Ever since I left traditional journalism two years ago and began telling stories for companies in this brave new world of brand journalism, I’ve been learning a lot of new things about public relations and marketing, including picking up a whole new vernacular. Every industry has its lingo, and PR is no different.
Among the new words I’ve recently learned: “Up-level,” “alignment,” “cover off,” and, perhaps the most abused term, “thought leadership.” As I’ve come to understand it, thought leadership is a term typically used to describe any free content that organizations or individuals publish on an important topic they know a lot about and that others would benefit from reading. In a newspaper or magazine newsroom, journalists would refer to these kinds of stories as “think pieces” or “idea scoops” because they wouldn’t focus on people or events but rather new and interesting ideas.
The problem with most thought leadership, I’ve seen, is that it too often doesn’t involve much thought or leadership. The most obvious mistake brands make is casting a self-promotional story about a company’s products or services as thought leadership. Good thought leadership by its very nature is never explicitly about product or service because whatever insights or lessons that are shared in the story would be too tied to that specific business situation.
Another common mistake companies make is that in an effort to create the impression of leadership or relevancy they try to co-opt or claim an existing business idea or trend as their own with a piece of content. The intended audience of the story will see right through that and the effort will likely be counter-productive, reducing respect and admiration for the organization. More than 30 percent of business decision makers have removed companies from consideration in a buying process after engaging with what they viewed as poor thought leadership content, according to a new Edelman – LinkedIn study on the value of thought leadership content.
So, what does work? Like any strong journalistic think piece, good thought leadership provides an audience with a relevant, digestible and timely story. If the story is forwarded by someone you know and respect, its chances of engaging with readers go up even higher. (While originality is important, the study somewhat surprisingly found that decision makers consider relevance, timeliness and referral from trusted sources as more valuable factors in producing engagement.)
Let me give you a real example. Say that you work for a technology company that has a lot of expertise in data science, and your engineers have realized that some of the algorithms they’ve built to hire employees are biased towards recruiting engineers who’ve graduated from Ivy League schools. Your natural impulse may be to commission a story about how your company realized it could improve its hiring methods by removing the bias from its algorithms. That may provide material for a good story, but its value may be limited.
To reach a wider audience and have a chance of getting the story published in a respected publication as thought leadership, a better strategy would be to introduce the idea of algorithmic bias, show how it’s harming different aspects of society, including HR, and end by proposing some ideas for how to fix it.
If you get this right, the opportunities may be bigger than you realize. There’s always been a general understanding that good thought leadership content can increase awareness of a company’s brand and capabilities.
What’s surprising is that good thought leadership content is far better at generating business opportunities than previously understood, according to the Edelman-LinkedIn study. Among the findings from the survey of 1,329 business decision makers across a range of industries and company sizes:
- Thought leadership led to 41 percent of C-Suite executives including a company in a business opportunity where it was not previously considered.
- Nearly half of business decision makers said thought leadership has directly led them to award business to a company.
- Close to half of decision makers feel thought leadership helps companies command a premium for their products and services.
The bottom line is that content matters to business more than we realized. Most people are disappointed by the lack of valuable insights they find in what’s passed off as thought leadership. But if brands can take a more journalistic approach and make content that is original, relevant, digestible and timely, they will be greatly rewarded by the return on that investment.
Spencer Ante, former WSJ deputy bureau chief and senior special writer, is an editorial director, Edelman.