The Thought Leader's Voice Podcast

Thought Leadership and Women in Leadership: Challenges and Opportunities  

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Cindy Anderson, the Global Lead for Engagement and Eminence at the IBM Institute for Business Value brings to the table a wealth of experience, having served as the leading marketing officer at the IBM Institute for Business Value for nearly four years. During her tenure, she has skillfully overseen editorial direction and design and user engagement strategies. Her remarkable journey includes a significant seven-year role as Chief Marketing and Brand Officer at the Project Management Institute. Here, she not only pioneered a thought leadership framework for the organization but also orchestrated the inception of a strategic coalition. 

Join us as we delve into the profound impact of thought leadership on cultural and commercial growth, women in leadership, and the hot topics in the realm of thought leadership, including the dynamic landscape of generative AI and what it might mean for B2B marketing and insights.   

Key Takeaways

  • Illuminating Perception Gaps: Thought leadership emerges as a potent instrument to spotlight disparities in perception, empowering organizations to communicate effectively and drive meaningful change. 
  • Countering Misinformation Through Thought Leadership: Discover how thought leadership serves as a formidable weapon against misinformation, fostering trust by delivering accurate and reliable insights. 
  • Elevating Trust and Transparency: Explore how thought leadership fosters enhanced trust, and transparency, facilitating seamless communication. 
  • Navigating the AI Trust Landscape: The emergence of AI unveils a complex web of trust-related concerns. Delve into how thought leadership equips organizations to comprehend the intricacies of AI implications and cultivate trust among stakeholders – and how AI could be used in a thought leadership context.

Full Transcript of Podcast with Cindy Anderson

Rachael: Hello and welcome to the Thought Leaders Voice. I’m Rachael Kinsella, Editorial and Content Director at iResearch Services and your host for today’s podcast episode. I’m thrilled to be joined today by Cindy Anderson, Global Lead for Engagement and Eminence at the IBM Institute for Business Value. We’ll be talking about the power of thought leadership for cultural and commercial growth, women in leadership and other pressing issues in the world of thought leadership that we simply can’t ignore, such as Generative AI. 

Cindy has been the lead marketing officer for the Institute for almost four years, overseeing editorial, design and user engagement. She spent seven years as chief marketing and brand officer for the Project Management Institute before that, developing a thought leadership competency for the organization, founding a strategic coalition and regularly contributing as an expert, author and speaker. Cindy has really seen the power of thought leadership play out across a number of sectors, having served as senior marketing and communications executive in such diverse industries as health care, food manufacturing, medical devices and philanthropic organizations. 

Thank you very much for being with us today, Cindy, it’s really great to have you here. 

Cindy: Rachael It’s my pleasure. 

Rachael: Well, there are so many hot topics when it comes to thought leadership, leadership evolving B2B marketing right now. I’d really love to talk to you about them all, so perhaps we can continue our conversations over time on various different topics. But I’d really like to start today by discussing an exciting new development from the Institute for Business Value in collaboration with Chief, that highlights to me certainly the importance of thought leadership in furthering diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, particularly around women in leadership. 

The recently published report on Women in Leadership shines a spotlight on how perception doesn’t exactly match up with reality. We find that thought leadership is a vital tool in highlighting perception gaps like this, and therefore putting organizations in that informed position to be able to communicate and affect change. So what’s your take on the role of thought leadership in improving equity and inclusion? I realize that’s a quite a broad question. 

Cindy: It is, but it’s a great one, so that it’s a good place to start. So we like to think of thought leadership as distinctive and evidence-based intelligence that gives leaders the insights they need to make smarter business decisions. So with that as the lens, when our research tells us something that we didn’t know before, it can be immensely valuable, especially in areas like diversity and equity and inclusion that we’re talking about. 

So in fact, just as we were publishing this study, the Financial Times wrote a long article about the awareness of gender inequity because we’ve all heard the stories about during COVID when in the US, the great resignation, and the outsized impact that COVID in the pandemic and the increased responsibilities were having on women. But as our study shows, the one that you mentioned, the Women in Leadership Study from the IBM Institute for Business Value, awareness without action is really useless. 

So that’s why. from our perspective, that smarter business decisions, the insights that leaders need, really has to include what we also call action leadership. So we take the perspective that thought leadership has to be paired with action leadership. It’s not enough just to have that point of view, that kind of unique insight, but that insight really has to lead to something different, a different decision, the ability to make a different decision for thought leadership to have an impact. And that’s especially important, Rachael, I think in areas like equity and inclusion, more so, I think, even than some of the business and technical areas that we both work in. 

