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Forging the Future With Thought Leadership: Summary

10 key points from Forging the Future with Thought Leadership roundtable

There is much misunderstanding about what thought leadership is, how it can be used for commercial benefit in business and what new trends are on the horizon.

A new on-demand roundtable brings together top executives from thought leadership specialist iResearch Services to discuss Forging the Future with Thought Leadership and answer those questions.

Thought leadership is important for businesses because, in our research, seven out of ten Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs), say it is the most important tool to inform views and build relationships.

iResearch Services’ roundtable panel consists of CEO, Yogesh Shah; VP of Sales – Thought Leadership, Gurpreet Purewal; Associate Director – Thought Leadership Sales, Kevin Anthony; VP of Marketing, Shabnam Gangar; and Director of Global Operations; Andrew Newby. Our host is Editor in Chief, Rachael Kinsella.

Here are 10 key questions and answers from the Forging the Future with Thought Leadership roundtable:

1. Is thought leadership the same as content marketing?

“Arguably, content marketing and thought leadership are two peas in a pod and I can understand why, because content is common between both of them. But I feel they are like chalk and cheese because thought leadership actually sparks conversations while content marketing solves problems. I have heard about the rule of seven marketing, which essentially means your particular prospect, or your audience will have to actually see your content or an advert seven times before you expect them to make an action. But you can’t do that in thought leadership. You can’t have seven thought leadership studies go around… so thought leadership is all about quality and content marketing is all about quantity.

How do you get that quality? The quality of thought leadership comes with great insights and some of the fantastic thought leadership studies we have seen are around great research and insights being used and published.

Content marketing, I feel, also solves today’s problems, but thought leadership actually solves tomorrow’s problems. And in a way of where, thought leadership helps you build brand recognition in that it takes care of building brand awareness, brand affinity and brand authority, while content marketing actually only focuses on products and services.

Thought leadership also needs to pass The 5 Cs Test. It needs to be committed, connected, conversational, confident, and communicative.”

Yogesh Shah, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022

2. Is thought leadership evolving from purely being the remit of marketing to feeding into sales, HR, and different parts of the organization? What role do collaboration, partnerships, and relationship building have in thought leadership?

“It goes back to the point of redefining what thought leadership is. I think there is a lot of cynicism around the phrase “thought leadership” and understandably why. Because if you look at thought leadership, its origination to its evolution, that’s where the lines have been blurred. So what’s happened is, thought leadership is now almost gimmicky for a marketing strategy to generate revenue and opportunities; whereas really true thought leadership…about 10 years ago, when you look at the true thought leaders – the consultancies and people who benchmark themselves against McKinsey – the idea of true thought leadership is to really challenge the way of thinking for industries, looking at what is happening in the future, how do you transform that industry and working to build a bridge to be able to get to that successful future.

So, thought leadership is really about transforming industry for the better. What happened along the way – because it allowed organizations to create better brand value, increase their reputation, and be seen as experts and leaders -a lot of organizations have just adopted that as a strategy, but it has then been transitioned into this marketing deployment, which is okay. But the idea of marketing is to amplify your message and that vision. And that is where the challenge now lies and why a lot of people have a lot of cynicism because everyone’s doing research, everyone’s doing content, everyone’s their own publisher.

What we are starting to see now is a breakaway from that, where thought leadership is going back into the origination, and they are working with their ecosystem of partners. We are seeing that most prevalently in sustainability where you have suppliers, NGOs, and policymakers all working toward one common goal to make the industry more sustainable. When organizations do that well, they become an inspiration for other organizations and their peers and are well-known within that whole ecosystem, so their brand value automatically goes up, everyone knows them for their innovation and that is where thought leadership needs to transition to – and what we will see is a lot more of that happening.”

“You can’t do this solo. No one organization or individual can make that movement, right? So that’s why it is so important to have that group collective to be able to do it. But, we talked about the true thought leaders being the consultancies, the traditional McKinseys, the Deloittes, are now playing heavily in these spaces, IBM in technology and Accenture, but what we are starting to see is that these organizations have shifted to have their own thought leadership unit; they are their own independent think tank that works with a lot of specialists and analysts and they create this thought leadership strategy that is aligned to the business, to the vision, to the purpose of that organization, and less so to that marketing element. And then that transitions into the marketing and to then be traditionally moved into a content marketing strategy.”

