Vishwas Anand and S Ramachandran are consultants in the thought leadership team at Infosys Knowledge Institute. Dr. Shankar Venugopal is Vice President, and Dean, Mahindra Technical Academy, Mahindra & Mahindra.
Traditional marketing came in the form of constant interruptions for the consumer: Commercial ads between shows on TV or radio, billboards on a highway, newspaper ads and so forth. This did little to align their interests or preferences with product or service promotions. The intent was used to seek a consumer’s attention. But there was hardly any scope to customise this content. Of course, it also had the opposite effect when their attention or mindshare dwindled with such mass production of content.
Relevant and timely content that helped engage prospects and consumers was the need of the hour. Marketers realised that stories told in unique ways that did not directly pitch products and services was a trusted way to attract and retain customers consistently. This became widely known as content marketing, and in the B2C context focused on creating content that is purpose-driven—or even emotionally engaging to influence purchase behaviour.
In the B2B context, content marketing transcended into the realm of “thought leadership” to articulate the value of unique points-of-view and research-backed insights to influence executive decision-making. According to Bill Sherman, COO and Thought Leadership Practice Lead, Thought Leadership Leverage, "Content marketing is primarily used to fill today's sales pipeline. Thought leadership can serve two very different roles: It can fill a sales pipeline today, and it can also be used to build and sustain relationships when a sales conversation would be awkward or inappropriate".
Edelman and LinkedIn launched a global annual report on B2B Thought Leadership in 2017 to measure the impact of thought leadership. They found that decision-makers wanted thought leadership to be “timely, relevant and substantive”. However, a majority of executives were disappointed by the quality of insights produced by companies. In the 2020 Thought Leadership Impact study, the quality of thought leadership content is still a cause for concern.
The ability to conceive and systematically evolve ideas and insights that have lasting value is at the heart of thought leadership. The idea is so original and strong that it delivers value in a wide variety of scenarios. Such ideas emerge when (a) we can focus on the most fundamental problems without getting confused or distracted, (b) we stay calm and confident when the idea meets strong resistance, and (c) we patiently overcome the barriers and evolve the idea to make it strong and acceptable to many. Thought leaders have the unique ability to synchronise their thoughts, words and deeds—that precisely is the source of their clarity and power.
True thought leadership is not just about predicting the future. It is the ability to see the possible future scenarios even when the present is chaotic. It is not limited to a specific product or industry. It is the ability to practice systems thinking and look at the complex dynamics of interactions across industries. Thought leadership is built on a strong foundation of insights about customer, technology, market, economy, regulation, politics etc. and their influence on each other.
Thought leadership platforms
Building and sustaining momentum on insights-generation and consumption needs a robust foundation and governance structure across the organisation. It is one thing to build good quality insights, it is quite another to ensure it is built for the users. Thought leadership content often lives across a host of siloed systems and platforms without streamlining distribution to customise by the customers’ interest. The challenge with current insights-platforms is that they don’t understand the users well enough to personalise the experience for them.
Far too many companies can now create thought leadership on low-cost platforms without giving much thought into the quality of the platform. We discussed this with Douglas B. Laney, bestselling author of the book Infonomics: “In effect, thought leadership has become a more egalitarian endeavour. More than ideas or so much a change in culture, it is the democratisation of ideas offered by a breadth of low-to-zero cost ideation platforms such as blogs, podcasts, social media and self-publishing. These platforms also offer a teeming ocean of ideas upon which to build. That is, thought leadership has become, not so much overtly collaborative, a virtuous (and, yes, sometimes vicious) self-perpetuating Bessler's Wheel of imagination,” noted Laney.
Transition to a destination site model
Traditional thought leadership relies on a cumbersome process without timely intervention and actionable insights at every stage of the publishing cycle. For thought leadership to resonate with the changing interests of consumers, publishing on different digital platforms alone doesn’t cut it. Such a strategy would not be able to preserve the uniqueness of the idea amid all the noise, leading to low quality of insights.
Firms need to build a ‘destination-site’ model so that a primary platform becomes a trusted source of curated insights by topical preference. A destination site model establishes the thought leadership platform as a brand that customers go to for fresh insights, instead of searching for the information they need. Firms can do that by planning for fresh insights, co-creating content with influencers, collaborative review in an agile way, and automating distribution to the right target audience. When done consistently, this would influence decision-making around critical buyer issues to increase brand value significantly.
About the authors: Vishwas Anand and S Ramachandran are consultants in the thought leadership team at Infosys Knowledge Institute. Dr. Shankar Venugopal is Vice President, and Dean, Mahindra Technical Academy, Mahindra & Mahindra.