Rachael: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s not enough just to have an opinion or even to be able to showcase particular insights to generate awareness, because that’s all rumbling on in the background. There’s numerous other issues that are coming to light and people are being bombarded with in terms of the news agenda. So actually taking action and having something to say and following it up with actions is increasingly important and vital when it comes to thought leadership on what it can help you achieve as an organization.  

Cindy: Sorry, Rachael, I think that’s our role too as producers. And as experts in our field, in our practice,  awareness is important, don’t get me wrong. But again, as you were saying and as the study points out, without action or without the ability and the rationale and the business reason to make a different decision, it’s just interesting information. We don’t think of it as real thought leadership if it doesn’t prompt action and change. 

Rachael: Yeah, that’s a really important distinction. And also that it’s not just falling to particular individuals within the organization to be spokespeople or a mouthpiece on particular issues, but actually the organization as a whole and the leadership as a whole are taking action that’s been informed by the insights provided. And I think you make a really important distinction in that report, that gender equity is not a women’s issue, it’s an organizational one. And therefore various different stakeholders internally and externally need to be involved in making change happen. 

So how do you feel that thought leadership can really work across the different areas of the organization to be able to build on insights and build on those existing efforts to make that change happen? 

Cindy: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, we’ve talked a little bit already about thought leadership plus action leadership. And in order to help business leaders and the organization as a whole, in particular, when we focus primarily on business leaders in the C-suite, those actions are really designed to prompt a specific activity at the CEO level and almost to the point where we could say to the CEO, listen, take a look at your CHRO, take a look at your Chief Operating Officer and ask them to do this about that. 

One of the important things in this study is that our data shows that gender equity isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s a really smart business decision. And the way that we do that is we identified leading organizations in the study, those who do three things that other organizations don’t, and I’ll just highlight those quickly. First, they treat the advancement of women like any other business priority. It has formal goals. It has plans for achievement. Second is they view gender inclusivity as a driver of financial performance. And then the third thing is they believe that businesses have the obligation to continue to make changes if they’re to achieve gender parity. They’re not waiting for government regulations or outside influences to do that. 

And what we find is when we look at a subset of those organizations, in the study we call them ‘First Movers’, they have a 19% higher revenue growth rate than other organizations. They have better overall diversity and they have higher employee retention than their competitors. And as a leader, once I know that, once I know that there’s that 19% revenue growth premium, how can I in good conscience leave that kind of growth on the table by not addressing it as a business issue, right? 

So what our report does is it offers four concrete actions that leaders can take to improve parity. The first one is really designing roles at the top, that work for top talent. And what that means is breaking the mould on historically defined roles. When’s the last time, for example, any of the organizations that we’ve worked for have redefined the criteria for an executive role? Normally you see like 15 to 20 areas of responsibility when really five or six things are the most important, and you want to make sure that those are really gender neutral requirements. Obviously, ending the pay gap there is an important action that can be taken. 

The second thing is changing the dialog around gender. I mentioned that 19% higher revenue growth, if we start talking about gender parity and equity and diversity in the language of business results and we show that equality for women isn’t a zero-sum game, it doesn’t mean women gain and men lose, but it’s really a benefit for the organization as a whole. And we engage men in the solution to this, one of our co-authors of the study, one of the leaders, a man in our organization, said, you know, if 88% of the people that have to help solve this problem and that number comes from the fact that 12% of people in the C-suite are women, if 88% of the people who have to help solve this problem are men, how can we solve it without them? So we need to engage men in those conversations. 

And then the last two things are really just giving your strategy teeth by setting specific goals; scouting and sponsoring up-and-coming women leaders to make sure that they stay in those pipelines and kind of detangling that messy middle. We find that the middle of the leadership pipeline for women is where it really hollows out and women drop out of that pipeline. And we need to really ask women what they need to stay. And when we did that, one of the things that we heard was very loudly and clearly was that the roles at the top need to be redefined. They just don’t work for women. They’re not inspiring. They’re not challenging. And they’re just not reasonable for the lives that women are leading these days. 

So, long answer there, Rachael, but a lot of action, I think, is the most important thing and across the organization. So it’s not just here’s what women can do, right,; it’s here’s what the organization as a whole needs to do to take responsibility and accountability and consider women’s advancement a business priority. 