Gurpreet Purewal, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

3. How is thought leadership transitioning from a research perspective?

“I was chairing a workshop with a client of ours and we were asking a series of questions. One of them was, what are the challenges that your clients and prospects are facing? And one of the answers I found very striking is a desperate search for relevance, which, I think, informs what thought leadership is all about and actually relevant to specific solution levels – not waffling on about abstract nouns, but actually nailing that down – what does that mean for the organization in terms of giving them meaning and solutions for things that they are trying to figure out?…And, traditionally, when you run a project, that’s what you do, but I think thought leadership can actually be very helpful to organizations on a strategic and sales level. Another thing we talk to clients about is reassurance, that we are innovating safely, okay? So, when you introduce a new process, a new product, can we be assured – or at least quantify the risk – that even if it doesn’t work, it won’t burn us down, commercially or reputationally? The ideal I would pose is that you need a mixture of where you are, and where you stop and turn back is a mixture of agile, very quick research, rich data, and a way of feeding that back to the bits of your organization. And that isn’t just marketing and comms that need to know how they change what they’re doing.”

Andrew Newby, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

4. How can you get your message out over the noise? And should you be looking at share of voice, traditional marketing metrics, or use other ways?

“Traditionally, share of voice has been the gold standard. I read that a good way of measuring our marketing dollars is the difference between share of voice and share of search. Share of voice is what we call a thermostat and share of search is the thermometer. The reason why we call share of voice a thermostat is you can dial up and dial down the amount of content depending on the number of dollars put in. The more dollars we put in, the more share of voice we get. So, whoever has deeper pockets has a better share of voice. Whereas the share of search is more of a thermometer. It measures the temperature of what people are listening to, what people are reading about, and what people are writing about. I feel in the future, to measure thought leadership share of search is going to be a vital way of looking at this. Consumer behavior has been moving and shifting very rapidly, I would say. And the old tools are no longer right for us to judge what our performance of marketing is. From a human standpoint, if you have some fantastic new tools, tools like Google Keyword Planner or SEMrush, or social media listening tools, they all help us to measure our work and thought leadership better. In fact, within iResearch Services, we are working on a fantastic tool to measure the share of search, which will probably be coming out in a few months. But I feel that share of voice actually only looks at certain aspects of measurement. It does not necessarily include – suppose if there is a bad idea or if it’s a bad adword – it doesn’t necessarily take into account all those things. Whereas the share of search – if you have seen stakeholder activism coming through pretty strong in recent times – share of search is the right mode for us to judge that. And if I may leave this with one point; in the future, you never know, it might be the share of thought!”

Yogesh Shah, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

5. Thought leadership is a really valuable tool for marketers. What practical approaches should professionals take? Should we reshape the role of marketers as true thought leaders?

“I really think there are so many fundamentals to consider here. I think you have to strip it back and know who your audience is and learn more about them. I think this is a challenge. A lot of people think they know – but don’t know – and it’s always evolving. So, I think, really, your audience is key – but also what the competitors are doing. What are they getting out on their platforms? How are they doing it? What conversations are they having?

One of the Cs Yogesh mentioned was about communication and I think it is also communicating with your internal teams. We work so strongly with Sales and Editorial – it is understanding those conversations and you will be better positioned as a marketer or even in any situation. So, it is really building that relationship up, I would say.

Authenticity is key, as well. A lot of people think about thought leadership and they don’t think about sustained campaigns. But it’s not just one report and you get it out for one week; you could have sustained campaigns and be really smart with that.

So, think about your audience, your target markets, and think about the stages and the funnels that Sales has and build on that. Because that’s really key.

And advocacy is also another one – internal advocacy. Get your Key Leadership Positions (KLPs) and push that out, but also your C-suite level and the people consuming that information, you need to get them to become your advocate, otherwise content will go out and you see it once and it is done…

Everyone talks about relevance. I think so many things are factors that you have to consider. But then how do consumers also digest that information? What platforms are you using? We have so many different assets available at our fingertips. There are infographics, and video strategies, there are inbound people events that we are doing, there are podcasts – you name it, there is everything. So how do consumers like digesting that information? – And it’s always ever-evolving… And I think that’s really fundamental. It is just leveraging that and having a blend with a sustainable campaign.”

Shabnam Gangar, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

6. How can you build a thought leadership campaign across different channels on a practical level?

“It is building trust, and it is also building your relationship. So, when you are looking at marketing activities, you can’t do it in silos, you have to collaborate and have to work together. So, if we’ve got any thought leadership pieces, whether it be a report or infographic, we want to make sure that it’s going out to the right market in the right way. So, there are digital activation plans you can think to do. You can also have collaborative efforts, partnering and memberships, and work with other people and like-minded individuals to reach your audience. And build on that relationship. I think that is really, really is key to forging the way for the future when it comes to thought leadership. But also, building better relations internally.”

