TL:DR - Thought leadership, didn't read.

"Is thought leadership dead? Should the term be retired?" Kevin Sutherland, Chief Strategy Officer at SevenC3, on the future of thought leadership.

The term ‘thought leadership’ is divisive. Like lots of jargon and buzzwords, it has a purpose – it’s widely understood, it saves time and we only end up mildly hating ourselves for using it. But the term itself is becoming meaningless, and so much of the content we define as ‘thought leadership’ is no longer fit for purpose. 

So is thought leadership dead? (We can't all be thought leaders now, can we?) Should the term be retired? More importantly, what should B2B brands really be doing to build their reputation as trusted industry experts? And how can this help to grow leads?

A few weeks ago, a CMO told us they didn't have a problem with content. Their problem was making sure it was seen. Now, we’d argue that is still a ‘content’ problem – the content problem. The world doesn't really need more of it and while you can pay your way into people’s newsfeeds, it’s getting harder and harder to earn their attention and time. (In a recent Global Executives Study from Quartz, the headline finding was that the C-suite is more protective of its time than ever before. And then there’s this hard evidence, shot on the Metropolitan line last week – thanks Fernando.)

So while people are spending more and more time consuming content, they're paying less and less attention. And when they are looking, it’s most likely to be on a mobile screen. When so much B2B brand comms is focused on building thought-leadership credentials with a strategy of long-form, copy-heavy, opinion-led content, this is a problem.

It's one of the reasons why The Economist Intelligence Unit found that three fifths of C-suite execs said they are overwhelmed by the volume of content they’re exposed to, and so are being more selective. Yet, at the same time, the volume of thought-leadership content being produced by their companies keeps growing.

So how do you deal with this? The old argument that standing out and earning people’s time and attention lies in content quality doesn't hold water any more. This is the central argument in the The Content Trap by Bharat Anand, Professor of Business Strategy at Harvard Business School, which SevenC3’s Chief Creative Officer, Nic McCarthy, wrote about recently.

This is an issue for B2B brands in particular where (quality) thought leadership is the backbone of their content marketing. The thinking here is solid: we know our stuff; we’ve got experts we can promote to show off how smart they (we) are; we've done research we want to share; let’s hire some experienced journalistic and agency talent to create something with substance, maybe even a white paper. Of course, there’s still a place for white papers and reports – even though the younger generation is half as likely as B2B veterans to use them, they’re still read by nearly 40%. And long-form content is still the most widely shared content format – among 85% of the C-suite. But this doesn’t mean that longer formats per se are the answer. It’s all about audience need, and context. We have to ask why someone would share a long-form piece of content – and, more importantly, when?

The Content Trap also has some valuable insights on this. The author’s central argument is that it is those organisations that have embraced the opportunities offered by the internet to make and enable valuable ‘connections’ across customers, products and functions that have won – not those with the best content.

Long-form content is a brilliant connector; the highest value currency in B2B decision making. But only at the right time. We read or watch the in-depth stuff when we are invested in a decision-making process, where the risks of making a bad decision are potentially costly on an individual and corporate basis, and when the need to build consensus across multi-person decision-making units becomes so important – towards the end of the process.

B2B decisions are typically high-cost and high-involvement, so long-form expert analysis and opinion adds value. But B2B decisions also typically take place over a relatively long period of time. And, at the early stages, long form is the last thing we need. We’re busy!

This is why we’ve seen a significant trend change in client briefs in 2017: asking for ‘micro content’ or ‘atomised content’, breaking down or chunking up longer-form in-depth assets to extend the reach and lifespan of existing content assets, rather than adding to the ever-growing content lake. 

As a genuine but fictional thought leader once said: “The fact is this is about identifying what we do best and finding more ways of doing less of it better” – Anna Rampton, former and fictional Director of Better, BBC

So with thought leadership, it’s not really a case of TL:DR. It’s about being fit for purpose, meeting the different needs of the audience at every stage and using thought leadership where is actually adds value, rather than the basis for the entire strategy. This isn't a new idea, but it’s not evident in many B2B brands’ content marketing.

It’s about focusing on delivering value in content and formats that suit the specific expectations and needs at different stages in the customer journey. It’s about building credibility with data-led and visual content in the pre-consideration, research and discovery stages to maintain visibility over time, to become easier to buy.

It’s about being brief and useful and becoming recognised, over time, as a knowledgeable, informed, innovative and original analyst and commentator on your industry – so that when the time is right, the audience is ready to pay full attention to what you’ve got to say in depth.

(A thought leader, for short.)