Rachael: That’s brilliant, I think. Yes, a long but very helpful answer. And yes, it’s a lot of actions required, but they are defined actions and what you are essentially providing is business case. 

Cindy: That’s exactly right. 

Rachael: To be more successful and looking at it through that commercial lens, and that’s what makes it so important. And that’s what can make so leadership more relevant and compelling and a driver of action because you can quote statistics until they come out of your ears. But unless they’re actually pointing to something that needs to be changed or action that needs to be taken, they’re not going to have any impact. 

And it’s also defined those key areas that need to be reassessed and addressed, particularly, as you say, the pay gap, but also that messy middle, that drop-off point that seems to happen particularly in certain industries. I was involved in a panel at the On-Risk Conference about a month ago where we’re talking about professional services and financial services in particular, where that women in leadership point and the opportunities just seem to drop off a cliff and your report does talk about that in-depth. And so by defining the actions that need to be taken and looking at it from both a commercial and a practical perspective, that’s going to be driving action, and I think that’s what’s really important. 

Cindy: Right. And showing the outcomes that can be achieved by those actions as well by organizations that have done it. So it kind of gives you the playbook with the potential outcome sitting there right in front of you. So it’s almost like a challenge, right, and it’s like, well, you too could be achieving these results. What are you waiting for, right? 

Rachael: Yeah, that’s always going to get everyone’s competitive spirit up, isn’t it? By showing those benchmarks of success and highlighting the front runners, everyone’s going to want to emulate them. So that’s another very clever and commercially sort of agile way of doing it. 

This is a fascinating topic. I’d love to delve into that in more detail and perhaps in another conversation. I think it’s really highlighting the importance of informed insight and shaping thought leadership activity in a way that’s going to resonate with the C-suite, that’s going to resonate with senior audiences and is actually going to drive action. And a lot of that is about trust and also you being very transparent in setting those benchmarks by highlighting those firms that are successful that are doing it well, as a careful nudge to those who are perhaps lagging behind to be able to take action themselves. 

So it kind of comes into your highlighting these perception gaps, you’re highlighting sort of the division between those who are doing it well and those who are doing it so well but in a professional way. And you’re also kind of bringing transparency through to the insights, through the data, through the frameworks that you’re recommending. 

Perception gaps obviously lead to misinformation and a lack of trust. And there’s a lot of data that we’ve been researching recently that thought leadership is definitely more powerful and better engaged with if it’s from a trusted source, if it’s got compelling and quality data behind it. So as well as coming up with these practical solutions and frameworks and ways of being able to drive action, how do you think that thought leadership can be used as a tool to help improve trust and transparency, not just between external and internal stakeholders, so improving customer trust, but also sort of internally across different areas of an organization to be de-siloing those conversations, those different teams, the different activity that that’s going on? 

Cindy: Well, I think thought leadership and trust are inextricably intertwined. So, absolutely they’re there kind of two sides of the same coin or they’re both on the same side of a coin, in fact, I think. But thought leadership is just a powerful tool for business. And I think you all have done some research and we’ve done quite a bit of research as well on the benefit and the impact of thought leadership. 

And I guess I’d start the trust conversation just reflecting on some of the research that we’ve done recently with 3700 global C-suite executives on kind of how they use thought leadership and the value that they see from it. And just a couple of stats, I think, to set us off. 96% of those leaders, so essentially, everyone I don’t really know what the other 4% were thinking, but say that they make better business decisions as a result of consuming thought leadership. And 93% say that their use of thought leadership drives competitive advantage. So that’s really kind of gratifying, right, for those of us who produce thought leadership, because executives do see it as valuable. 

One of my favourite statistics from that study is 85% of C-suite leaders globally rises to 87% in the US, but they say they’ve made a specific purchase decision as a direct consequence of consuming thought leadership within the last 90 days. And that’s really powerful. That’s the power of thought leadership, right? Yeah. 

Rachael: Yeah. Absolutely. 

Cindy: So we’re doing really good things for business leaders. They need the material that we’re producing. And in fact, one of our other stats was how important thought leadership is to fill the gaps in a business leaders own organization because they just don’t have the data and insights that they need, that’s not a skill or a capability that they have in-house. 

