We’re big fans of thought leadership here at Gloo — partly for selfish reasons. A good whitepaper or keynote is something we can really get our teeth into, flex our intellect on — and see real results from. It makes our day when a client tells us how well their latest presentation went down with the crowd at a conference, or with analysts at a briefing.
We’ve seen more than our share of presentations and papers over the years, whether that’s commissioning, writing or reading them, so we know the pitfalls inside and out. Here are five suggestions to maximise your chances of success.
Be specific about your audience
Some thought leadership is for techies: the enthusiastic and detailed description of the latest API you’ve published, or the specification for a green data centre that you’re open-sourcing. Other thought leadership is for the business: a vision for the future, a new way to organise, a new model for understanding market dynamics. We’re often asked to write something aimed at the CEO, but as the project unfolds the stakeholders ask for more and more specific product information to be included. Writing something that appeals to the CEO and the IT director is a tough task. Either you aim high, and miss the detail that the IT director wants to see; or dilute your message to the CEO with technical information. Until its demise, the News of the World was by far the biggest circulation English-language newspaper. A bit like Marmite, chances are that you loved it or you hated it. That’s because they knew their audience and they wrote for them.
Find something genuinely new to say
Essentially, what defines thought leadership is its novelty. It’s anything you as a company publish that shows off a new idea. It may be a concept or model, or a technology, or an insight into your customers, just so long as it’s new.
Genuinely new ideas don’t appear on demand. The marketing department may identify the need for some thought leadership, or the CEO may want some more content for his speeches and interviews. But you can’t generate something out of nothing. You can’t, by definition, copy thought leadership. True thought leadership comes naturally from a charismatic executive’s vision, an engineer’s bright idea, or unique data that you’ve collected or mined. Consequently, R&D-led companies like Google tend to be good at thought leadership. But market-led companies, who learn a lot from their customers, can also bring useful insights. Look at what your business is strong at. And if you have nothing genuinely mind-blowing to say, don’t say anything. Instead focus your marketing activities with price, or service, or speedy shipping, or whatever your other differentiators are.
Thought leadership has to be on the cutting edge, so delay is a real problem. Too many whitepapers have bloated to double the scoped because people can’t stop fiddling — and even more have become so mired in reviews and redrafting that they’re obsolete by the time they publish. A firm deadline and a ruthless project manager are essential to maximising your impact. Pick your mission, find your idea, and cover it in just enough detail that it’s credible and comprehensible (and consistent with the facts). Then stop.
Reuse the work
After your brightest minds have laboured to unearth a gem, polish it and share it with the world, don’t relegate the glittering result to the call to action in a single email and the backwaters of your website. Cover it at your events; put it in newsletters; shout about it on social media; share it with journalists; and work to make its findings, ideas and especially terminology part of the way you talk about your markets and your products. That’s the way to make your ideas part of the fabric of the industry. You know you’re doing well when competitors start to adopt your language.
Don’t sell, whatever happens
This is the single biggest failing of most thought-leadership projects, and it comes from the perfectly understandable pressure that marketing folks are under to generate revenue. But there’s one big problem: customers, analysts and journalists are extremely sensitive to promotion, and any thought-leadership piece that contains too overt a sales message will be written off as a cynical ploy. Thought leadership pieces may be the destination that a campaign points to, but they shouldn’t be promotional pieces themselves (at least not directly). Talk about your activities, research, and findings you’ve discovered through working with customers — that’s all necessary to “show your workings”. But resist the temptation to turn your whitepaper into a quasi-brochure. Thought leadership is your chance to build up respect in the community by giving it something genuinely useful and interesting. The goodwill you win, the conversations you initiate, will be much more useful.
No pitch from us
This is our thought leadership — so we’ll end with a request instead of a sales pitch: what are your experiences using thought leadership? When does it work, and what pitfalls have you seen?