Five tips for getting started with thought leadership

Brands need to stand for something and stand out - but they have to get internal stakeholders on board first.

by Rob Mitchell
Last Updated: 18 Nov 2015

Whether you call it ‘content marketing’ or ‘thought leadership’, almost every business-facing (B2B) brand now sees publishing opinion pieces as a powerful way to engage with clients, both current and prospective. But all too often, companies struggle to extract clear, stand-out points of view from senior leaders.
There are several reasons for this. Often there are just too many conflicting views and the marketing team finds it hard to distil these into a perspective that isn’t muddled.

Other, less fortunate, marketing teams find it hard to identify a point of view at all. One head of corporate comms we know told the story of meeting the marketing director on his first day at a previous employer. When he raised the subject of thought leadership, he was told, ‘We have nothing interesting to say and no-one wants to hear from us anyway.’ 
Executives may be willing to help, but find it difficult to crystallise their thoughts into something concise and concrete that will resonate with an external audience. A common problem we see is that business leaders are so focused on delivering short-term goals that they find it hard to switch to the longer-term strategic thinking on which thought leadership depends.
The conservatism of many large organisations is another common challenge. Marketers know that their content needs to be provocative to attract attention, yet many leaders will shy away from having too strong an opinion.

On other occasions, it’s difficult to pin down those executives who are best placed to express the company’s perspective. They are simply too busy, and won’t make time for what they consider to be a ‘peripheral’ activity. Or worse still, they only become engaged towards the end of the project, once the major decisions about messages have already been taken.
In our experience, managing internal stakeholders is one of the most time-consuming – and potentially challenging – aspects of any large content project (or, indeed, any large project). Here are some tips for making a success of thought leadership.

1. Bring everyone on board

Involve the crucial internal stakeholders from the outset. Probably the most common cause of project failure that we see is marketing teams don’t get the blessing – and input – of senior management.

Waiting until a project is nearly complete before sharing it with senior stakeholders is a recipe for disaster. In contrast, involving them early on unsurprisingly makes them feel engaged. This, in turn, makes it more likely that they will be advocates for the project and share it with their teams and clients.

2. Get comfortable

When choosing a topic for thought leadership, it has to be one your executives feel comfortable commenting on. It can often cover broad, macro issues that, while interesting to your client base, may not be within your leaders’ comfort zones. The obvious result: they don’t want to talk about it and they certainly don’t want to share it with clients, in case they get asked difficult questions. It has to be relevant to be internal and external clients.

This isn’t to say that broad topics won’t ever make sense. Take GL Noble Denton, an oil and gas engineering services firm. It launched an ongoing series of annual industry outlook studies, intentionally choosing a wider, macro theme, in order to associate its brand with topics away from its technical heartland. The company’s executives were initially sceptical until they had a series of dinner discussions about the issues with clients and realised the merits of the approach.

3. Choose your champions

Some clients we have worked with make the mistake of thinking that the more stakeholders they involve in a project, the better the outcome. This is rarely true – and not just for thought leadership.

Bringing together lots of people with different points of view and axes to grind leads to diluted content. If you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. If you do have to have a large number of people on a project, make sure that you have a strong lead sponsor who can get them into line and help to form a strong, consistent narrative.

4. Lead from the front

Strong marketing leaders are also essential for successful projects. The best involve seasoned professionals who can lead senior stakeholders towards interesting insights, while making them feel like they have ownership of the messages.

Your leaders may know a lot – but they don’t always have ready-formed opinions and they may find it hard to think beyond the four walls of the organisation. It’s important to have marketers who can coax insights out of these people, and ensure that they take an external, rather than internal, perspective.

When Siemens planned the first of its Green Cities Index research series, it was led by one of its most senior internal marketers. If it hadn’t, it would probably have seen the light of day: juggling the demands of a complex global business required someone who could shape cohesive messages spanning diverse business units. But once it was launched successfully, people within the business immediately started take the study to clients.

5. Don’t just sell

The best thought leadership has a generosity of spirit. Marketers – and the business leaders they support – need to be prepared to be a part of broader, sector-wide conversations, rather than just focusing on landing their own messages.

Audiences will quickly switch off if they think they are on the receiving end of a sales pitch. And there’s no point publishing anything if no one will read and share it.

Rob Mitchell is the co-founder of Longtitude, which produces thought leadership for clients.

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