But as far as trust, we asked quite a lot about that as well. And there’s kind of a triumvirate of capabilities that leaders tell us that they use to evaluate the trustworthiness and the authority and credibility of thought leadership. And those three things are original proprietary data so that kind of the stats that we’re talking about are really important. We have to have something to back up the point of view. And then the analysis that comes with that data, given the current business environment, so the data plus the analysis. And then that expert insight. And those three things, I think, in combination and our what our survey showed are really the secret sauce for the best thought leadership. 

And when leaders trust the producers of the content, they tell us they purchase more and it’s something like 110% more. So again, to the point I made earlier, I know that as a producer of thought leadership, how can I not try to build more trust and more credibility through the work that I do, get my work out to more executives because it’s immensely valuable to them. The more trusted I am, the more benefit my organization achieves and the better that I can present my organization to my clients and my prospects. 

So, over time, I think those three things, the proprietary data, the quantitative analysis and then the expert insight are really the things that kind of wrap that thought leadership in a bow. And then you pair that with the action steps that we were talking about earlier. And that just drives more and more and more trust. And you do that over time, and that’s what builds the credibility and the trust in the authority in the thought leadership. And I think, you talked about building trust and transparency internally as well as externally. I think that it becomes like a ripple, like a pebble in the water. So if you’re if your clients trust you, your employees trust you; if your employees trust you, your clients trust you. And it’s all based on the credible business insights that you’re developing through your research and your analysis and your point of view. 

So I would say, that’s kind of how I think about thought leadership and trust is those three things tied up with a bow of action leadership and it’s kind of a formula that you can’t mess with. 

Rachael: Yeah, absolutely. I think if you look at it from the perspective that thought leadership is helping customers to make their buying decisions, and your study and our study have backed that up with really significant figures in terms of the power that thought leadership has in actually driving and influencing those decisions coming from those who engage with it directly. 

But if you look at it from that lens internally, it’s helping internal colleagues to make important business and strategic decisions as well. As you say, it’s kind of plugging those knowledge gaps across the organization, it’s helping to de-silo the different teams and the different workstreams as I mentioned. So it’s a powerful tool internally as well to be able to provide the data and the insight to back up those strategic decisions. 

Cindy: Right. And I think the other thing that we don’t often think a lot about is when those of us who have marketing backgrounds think of kind of internal engagement and external engagement, we think of things like social media as how we engage with our clients and prospects and influencers and all. But I think it has a really important impact on our employees and our staff as well. Because when they see the thought leadership that’s getting commented on or that’s getting shared or that’s getting quoted by news outlets or shared by clients or commented on by prospects or other influencers, that makes them feel really confident in the organization that they’re working with as well. 

So, it’s one of those kind of unseen but really important outcomes of having very credible, very trustworthy, very influential thought leadership, that’s targeted toward a client or an external target audience. But it actually impacts our internal audiences as well. And I think we forget that a lot. 

Rachael: Yeah. And it’s increasingly important. And as you say, building credibility and trust internally, having that confidence in the organization, in the products and services offered and how they’re able to offer that and work with clients is something that quite often gets forgotten in the rush to get things to market. But increasingly, it’s becoming important. And what we’re finding when we’re doing a deep dive into thought leadership and how it can be used across different sectors, we’re finding some sectors more than others are actually really turning to social media and other internal engagement tools to share thought leadership, to drive that commenting and sharing, to build knowledge internally, but also to build that trust and almost act as advocates and influencers internally to be able to take that out externally. And it seems to be working very well in financial services in particular. 

Cindy: Right? Yeah, it’s really important, I think. 

Rachael: So where are you seeing companies doing this well and what sort of trends are you seeing in terms of thought leadership communications bearing in mind the need for action-led insights on what we’ve been discussing in terms of the quality data that’s backing up the thought leadership programs, where do you think companies are really excelling and where do you think that they’re falling short? And have you been able to pinpoint particular areas? 

Cindy: Yeah, great question. I think one of the things that we see as we’re sort of scanning the thought leadership market and other practices is there’s a lot of what we would call thought followership up there. I think because the kind of the cost of entry to become a thought leader, and I say thought leader with a fair amount of tongue in cheek is really low, right. Anybody can post an article on LinkedIn, or send something to Medium or whatever and they can call themselves an expert, and they tend to think that a point of view is enough. 

