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PODCAST: James Watson on the power of thought leadership

Thought Leadership Insights, Episode 2

In this second episode of Thought Leadership Insights, Longitude’s co-founder James Watson reveals the key findings of the firm’s recent thought leadership research programme: The Power of Thought Leadership, exploring the major changes taking place in B2B and content marketing today.

James talks about the crucial – and growing – role of thought leadership in building brands and reputation, explains how brands are successfully becoming publishers in their own right as well as what this means for B2B content marketers, and explores how companies need to tailor their content to meet evolving audience preferences.

Topics covered

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 00:40 Longitude’s thought leadership research
  • 01:40 Research key findings
  • 03:30 Companies competing with publishers
  • 05:00 Growth in content
  • 06:00 Thought leadership and reputation
  • 07:45 New formats for thought leadership
  • 11:10 Where do surveys fit in?

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Listen to our other podcasts:

Episode 1: Thought leadership trends and predictions 2017

Episode 3: Interview with Alison Tattersall from Barclays

 

Podcast transcript

Fergal Byrne (Host): Welcome to the Longitude Research podcast, Thought Leadership Insights, with senior figures from the firm together with leading marketing executives, explore key trends shaping the evolution of thought leadership and marketing. I’m your host, Fergal Byrne.

In this second episode of Thought Leadership Insights, Longitude Research’s co-founder James Watson talks about the findings of the firm’s recent thought leadership research initiative, The Power of Thought Leadership. Welcome to the podcast, James.

James Watson: Thank you very much Fergal. It’s great to be chatting again.

Fergal: Before diving into details and specific findings, James, can you give me a flavour of what the research suggests?

James: What stands out from this is just the very changing nature of the thought leadership marketplace today in terms of the evolving preferences and interests of audiences and what they’re looking for from high-end content and research. And if we think about it from the perspective of just how technology has changed in the last decade, this is really, really clear. I mean the iPhone was only released in 2007, so this is a relatively recent innovation – we’re not even 10 years into the era of real kind of pervasive smartphones that’s still developing and that’s changing the content preferences of audiences and how they look to consume insights and things like that. Social media is also a very nascent form of communication channel and continues to evolve too.

And so it’s not surprising to me that we see that content consumers and producers often have some disconnect in terms of what they’re creating and what the actual preferences and interests are of the audience. One of the aspects of this research has been to delve into that a bit in terms of what these preferences are and how they’re changing and some of the challenges that that throws up for content producers today in terms of how they create this insight.

Fergal: So what were the main findings, James?

James: There’s about three that I’d like to specifically highlight from within this that, stood out to me. One is about the fact that today corporates, as producers of content thought leadership, are actually competing with the publishing industry and their audiences believe that the content that they create can be just as valuable as the content that comes from traditional publishers, which is a really important factor that underpins the growth of the thought leadership market and the trends underway. That’s one point that stands out.

A second one that really stood out for me is around reputation and the fact that good thought leadership is a really important tool in building trust amongst audiences. And indeed, many of the respondents that we’ve polled think it’s now essential for B2B brands to be taken seriously. They need to produce thought leadership to do this.

A third one is probably going back to this point about content preferences and how this comes to market. A lot of this might not be surprising, but what stood out for me is that while audiences clearly prefer shorter research-based articles and case studies and infographics, a lot of the more popular types of formats and things like video and, indeed, podcast like the one we’re doing today, are much, much less popular in a B2B format. This is really an interesting point to dig into because it reflects the sort of preferences that are evolving very differently in a B2B world to that of a B2C world.

And yet, our view on this, which we can get into, is that any of these formats can be successful if they’re done properly and if they’re embraced with high-end quality, you can make any format stand out and become an outstanding success. And, indeed, you can make any format fail if you don’t apply the right quality to it. So those are the three areas that stood out for me.

Fergal: Thanks, James. Maybe we can have a look at the first of these findings: companies are competing with publishers. What does that mean?

James: This is a really important trend. Of course it’s well-known that the media landscape has suffered tremendously over the past decade as money from advertising has gone into online forms, into individual channels and publishers and become a much more fragmented landscape. But rising up amidst this is the reality that a significant number of corporates have become de facto publishers in their own right. They produce calendars of content, they regularly publish views on topical issues of the day and issues that matter to their audiences.

And what’s really important here, our study shows that 74% of content consumers, and these are the senior B2B executives that we polled, agree that good thought leadership can be just as valuable from these corporates as content that has been published by traditional publishers. And I think this is really important because many corporates used to believe that the only way to access audiences and to get their opinion out there was to get their view into a third-party brand, a publishing brand, but this is showing that that’s not necessarily the case. You can have a serious and in-depth interaction with audiences with content that you are publishing directly and taking to market in that way. It’s obviously a tremendous opportunity for corporates to jump on that bandwagon and be involved in that.

Fergal: This, I assume, in part, explains the exponential growth in new content that we have seen in the last couple of years.

James: Absolutely! I mean it’s been a real explosion and there’s many studies out there. We didn’t seek to cover this in our research because it’s quite widely covered around the growth of the wider content marketing landscape, and within that content landscape the rise of what we call thought leadership, or more evidence-based content that’s underpinned with real research insights and findings underneath it.

All of these areas have been growing rapidly in the past number of years and, I guess, social media is one of the accelerators or catalysts of that because it’s acted as something that has provided corporates with an ability to emulate the reach of traditional publishers. One of the reasons you go to publishers before was they had access to the audience that you may not have and you wanted to reach. Well, today that’s been much more democratised by the fact that you can reach out to audiences through social media. It’s not the only channel that matters. In fact, it’s quite a challenging channel, as one of our findings shows in the study, but it has helped to level the playing field.

