consumer of the information to think differently, the vast majority of this investment is utterly wasted.
Take the current GDPR bandwagon as just one contemporary example. No matter how tenuous the connection, vendors are holding webinars, publishing guides and milking the subject for all that it is worth (and more).
To my shame (justified as being strictly for research purposes), I’ve listened to and downloaded a bunch of these so-called thought leadership initiatives from multiple sources. But the effect I've observed is the same across a wide range of other subjects, as well.
Nothing new to see here...
Most of these pieces have nothing new to say. They re-hash messages that others have already shared. They quote (sometimes accurately) sources that others have already put into the public domain. They leave the audience scratching their head and wondering if they have actually learned anything new as a result, or what they need to do next.
And, of course, in the case of GDPR and so many other subjects, the reader has learned nothing new and derived little-to-no useful value from the experience. Most disturbingly of all, the reader hasn’t been educated in any meaningful way.
If you agree with my definition of thought leadership as something that causes the reader to think and act differently in some meaningful way, then the vast majority of this stream of lazy regurgitation is thought followership at best.
Too much of today’s so-called “thought leadership” is really unoriginal, unstimulating and undifferentiated thought followership. It does nothing to establish a unique perspective or a distinctive point of view. It is, truly, unworthy of the label.
Stepping away from the river of drivel...
And yet the river of drivel continues to flow. I know I’m not the first to rail against this - Doug Kessler’s legendary SlideShare tirade against Marketing Crap has now clocked up over 5 million views.
But by the evidence of most of the latest deliverables, B2B marketeers - under pressure to deliver “thought leadership” from executives who would probably be unable to recognise the real thing if it punched them in the face - are still focusing on quantity and not quality and rehashing old data or cobbling together a lightweight SurveyMonkey quiz rather than conducting truly original, thoughtfully scoped research that generates genuine insight.
Don’t get me wrong: there is some highly distinctive thought leadership being generated out there - material that is genuinely capable of moving minds and stimulating the reader to take action. It’s just that it is so depressingly rare.
As for the rest, I suspect the problem starts with the brief (assuming that one was developed in the first place) and is then compounded by forgetting Blaise Pascal’s self-admonition “I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one”.
Leave them wanting more...
Genuine thought leadership, at least from my perspective, is well-targeted, succinct, to the point, stimulates the reader to actually think differently about some important topic and (perhaps most important of all) leaves them wanting to learn more.
And this surely is the point and the purpose of real thought leadership: it is merely a stepping stone on a journey of discovery and not a destination of itself. As well as educating, informing and entertaining, it must act as the prelude to an engaging conversation about how the ideas might be applied in their own organisation.
I make no judgement about the role of thought leadership in B2C markets, but in complex B2B sales, thought leadership needs to be both the catalyst and the lubricant for a substantial and significant ongoing sales dialogue.
Stimulate a conversation...
And that, of course, means that we must equip and enable our sales people to progressively personalise the themes in our generic thought leadership campaigns to the specific interests and priorities of individual organisations and stakeholders.
Frankly, even if we do an outstanding job of creating genuine thought leadership, our efforts will be wasted if the right conversations don’t then follow.
So, here’s what I’d recommend: if you’re determined to do it well, make sure that your thought leadership programme is focused on a clearly defined target audience. Make sure that you have a clear picture of how they might be thinking about the subject today and how you intend to change their perceptions. Spark your reader’s imagination. Tell them something important that they didn’t already know. Be clear about what action you want to stimulate your newly-enlightened reader to take. And make sure that your sales people are prepared and equipped to continue the conversation.
Do that, and I don’t doubt that you will stand out from the crowd - and will be seen by your audience as an organisation that is capable of inspiring them to achieve more (with your continued support) than they had ever previously imagined. You will, truly, have led their thinking...