The truth about ‘thought leadership’ revealed in new study of over 500 business leaders

22 February 2021 | 8 min read | News
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

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A significant part of the work we do for clients as an agency is create thought leadership content (blogs, featured articles, whitepapers, video content, podcasts) that raise the organisation’s profile and positions them and their people as true experts in their field – the go-to service or product provider in their space. In fact, we average over 1,000 pieces of original content each year, and the demand for sound thought leadership is growing.

Indeed, last month’s Edelman Trust Barometer reported that while trust in the media has seen a decline over the last 12 months demand for business leaders to step up and speak out on “social issues such as the impact of the pandemic, job automation and societal problems” has exploded. There has never been a greater need for sound corporate communications than now and an opportunity to exert influence with your target audience(s) by sharing your insights and expertise into the challenges that your market is facing – to be the sensemaker for your sector.

To better understand what makes for great thought leadership content, we decided against sharing our own views based on experiences of supporting over 100 clients over the last seven years. Instead, we opted to ask business leaders themselves. And so we commissioned the largest piece of independent research into the subject which saw over 500 CEOs, Managing Directors and Founders take part.

“Demand is high and there has never been a better opportunity for business leaders to share their insights and expertise that can help customers better understand the implications of what is happening and to make sense of events; thereby, enabling them to make better informed decisions.”

What does it mean to be a ‘thought leader’?

The earliest definition dates back to 1994, when Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief at Strategy+Business magazine (published by PwC and very much recommended by this author), said in an article:

“A thought leader is recognised by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

As the coronavirus graduated from epidemic to pandemic, everything changed. Businesses were placed on an indefinite hiatus, workers and their families were left scratching their heads in a state of both confusion and fear, and the quest for information from sense makers and solutions providers ramped up a gear.

This in turn triggered a sharp rise in the number of people coming to the fore to offer themselves up as ‘thought leaders’ – industry experts – and push through their, well, thoughts through a series of blogs, articles, webinars, podcasts and various other platforms. However, while many of these expert ‘voices’ are worthy of our attention, a great number are not.

According to our research, when asked to comment on the quality of content they have been exposed to from the beginning of March through mid-May:

  • 40 per cent of businesses leaders described it as ‘appalling’, ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ at best.
  • 42 per cent stated that the content was ‘repetitive’ and didn’t actually tell them anything they hadn’t consumed elsewhere
  • 38 per cent said the format and quality of the content was ‘poorly written/produced’
  • 33 per cent bemoaning the ‘lack of relevance or topicality’, and
  • 29 per cent simply said that most of the thought leadership content they’re exposed to is ‘boring’. Ouch.

These findings are rather damning and expose a significant number of self-professed ‘thought leaders’ as not exactly being the experts they make themselves out to be, so why do we give so much airtime to these people in the first place?

Being ‘memorable’, rightly or wrongly

It’s a matter of psychology; to be precise – the element of repetition. Anyone can claim to be an industry ‘expert’. What enables them to grab our attention is the fact that they focus on a specific subject and bang the drum over and over.

In fact, they do this to the extent that without even consuming the content produced by these individuals, we automatically make the assumption they ‘must know what they’re talking about’. After all, why else would they continue to push their content out – someone must be paying attention, right? Familiarity breeds contentment – the easier a ‘name’ or brand can be remembered, the greater the likelihood said brand will be regarded as a go-to in their space and, dare I say, ‘influential’.

Repetition is a powerful way of making oneself ‘memorable’, but to steal a phrase from marketing legend Seth Godin it won’t make them ‘remarkable’ if they’re not a real expert in the first place with original thought.

This latter point is one of the biggest issues among business leaders, with 59 per cent of those who took part in our study bemoaning the lack of fresh, original thinking by the creators of the thought leadership content they are exposed to.

For those who can offer unique perspectives that are both contextual (relevant to the here and now) and specific to the needs and wants of one’s audience, the opportunities are a-plenty both from a personal and reputational branding perspective, as well as its impact on the bottom line of the organisation these individuals represent.

Repetition is a powerful way of making oneself ‘memorable’, but it won’t make someone ‘remarkable’ if they’re not a real expert in the first place.

The power of the leadership team’s personal brand

It is a long-held belief of ours that the personal brand of a business leader is as, if not more, important than that of the organisation they represent. It therefore follows, and our research demonstrates this point, that business leaders and decision makers will develop a perception of a brand based on the thought leadership content its key people produce.

Indeed, 27 per cent of CEO’s and MDs state that their impression of a brand has positively shifted after consuming content that resonates with them – has value.

At the same time, 13 per cent say their opinion has gone the other way.

Moreover, one in five (20 per cent) business leaders have subsequently engaged the organisation responsible that created the content and done business with them.

The personal brand of a business leader is as, if not more, important than that of the organisation they represent.

Thought leadership’s role in creating greater customer value

The coronavirus pandemic has altered the way in which people view brands, whether they be individual or in the organisational sense. They are rapidly rejecting the mindless fare of social media influencers and dismissing any brand that holds up its people as so-called experts when they are anything but. And any attempt to continue pumping out self-aggrandising, hyperbolic content that is focused on selling rather than engaging and supporting will be met with a short sharp about-turn.

However, the current period also represents an opportunity for brands like never before to demonstrate their value and relevance to the customers and consumers of most importance to them. Their support is what has enabled these businesses to get to where they are today, and that same sense of brand loyalty will be called upon once again as the scream subsides and growth is on the horizon once more.

Brands have an opportunity like never before to demonstrate their value and relevance to the customers and consumers of most importance to them.

Thought leadership has gained greater importance during the COVID-19 era and its role within the wider marketing mix will invariably be elevated ever higher as we move towards the post-pandemic era and people’s thirst for ideas, options and solutions to the challenges to come will see a further spike. For those individuals with ambitions to be attributed such status, they must recognise that being a thought leader is not someone who simply plays the game – they change the game.

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