Shabnam Gangar, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

“To add, it’s one of our biggest pet peeves when we work with organizations around their thought leadership, because this is a transition, this is a challenge for organizations, because it is now such a marketing ploy – it comes from that budget, it’s seen as just that one directive to generate revenue, but sustained campaigns are so important because what you are identifying is a pain point for that audience group or industry. And when you do your research, and you generate this really clever wealth of knowledge and content that you’re transferring through marketing about messaging that gives you the opportunity to delve further into those pain points and actually problem-solve. So, there’s no point in doing a thought leadership piece where you identify a problem; go look, we’ve a problem and we’re part of the solution but we don’t know the entirety of the solution. And what’s the next challenge? That’s where the opportunity lies in organizations creating and continuously creating these sustained campaigns. And when they do that, they start having more intelligent conversations for their customer, really narrowing down those pain points, those bottlenecks within each of those major challenges or focus areas and that allows them to really fuel, not only their business strategy, but it also allows them to really delve into the future elements of their next thought leadership and continuously be an authority within that space – continuously innovating, continuously bringing the community together. And that’s where a lot of organizations will fall over because they go, we need to make a big splash. This is our year, here are £200,000 or £300,000 we are going to put into thought leadership. Oh wow. New year; we’ve got budget restraints, so we’re not going to do it this year. So, what was the point? It is a waste and you are never going to be seen as an authority. All the research shown around thought leadership is that is it 24 months when you start seeing real value, and for a lot of these organizations, some of the business that they are acquiring is in 12-month cycles. So sustained campaigns and continuation about leadership just helps your business in its whole entirety.”

Gurpreet Purewal, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

7. Given all the competition, how can you use thought leadership to contact hard-to-reach, senior audiences?

“Well, from my point of view, the whole sales process over years and years has evolved. From a commercial standpoint, when we talk about the hard-to-reach target audience, I would like to term them as decision-makers, or influencers, who are busy or constantly searching around to find the right suppliers, the right vendors, to get the right solution from them. And in this bargain, why thought leadership is necessary is because all these decision-makers have now evolved and become smart enough to do their own research before making the decision. And hence thought leadership comes into play. Before even making a decision, a client would do thorough research about whom they should work with. So thought leadership has always worked as a primary tool to be making an informed decision.”

Kevin Anthony, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

8. How do companies best measure thought leadership success and how is that changing?

“So companies have a range of metrics with varying degrees of success and accuracy are they applied. Traditionally, there are three pillars for measuring thought leadership return, The Three Rs. The first is reputation. How is thought leadership adding to your credibility, your customers’ confidence in yourself, and positioning you as a leader? So, that is broadly what is called the impact metrics. That is your social media reach. Who is looking at your content, and on what channels? It’s share of voice – are you part of ongoing conversations? Are you being listened to?

Another important thing – it is great being talked about but then you have to put in sentiment analysis, so there are lots of software now that measure that and blogs and comms out there are tagged positive, neutral and negative. You want to be either positive or negative and the worst thing you want is neutral – just boring! Besides the usual, how are we doing in the traditional mainstream media? Backlinks are seen as really, relevant.

The second pillar is relationships, so thought leadership is all about trust and relationships. Sales referrals are a great measure. If some company is prepared to associate theirs with yours – happy days!

And something we are very aware of now is events – so conferences and webinars. There are speaking events, so just being invited is a good sign, and the more trenchant you get with that, that is really good.

A final one in relationships is awards, which personally, I am slightly skeptical of, because it is a bit of an industry.

The third ‘R’ is the revenue model, so you can count meetings, requests for proposals (RFPs), up-sell and cross-sell, you have got all these lead attribution models you can use, but between clients and transactions, where are the touchpoints? Is it the sales guy or is it the content person in an organization? So, it is really messy.

So, in practice, what companies are asking for is a mixed metrics approach, where you talk about things like relevance and authority and trust and engagement using the whole range of social media listening, data science, and the traditional data collection methods and weighting them according to what your business model is.

We have our own innovative way of tracking ROI and there are other brands available. I will leave it at that!”

Andrew Newby, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

9. How can we look at thought leadership revenue generation and ROI from the business development perspective?

“One of the things with ROI fundamentals is firstly you have to align it to your business objectives, so a lot of this gets missed in translation and is miscommunicated. Really whenever you are thinking about doing a thought leadership project or program, you should first look at: what is your vision and what is your value? So, what does that organization stand for? What spaces are we playing in?

It’s also looking at what your commercial objective is. What will dictate what your thought leadership strategy is, is whether you are going towards new market penetration, or trying to improve your market share already. That covers product innovation and continuous collaboration with your clients, but through knowing those mechanisms you can create this lovely thought leadership piece.

But then it is about accountability, even with the performance metrics, it is not one group, like marketing, that can drive performance metrics and show value.

We talk about headlines, we talk about positive sentiment, PR has to do their job, marketing has to do their job and Commercial has to drive that so you create with a wealth of insight and all this intelligence and then it’s down to the responsibility of those salespeople to utilize them.