But as I mentioned just a moment ago, our research shows that having a point of view and an expert opinion is important, but you really should be an expert. And you really need to have data and analysis to back that up, otherwise it starts to ring hollow pretty quickly. And I know we’re going to talk about this a little later, but I think Generative AI is really going to give those of us in the thought leadership space a run for our money, the expectation of how much time it takes to produce a piece of thought leadership has shortened, I would say, exponentially over the last six months, and it’s going to continue to get shorter and shorter as we figure out how to integrate Generative AI tools and capabilities not only into our content development but very pertinent to both you and me, our research efforts. 

We’re starting to hear about organizations that are using synthetic sampling for research. But for the listeners who haven’t heard that yet, basically that’s query an AI that’s been trained to see kind of patterns and relationships that are based on real data that it’s been trained on, which of course is going to be a huge amount faster than fielding a unique panel of 300 CEOs from organizations with revenue over 20 billion in six countries, right, that’s going to take time. 

But if you’re querying an AI and eventually the training for those kinds of tools is going to get pretty good and is going to give us pretty, pretty decent insight. We’re not there yet, but we’re starting to see it and it’s going to be really important for all of us who are thought leadership producing organizations to kind of double down on our unique value propositions, whether we think it’s original data, whether we think it’s our ability to create unique content or it’s our expertise. And we’ll have to figure out how to use generative AI to enhance it, otherwise, we risk really quickly all sounding the same eroding that trust that we talked about just a minute ago and really kind of dissipating the immense value that thought leadership has for business leaders. 

So I think that’s one of the things that we’re seeing, and we’ll talk about it, as I said again in a minute. But I think every organization that I’ve spoken to in the last three to four to five months about what they’re doing is really struggling with or kind of challenged to figure out what to do with Generative AI. 

Rachael: Yeah, I think it’s depending on whether you’re a glass half full or glass half empty could be seen as a significant threat, but also a massive opportunity for speeding up processes for complementing the research process through analyzing data, to being able to truncate timelines in terms of getting the points of view from senior audiences. But it’s knowing enough about it to embrace it and to find ways to implement it as well. 

And everyone’s talking about AI, they’re talking about it from different perspectives that there’s pluses and minuses on all sides, but it’s certainly causing a lot of sleepless nights across the C-suite and across CMO’s and thought leadership producers, as you say. So as it develops and as it gets better and as we can see the opportunity to use it as a tool, it would be very interesting to see how that’s rolled out across different types of organizations and different producers of thought leadership. 

But I think you made a really important point there where everyone’s going to have to look at their value proposition and really sing from the rooftops about what makes them different and unique, whether that’s in-depth sector expertise, whether it’s particular subject matter knowledge, whether it’s ways of interpreting the data or telling the stories so that everybody isn’t just pumping out the same stuff, but something that is having to feature in strategic planning now with one eye on how the technology is going to develop and how it can be used so that there’s quite a lot of anticipating how it can be used as well, I would think. 

Cindy: Yeah, absolutely. We have done a fair amount of research already on Generative AI with executives and using AI and thought leadership? And is it okay if I share some of that, Rachael? 

Rachael: Absolutely, yeah. I’d be delighted to hear. 

Cindy: Awesome. This is going to be a surprise to anybody. But executives tell us that their organizations are already seeing immense productivity gains, right, when they use Generative AI. Customer service data is coming in that there’s 30% productivity gains just about overnight by implementing some of the Generative AI capabilities. But much of that is really related to how quickly information can be accessed and synthesized with these AI tools. 

So, 56% of executives in one of our surveys recently said that they expect Generative AI to improve the quality of their content. 56%. So that’s sort of like a blow to those of us who generate content, it’s kind of depressing when you think that 56% of the executives think that Generative AI is going to improve the content that the people in their organizations already produce. And it might be why 27% of executives say that they expect that some of the roles in marketing are going to be completely replaced 27% by Generative AI this year, and the remaining marketing roles they expect to be enhanced or augmented by AI. So there’s really no escaping Generative AI for those of us who produce content. 

And by the way, marketing is the organization that executives say is going to see the biggest impact the soonest. So, again, that you mentioned, kind of we have to keep an eye on it. We really have to keep an eye on it because it’s going to impact us and our colleagues faster and quicker and more deeply than other parts of the organization. And I’m sure it’s starting already. 

Rachael: Yeah, absolutely. 

Cindy: Yeah. Some of the other research that we conducted is about thought leadership in particular, and 47% of executives said that they think Generative AI should be used, specifically, should be used in the creation of thought leadership, and 54%, going back to trust, say they’ll trust thought leadership more if it’s produced using Generative AI. So it feels to me like there’s a crisis of confidence in the content development capability within organizations. 

