Thought leadership is the foundation of many B2B content marketing strategies. At the start of thought leadership projects, often too much time is spent debating burning topics or extolling the need to “make some noise” and not enough in clarifying the purpose and planning the activity. It’s better to take stock, before diving in. We use an iterative 8-stage process to plan effective thought leadership programmes.
1. What are your business development objectives for the project?
Effectively planned and executed thought leadership can bring many benefits, from enhancing corporate reputation or raising awareness about a market development, through to changing perceptions about a new service offering or generating leads and revenue. Even if the objective is “all of the above, please” you should rank and prioritise them – it will influence later decisions.
2. Who is the target audience – why is this issue important and how will the research help them?
It’s not enough that you have something to say, you need to be sure someone will listen – that you will develop a mutually-beneficial dialogue. Go beyond simplistic socio-demographic personas, to explore a deeper understanding of your targets’ wants and needs. What are their ambitions and constraints? A more sophisticated view will lead to a more sophisticated thought leadership response. A classic formula is to raise awareness of emerging trends, challenges or opportunities – and share potential solutions.
3. What do you want readers to think or do after reading the research?
What specific response do you want from readers? Nod their heads and stroke their chins, or pick up the phone to get some advice? The more integrated the call to action is within the research, the better. For example, survey responses may produce fascinating data to secure media coverage, but if that data can be turned into a benchmark index which allows the respondents to measure themselves against their competitors – they are far more likely to take up the offer of a consultation at a later stage.
4. What are the anticipated findings, storyline and key messages?
This is where you need to sense-check what you’re doing and where your thought leadership will lead. If the answers aren’t convincing, you should go back to the start and think about your objectives. Thought leadership projects are rarely all things to all people, even if you have a massive budget.
Don’t invent findings to sell your product. And don’t just see where the research takes you: you will probably end up with fascinating but useless information. Instead you should take an educated guess as to what the findings might be, and how you might wrap that up into a compelling story that furthers your business objectives.
5. How will you develop the insights?
Assuming you have confidence in the answers to the first set of questions, it’s time to think about the content creation process. What research methodology will deliver fresh, credible and differentiated thought leadership? If you want media coverage or benchmark data, you will need to develop a quantitative survey. If you’re looking for deeper, more thoughtful insight you might conduct a series of in-depth interviews or a roundtable of experts and clients. Debate may be stimulated by predicting and exploring future scenarios. Deep expertise can be evidenced by comprehensive state-of-the-nation annual reviews.
6. How will you communicate the insights?
Remember the research activity itself is an opportunity to engage – so don’t just wait until it’s time to publish before you think about dissemination. Sweat the asset. Consider how you will engage across all appropriate channels including your website, social media, trade press, meetings and events. And do so at the beginning, so you can structure the analysis appropriately – reports are rarely consumed in a linear fashion nowadays, so you should be thinking from the beginning about how you turn the insight into a coherent campaign across articles, blogs, infographics, videos, tweets, slides, presentations, interactive tools and so on.
7. How will you measure success?
Time to go back to question one: what are your objectives? It might be more than enough to get positive feedback and follow-up meetings with a group of key clients who are impressed at how much you are thinking about their problems. Or it might be that you need 1,000 new qualified prospects for a new service. But try to be specific: general measures of success like media coverage or page views often flatter to deceive, and the most effective goal tends to be moving clients and prospects along the pipeline towards new business.
8. How much are you prepared to invest?
You may have had a budget figure in mind from the outset, but you should have a much better idea of the potential ROI by the end of this planning process.