The legacy is that salespeople are a bit lazy, we don’t like to conform, we will always be a bit rebellious, so you give us something and we just expect you to do something with it and generate leads when really the sales function itself is completely evolving – you are not just a wheeler-dealer running relationships down the pub-type of sales anymore, what a lot of your customers are looking for are solutions to serious problems and they need the salespeople to be subject experts in their own right.

So you need to be able to understand and articulate your business, but use this very clever insight, so it is really helping to try and change that industry, showing that you are trying to be a power for good, a voice of reason and all these elements. So, if Sales can then take and manipulate some of those insights to the industry perspective, to potential clients, or prospects, or customers, and provide this intelligence, it creates a better ROI display because it means better conversations, more meetings, better customer acquisition, better customer lifetime value with current clients, more expenditure.

So, when we are looking at it, it is that model at the front end and then commercial to help and drive and do their part and row the boat with the rest of the functions. A thing to look into to help is that there has always been that friction between Sales and Marketing and this power force, of who runs who, rather than this collaboration, but there is some research showing that maybe combining KPIs for Sales and Marketing so that they are both running for the same targets and the same objectives will create more convergence and a better ecosystem between them.”

Gurpreet Purewal, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

“Sometimes even building hubs that are Sales and Marketing together, so all of the content side of things comes into that and all of the editorial side of things comes into the insight and if there is a dedicated research team within the company, but also Sales and Marketing are there working hand-in-hand from a business development and growth and revenue generation perspective, so with a future share of thought, perhaps that is a really good collaborative way internally to start to bring everyone together to focus on that and to use thought leadership as a tool in its broadest sense.”

Rachael Kinsella, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

10. What is the future of thought leadership?

“Picking up from where Gurpreet left it, in terms of Sales and Marketing being integrated, I think it is already happening there. There’s a word called “Smarketing”, which is Sales and Marketing working extremely integrated together and actually having overlapping KPIs, so I think that will probably have a lot of focus in the future. Gone are the days when this is about being a department. This is more about the relationship having to be looked at from a lot of different lenses. But beyond that with thought leadership marketing, people will expect more from less. There is going to be more from thought leadership investment and the returns that we are going to get out of that. In terms of storytelling, which I was talking about before, we B2B marketers have to be good at storytelling. Everyone loves a fantastic story. And what better way to tell a story than to try and bring emotions into it? So, I feel emotions are going to be the new B2B marketing tool in the future and in a way of using those emotions and telling their story with deep upgrades with your UX and UI and essentially that would mean that you personalize thought leadership content to your audience and see the engagement of how that content is being seen and used by a lot of people.

Beyond that, thought leadership as a tool will be used to foster greater and greater insights. Today, insight is only from limited sources, but think you’ve got to find several different sources in the same cycle. It could be data journalism, data science, social media listening, it could be competitor research, or it could be secondary research, but it should be new sources and information for us to judge.

And one other area that I think about and that we all should be championing tomorrow, is thought leadership should be more of a centralized function within an organization and hopefully, there could be chief thought leaders like CEOs and hopefully they can have a seat at the table and can talk about a lot of issues that we really want to talk about and hopefully they can help.

In thought leadership from now and into the future, the budgets are going to increase. By some statistic I was reading, today’s budget for thought leadership is set at around 20% and in the future, we might spend 40%.”

Yogesh Shah, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

“It is also around how particular functions are evolving. We’ve worked with a technology company called Pegasystems and we released a ‘Future of Marketing’ report and thought leadership piece as part of the “Future of…” series. One of the biggest challenges that we found for marketers is that there is a huge amount of pressure to just generate content and hit all these different activities. And what we are seeing is that with stats coming through, with automation in workflow, it might allow them to scale content very quickly and allow them to be a bit more strategic and look at the long-term elements rather than these short-term performance metrics looking at what strategy we want.

How do we get out to our customers? And the marketing function is the voice of the customer effectively between the sales and marketing functions, they can bring the insights and really articulate some of the challenges and pain points they are hearing from the industry and serve that up to the senior leadership board.

Hopefully, things will start to change where thought leadership we are talking about is obviously being a separate unit, allowing them to focus on being like a think tank and aligning business objectives, and then allowing marketing to really get close to their customers, to start looking at different metrics, maybe like customer lifetime value and some of these other elements, to be more strategic and just align that business a little bit better. That is where we are seeing thought leadership in the next, 5-10 years.”

Gurpreet Purewal, Forging the Future with Thought Leadership, 2022.

iResearch Services is a global data and insight-driven thought leadership agency. Research is at the heart of everything we do, with evidence-based research knowledge empowering brands to connect with their audiences to build digital trust and be respected as thought leaders. Thought leadership enables brands from all sectors to become powerful authorities, helping them to deliver influential, impactful, insight-based opinions. If you need help and advice email [email protected].

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