So that’s an opportunity, I think all of us who are content producers to our point about what’s your unique value proposition. We need to get better at content, I think, is what we’re hearing from executives. 78% of executives in that same study said that that original proprietary research contributes to the trustworthiness of thought leadership. And 24% say they’ll trust that data less if Generative AI is used in the collection of it. And one more data point. 58% of executives say they’re more likely to make a purchase based on thought leadership when it is created solely by Generative AI, not even as an input tool, but just prompts output content, they’re saying they’re more likely to purchase. 

Now, what I take away from some of these data that are pretty disparate and in some ways, as I said, depressing is we really just don’t know yet what the impact is going to be with executives on producing thought leadership on their consumption of thought leadership. But we know it’s going to be an important shift, whatever way it goes. There’s already early evidence that, number one, there’s opportunity, and number two, there’s risk. So I know you all are going to keep an eye on it. We’ll keep an eye on it. But it’s definitely something that people need to go into ready to explore and learn more about. 

Rachael: Yeah, absolutely. And see where the fit is across the organization. Because as some of those data points show that it probably reflects a growing feeling that there’s too much content out there and it’s not differentiated enough and it’s not necessarily trustworthy and it’s not necessarily telling you anything new. So probably ties in with that alongside great excitement about the capabilities of Generative AI and the productivity gain. 

Cindy: And the speed, honestly, yeah, the speed. It takes longer to write a good piece of thought leadership when you’re a human. It takes all the time and thought, when you’re an AI, you can do it pretty quickly. 

Rachael: Yeah. So, on the one hand that’s a massive opportunity because it can help speed up processes, it can help speed up timeline in terms of creating thought leadership, getting it ready to and getting it out to market. But then in terms of quality and differentiation, again, that’s where some of the risks come in. So assessing it from all sides is so important rather than the getting carried away. And I think it’s kind of those sorts of conversations are leading to concerns, particularly across marketing teams about roles being replaced or particular functions being replaced. So it’s definitely got to feature in the overall business strategy. It’s got to feature heavily. 

And again, keeping a close eye on the implications both positive and negative. So it’ll be very interesting to see how things play out there. And it’s also interesting looking at it through the lens of increasing investment in thought leadership, which we’re seeing across different industries. So will that investment be sort of all put in the tech bucket and allocated to AI and how it can be used? Or will it be evenly split across the teams involved in producing that content or doing that kind of marketing activity? And I think that some of the big questions that will be coming up and executives are having in their conversations now. 

Cindy: Yeah, absolutely. And even in terms of will some of that investment be used to outsource and will that benefit some of the agencies that are out there to the detriment of in-house marketing and thought leadership producing organizations as well? So that’s something to watch from an investment perspective. 

Rachael: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s because you could see a completely different distribution model across the marketplace if that starts to happen. 

Cindy: Yeah 

Rachael: I also wonder whether there’s an element of one of the findings from our most recent report looking at thought leadership, is the struggle that financial services firms in particular are having is coming up with topics for thought leadership. And I wonder if there’s an element of that, so being able to use AI to come up with topics in the first place and sense check those about whether they’re of interest to the target audiences or relevant, and to be able to do that very quickly. Whether that’s a key element that’s helping sort of drive that usage of AI and that opportunity. 

Cindy: Could very well be. And I think that goes back to looking strategically at the purpose of thought leadership in an organization. My initial thought would be if an organization is struggling to come up with topics, then they probably don’t have the expert insight to apply to a topic that they would generate through AI, which again goes to the erosion of trust and so forth. 

So again, I just think it’s going to be a fantastically interesting time in our field because there’s so much opportunity if we can figure out how to manage the risk. And honestly, if we can make sure that we don’t get paralyzed by fear, right, of becoming irrelevant or of being replaced or whatever, I think we have to just really embrace the technology. It’s one of the things I tell people as kind of a key takeaway is you really have to embrace the technology and figure how to make you better at what you do, yeah. Because it’s not going away. 

Rachael: Yes, exactly. So how can it be used for the most benefit for the individuals who are going to be producing these materials, who are going to be working on these projects, how can it make your life easier and embrace that and look at it strategically? As you say, if you’re not clear on topics on why you’re producing thought leadership in the first place, then you need to go back to the drawing board and have a good, long, hard look at why you’re doing it in the first place. 

