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The communication revolution in thought leadership 

Thought leadership innovation is not only transformative of business impact. Purely seen as a marketing tool, it was a way of standing out from the crowd. Rather than rely on generic marketing content, enterprises began to see that research, insights and innovation could increase influence and engagement.  

But has thought leadership content itself become too ubiquitous? Are we drowning in whitepapers that no one has the time or will to read?  

We need to do better. And that’s what our Thought Leadership for Tomorrow session, Taking on Tomorrow: Strategic Innovation for your Thought Leadership, was all about.  

The innovation revolution 

The last twenty years have seen immense levels of technological advancement, with the latest being Generative AI. Yet thought leadership content marketers seem stuck in a rut, relying on data-driven whitepapers, blogs and social media to do the work.  

“In today’s world,” said panel member Stuart Feil, VP of Branded Content at Adweek, “the thump factor (judging the value of a thought leadership piece by how heavily it thumps on the table when you drop it) has gone.”  

If no-one is listening, are you really a thought leader?  

Our panel agreed that we need to have a serious rethink and to convey ideas with more agility and adaptability.  

So how do we do that? According to the panel, thought leadership innovation is about form and purpose.  

Playing with the format 

Feil argues that thought leadership needn’t be “dull, long or cerebral”. On the contrary, using disruptive tech to create assets, and understand where and how your audience uses tech, can transform your reach.  

Adweek, said Feil, used immersive storytelling – words, images and action – to entice their audience. It means repackaging longer, data-driven stories and research in a dynamic and visual digital presentation.  

One example is Adweek’s feature The Art and Science of Weather-Wise Marketing, which draws on some of the techniques of scrolly storytelling to present idea snippets, cases, and data storytelling.  

innovation and thought leadership

Concise does not mean dumbing down. On the contrary, creating cut-through means ideas and facts are more easily remembered and actioned.  

Tomas Kellner, Chief Storyteller at Bentley Systems, takes this approach one step further.

He described how his company has moved “beyond words or video towards experience” through the creation of digital twins.  

A digital twin is a virtual representation that can be used to simulate, monitor, and optimise a real-world thing, including buildings, transport, or even cities. It simulates how the physical counterpart might behave under certain conditions and the risks that might emerge.  

An example is Bentley’s Singapore digital twin, which the city-state uses to assess climate resilience and test climate mitigations, such as the best place to situate solar panels.

Thought leadership often focuses on theoretical concepts and future possibilities and communicates these by describing them. Digital twins can take these ideas and create a virtual experience, allowing audiences to see and interact with them more tangibly. It is an entirely new level of immersion.  

Deploying a business product for the purposes of thought leadership is a uniquely innovative format. And it needn’t be digital only.  

Kellner said GE was one of the first companies to embrace 3D printing with metal. They went to conferences with the 3D printer to demonstrate how it worked and printed out objects on request that potential clients could take away. Thought leadership, then, becomes “tactile and concrete,” not just a digital or printed asset.  

Playing with the format is about meeting the audience where they are, and ensuring your ideas get noticed. All our panel members agreed that the starting point for all thought leadership is the audience – how they prefer to consume ideas.  

But it’s not just about consuming ideas. Your audience also wants solutions, and that means thinking about thought leadership as transformative.  

Thought leadership innovation through transformation 

As enterprises evolve their thought leadership programs, research, insights and assets will contribute to ground-breaking solutions, community building and purpose-focused action. As Kellner argued: 

“You don’t have to reach 100,000 people with your thought leadership. You have to reach the 1000 people who really matter and will help you make that decision.” 

ServiceNow is a software company that brings actionable AI to business operations. Panel member Richard McGill Murphy, Editor in Chief at ServiceNow, explained their three steps to positive ROI on thought leadership investment.  

One – sell without selling 

Thought leadership is about building trust in your intellectual authority to help your audience do better.  

Two – advance the story 

Help your audience understand AI’s impact by creating thought leadership projects that help the conversation around AI/human collaboration. A pressing question for global populations is what skills are likely to be automated away and which ones will stay but be AI-augmented. ServiceNow created a global survey to track industry trends.  

One of their unique insights is that AI will create more jobs than it destroys, but it will disrupt occupations everywhere.  

Not content with a simple academic exercise, ServiceNow set up Rise with ServiceNow, a skills programme to fill the IT skills gap.  

Three – build an insights engine 

Develop a distribution and audience engagement strategy that meets your audience where they are.  

Murphy argues that ServiceNow’s process has led to 17 awards, three million visits, and 65% audience growth year on year.  

ServiceNow’s program shows that thought leadership is a very different skill from content marketing and content creation – and it also shows the power of change through thought leadership.  

Feil also revealed how he had to set aside some aspect of his journalism training, which is about representing the expert views of others, to “speak in the expert voice” instead. The story is the expert, the brand is the leader.  

Innovating the medium and the message  

Thought leadership is an ideal way of cutting through the digital noise. However, in recent years a deluge of whitepapers has created a unique problem of cut-through, particularly as workloads increase and attention spans shorten.  

The examples of innovative thought leadership from our panel creates new possibilities.  

One way to be heard and read is to repackage thought leadership insights by taking advantage of new technologies and digital platforms.  

Another is transformation. Transformation is thought leadership’s sweet spot, whether it is offering new value to your audience with IT solutions or solving city-state climate challenges through innovative technology.  

Both mean starting from your audience – what they truly need as opposed to what you want to sell and the form in which they can hear it. And that’s where thought leadership innovation and an entirely new marketing approach must begin.  

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