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Not everyone can be a thought leader — the clue’s in the name

Every hot idea gets copied ad nauseum. Once everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon it feels diluted, and we forget why we thought it was such a great idea in the first place.

And so, it is starting to be with thought leadership. A novel and compelling tactic that drew on proprietary research or unique insights now seem tainted by people labelling any editorial making an obvious observation as ‘agenda setting.’

Don’t lose faith. Content that bears the hallmarks of genuine thought leadership really does set agendas, provoke debates and can kickstart change. Even if it’s a phrase that’s bandied about too much.

It has also suffered from commoditised whitepaper reports that are really how-to-guides, or where the commercial angle for a brand is so thinly concealed that it might as well be a brochure.

This might suggest that the solutions lie in doubling down on research, adding more complexity and reams of data to show you really know your stuff. But these risk turning people off too.

One senior national newspaper journalist recently told me that some of the content they get sent from the big names of global management consultancy can be ‘completely impenetrable even if they have good data behind them’.

Journalists have always been time poor, but so are most business decision-makers — the usual end target of a thought leadership campaign. It’s doubtful they have the time to read a 30-page report cover-to-cover either.

Like most of us, they want a handful of quick, actionable insights. We live in an age where apps like Blinkist digest non-fiction books for us into 15-minute summaries.

So, too clever or not clever enough. Where’s the sweet spot for thought leadership?

Seen it before

As more brands have started pumping out content, particularly on their own channels, the one objective of thought leadership that seems to have got lost on the way is originality.

Like any good opinion or useful insight, thought leadership should at least add something new to an existing discussion.

It’s one of the reasons why we built-out our own research and insight practice , so that we could help the businesses we advise to find a territory they could carve out for themselves. Just the same as you would for any new creative strategy.

Once you’ve arrived at your concept, it’s a good idea to stress-test them with your intended audience. We’ll take soundings from journalists we intend to target with the finished content and run it by a panel of decision makers with the same profile we’re hoping to connect the content with.

At its most successful, thought leadership becomes a repeatable exercise and establishes itself as a closely followed guide — like BP’s Energy Outlook, Lloyds Bank’s Business Barometer, or KPMG’s Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index — and it begins to redefine the public’s perception of a brand around a theme or set of values.

Give me the gist

Having planted your flag with your own piece of intellectual property, how then to make sure it’s not ‘impenetrable’?

Simply doing away with a weighty tome isn’t the answer. Advisory businesses like those my contact referred to, for example, pride themselves on the depth of their research capabilities and insights. An infographic alone would not suffice. Besides which, there will be people out there wanting the full guts of the detail.

The knack is in layering the content in such a way that people can choose to top skim, long-read on lunch or deep-dive for an afternoon.

Social media provides the opportunity to share visual summaries, short videos and animations that distil the headline insights. Repackaging the key take-outs and analysis in press material will encourage media pick-up and keep coverage focussed on the insights that matter most. Online portals that host a wealth of content can let readers explore individual elements, presentations, webinars and the full findings.

Cutting through the noise

We live in an era of plentiful content. This makes compelling thought leadership that helps make sense of the world as relevant as ever.

After all, the pace of change in our economies and societies has never been so fast.

If it has originality and a sense of purpose, and is served up in a variety of formats to make it accessible to multiple audiences, then thought leadership will deserve its moniker.

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