And then it kind of comes full circle as have you got the expertise and the areas that you need, have you got anything that actually stands you out from the crowd? And if you don’t, then you need to follow another direction. But yeah, it’s absolutely fascinating. I think there’s so many opportunities there in so many ways that AI can be used to increase productivity, shorten lead times, support different colleagues across the organization, but doing it in a measured and strategic way rather than just jumping on the bandwagon or just using something because it’s the in thing, actually thinking about the implications and thinking about the implications for all involved as well. So it’s going to be really, really interesting to keep a close eye on how that’s impacting thought leadership in particular. 

Cindy: Absolutely, it will be. 

Rachael: So we talked a little bit about investments and some interesting trends that we’re seeing in terms of organizations investing more in their thought leadership, whether that’s outsourcing, whether it’s building up the expertise within their particular teams, whether that’s producing more thought leadership. And you’ve done some really groundbreaking work on how you can prove your commercial returns on thought leadership activity, something that’s long been debated, and a lot of people saying god, no, you can’t measure thought leadership. 

Something that I’ve championed over the years, of course, you can measure thought leadership because it interacts with so many different of your interactions, whether that’s internal engagement, as we said, whether it’s knowledge-sharing and making sure that your people are armed with the right tools and insights, whether it’s leading to client conversations or potential client conversations. 

And if you’re keeping track of all of that and you’re looking at how the thought leadership activity that you’re doing is really driving those conversations or driving that activity, then that’s a really good way of quantifying it. But you’ve actually taken it a step further and come up with some mathematical ways of being able to calculate your return on thought leadership investment. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? 

Cindy: I can, yeah. We’re super proud that from what we can tell, for the very first time, we’ve calculated a credible, reliable thought leadership ROI that’s anchored in research and derived from data, and that’s really important to us. And that’s been kind of the challenge before. And I think you mentioned it a bit ago, when organizations try to calculate thought leadership ROI, they start with the I and they try to figure out what the return is on the I. 

What we did is we looked at our data and started with the R and looked at the return and then back into what that meant for the investment. So basically, from what we can tell, it’s the first time that there’s a calculation that’s not based on suppositions or expectations or metrics that were borrowed from other marketing methods and it’s just great for my background as a CMO. 

I wish I had had this number that justifies the significant investment in thought leadership because I think of it and then I promote it as the foundation of pretty much every effective marketing mix. And the drumroll is that the average ROI is about 156% for a thought leadership investment. Now, obviously, that ROI can fluctuate based on specific organization attributes, things like the geography, the size, the industry. And it also varies somewhat significantly based on the specific levers of value that impact an organization’s thought leadership return, things like independence and trustworthiness. But these are real numbers and they’re based on real data. 

So essentially what we did to make the calculation was we captured the direct and influence spend from consuming organizations, so the return, right, what leaders are spending as a result of thought leadership. We factored in mind share and a few other elements based on the research on what they told us and then we applied a net profit number and calculated the return. So again, it’s all based on data from our survey and it’s real numbers. 

And we have a methodology, we have a calculator so that people will be able to determine their own organizations ROI by plugging in their own numbers. And all of that is going to be outlined in a forthcoming book that we expect will be available early next year. And one of the most exciting things about the calculation was we realized that the return for thought leadership is about 16 times higher than returns from traditional marketing campaigns, and that’s based on benchmarks that we could find. 

So, I don’t know how accurate marketing has been over time, but what we could find was that this is about 16 times higher than a typical marketing mix. So we’re really excited about it. We’ve talked about it in a few places and our colleagues are really excited about it and we can’t wait to get it out there. 

Rachael: That’s fantastic. I think having that data and methodology backed to points that you can actually hold up and say, well, I can demonstrate it that this is the return, retaking it from that again very commercial perspective. But as you mentioned, the average ROI 156%, pretty impressive. And also when you compare it against the traditional marketing campaigns or marketing mix and metrics, again, it kind of says it all really, and I would really love to have a tool like that when I was in financial services marketing to be able to justify thought leadership activity. I’m sure a lot of people will find that incredibly valuable. 

And also it’s encouraging from a thought leadership perspective to see that we found from our own research organizations that are investing in thought leadership and doing it properly are reaping the commercial benefits, and they’re tracking it through various different means. And indeed, we have a tool that tracks where thought leadership is providing return on investment across various different metrics, whether that’s reputation, recognition, revenue, etc, and to be able to quantify it and to be able to go to the CEO and say, okay, well, I need more budget now because we’ve just proved that this is work or give me the same budget and I’ll show you what the return is this incredibly powerful and something that I think will stop some of the thought leadership eye roles that you see quite often. 