Fergal: Can you talk about the reputational aspects of thought leadership?

James: So this was really something that really stood out for me in the study. There was a lot of findings around how thought leadership can help to build trust amongst audiences, and the fact that in the B2B space, this is a really important facet of how companies get taken seriously by customers. Basically, six in 10 content consumers agree that companies needed to produce this kind of content if they’re going to be taken seriously by customers.

This makes a lot of sense to me because if you think about the way that many executives start to tackle topics or issues, many of them start reaching out and searching for insights and information on how people are dealing with regulatory issues or disruptive technology or whatever it might be. The content and insights that they discover help inform them about possible strategies they may think about and possible partners they may work with on this. So one of the ways to get noticed and to stand on your marketplace is to put out interesting perspectives about issues that are topical to your business in the hopes that people come across this, so I think it’s really important.

There’s a sort of corollary to that, which is if you’re seriously thinking about taking on an issue, maybe you’re trying to grapple with some big new trend in your marketplace and you’re considering a B2B partner to help advise and support you on that and you’re looking through their literature on their site and you find no interesting insights or perspective on that, I think it’s something that gives you pause about does this partner really have the depth of experience I need? Do they have the viewpoints on this? So I think it’s a really interesting issue. And overall, eight in 10 respondents agreed that if they read intelligent content on thought leadership from a company, they’re more likely to trust that brand in the future.

Fergal: The long form report has been the backbone of thought leadership, which is clearly still important, but today we see an increase in the number of formats, new media, which are growing in popularity. Can you talk a little bit about this, James?

James: So, as we were saying earlier, the landscape that marketers are grappling with, as they seek to create content and take it out to market, has changed pretty radically in terms of mobile and social media and all these types of things that they’re trying to get through. Of course, the traditional approach, as you pointed out there, for many companies has been well, let’s create a report and create a nice PDF, unload on our website and hope that people come and find it and read it, which is a somewhat unfair sort of characterisation of how this has been done, but it’s true for many organisations.

And what comes through in our findings is that clearly this era has to give way to some new preferences and what we see amongst our client base is the embrace of a really sort of varied approach to content. There’s no one size fits all within this. So companies are wanting to create shorter research-based articles. They’re wanting case studies to support them. They’re wanting visual content. They’re wanting to do content that can work well in an in-person kind of format, something that they can take out to third-party publications and get published as a perspective. And they also want the more cutting edge digital things, video clips and webinars and things like that.

It’s a quite diverse marketplace of all these different types of content and for many marketers it’s a challenge to produce all of these because they require different skills and approaches, or even technologies, to help grapple with them. But what we see from the most successful campaigns is that marketers focus initially on building up a core set of robust insights and ideas that are intellectually strong and credible and can stand up in a marketplace. And then they disseminate these across as many different formats and channels as they can possibly cope with and justify.

They break up this content into many different sort of modular parts, right down to small social media snippets and things that can lead people through to slightly bigger content, maybe infographics or a key finding summary or something like that, or even a SlideShare deck. And that can take people that are even more interested and wanting more depth one step further to the backend of it where they can download and read the fuller report or the more in-depth findings, depending on what the user journey might look like and depending where their interests might lie. I think that’s how many marketers are trying to grapple with it.

Of course, it takes me to the second part of your question, which was around channels. One of the things our research kind of underpinned here was that there’s some quite interesting disconnects between content consumers and producers and the way that they access their content. What you see is that the producers put a lot of emphasis on direct contact from themselves, social media, things like this, to take it out to market, putting it up on an Our Thinking section of their website and so on and so forth.

Consumers, though, far at the top of the list for them is recommendations from their peers or colleagues. It’s not surprising on the surface of it, but it does pose an interesting challenge to content producers about how do I create something that is sufficiently compelling and interesting enough that the people that I can distribute it to are going to engage it with and say, “Actually, I want to send this on to my peers and I want to share these insights with my colleagues.”

I think the answer to that comes back down to this point on quality and producing something that is sufficiently robust and of high enough quality that people do read it they go, “Oh wow, I’m actually learning something new from this.

Fergal: So you have talked about the different formats? Where do surveys fit in?

James: One of the interesting points goes back to the earlier query you had around what makes thought leadership stand out from regular content that companies might produce. I think the thing that really distinguishes thought leadership content is that it has a robust base of data or other factual insights underpinning it, and there’s a number of ways that you can pull this together. Obviously, a common one with many of our organisations we work with is to conduct an in-depth B2B survey and put together something that can tap into the wisdom of crowds around the areas that you’re particularly trying to learn about and extract insights about.

It’s not the only way to do this and it’s not something that we necessarily do in isolation. We also do a lot of in-depth qualitative interviews with executives to get a richness of ideas and insights from them that can help bring the data to life. Another instance is we might gather sort of econometric data and bring that into the mix.

I think there’s a number of different strategies that companies can look at, but what’s important is that they have real evidence and insight underpinning the content that they’re producing, as opposed to just putting up a viewpoint. There’s nothing wrong with putting up a viewpoint, but it is just that, it’s a viewpoint. And I think what’s really rich and powerful about thought leadership is that something that has a real depth of rigour and insight to it.

Fergal: That’s very interesting, James. Evidence. Rigour. Insight. A lot of change clearly but some constants also. Thanks for joining us today and sharing this research today.

James: Thanks, Fergal. It’s been a great pleasure talking about it.

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