Cindy: Yeah, that’s the hope, right? 

Rachael: Yeah, absolutely. I think that we’re really keen, to obviously once the book is published, to show that and make more information available as and when but without you keeping a close eye on that. I thank you for sharing with us on this discussion today. 

Cindy: Yeah, happy to. 

Rachael: I think despite turbulent times economically, geopolitical pressures, there’s a lot going on, there’s concerns around AI and impacts on organizations and on particular roles. In the face of all of this, thought leadership is driving commercial success. I think we’ve both got a lot of data that backs that up. And I had a lot of conversations with business leaders that is all pointing in that direction. So I think that’s incredibly encouraging when it comes to demonstrating the power of thought leadership, looking at the cultural power of thought leadership as we talked about its impetus for action on diversity, equity and inclusion on better equality with women in leadership and all these different areas where it can improve internal measures, processes, ways of working. 

So I think we’ve got a lot to be thankful for when it comes to thought leadership and what it’s offering to businesses. And I think you mentioned earlier, Cindy, that we’re actually doing a lot of good stuff for our business leaders and it’s coming across through thought leadership activity. So I find that really heartening actually. 

Are there other significant trends that you’re seeing when it comes to thought leadership in these turbulent times and perhaps some particular insights that you can share there? 

Cindy: Yeah. I think we’ve talked a bit about it, but I really think in the near future, the only sort of trend is really going to be how to deal with Generative AI. And as I said, we’ve talked a lot about it. I think a lot of smaller producers, I think, are really jumping in with both feet. They’re grabbing the productivity. They’re sort of kind of heading into the deep water, not recognizing there might be fish there with sharp teeth. 

And what I really mean by that is, we’re all familiar with ChatGPT, right, a hundred million people in two months signed up to use it, the large language models like that have been trained on content that’s largely scraped from the web and other places that we don’t really know about because the what we call the provenance of data, the history, where it came from is really unclear. And what that means is these models were very likely trained on at least some content that’s copyrighted by somebody, right? And that means somebody is going to want to get paid for that content. 

So, in fact, just yesterday I saw that a group of 9,000 authors, some pretty famous names, sent a letter to some tech companies demanding compensation for the use of their content in the training of models. So that same thing is already happening, right, with artists and musicians. So what does that mean for thought leadership producers who create content and try to improve productivity and use it to generate kind of speed and so forth? We just don’t know. 

But we should be cautious because if that turns into something and we know it’s a big deal, copyrights are important and it’s not going to be solved any time quickly. But we should definitely, and this is, I encourage my team we talked about it as well, to kind of play around and experiment it so that when some of this hype dies down and when we get to the real business value, some of the early adopters have faded away, some of the legal stuff has been sorted out, we know how to use it. We know how to use Generative AI to improve our own productivity and speed our content creation and deliver better outputs and enhance our unique value propositions. And I just think that’s going to be kind of the common refrain probably ad nauseum, at least the rest of this year and probably into next. That’s really the only thing we’re hearing about from a kind of a trends perspective, honestly. 

Rachael: Yeah, I think it’s a big enough one to be going on with and to be focusing on. And you raised incredibly important point in terms of provenance, of data, of insights and content, being able to reference that check the accuracy of sources and also not infringe anybody’s copyright or IP, that’s going to be a major challenge. 

But if we look at how AI, can as you say, complement other activity, whether it’s complementing research that’s being done through other means, whether it’s complementing content that’s being created, as long as you can accurately reference and attribute sources and be very mindful of other people’s content. But it’s being able to well, firstly, knowing that in the first place and acknowledging it and then actually making a policy and building a framework of how you use it around that to make sure that you’re mitigating the risk as much as possible. 

Cindy: Right. Yeah, exactly. 

Rachael: And again, that comes back to the misinformation conversation that’s of being able to identify misinformation, factcheck thoroughly still going to be a very great need for careful editing and editorial services and an approach to thought leadership and the content that’s being created. So it’s another area that teams are going to have to be very aware of and build into that processes. 

Cindy: Yes, absolutely. 

Rachael: So I think we’re just coming up to time. I think we’ve covered a lot of really key trends for thought leadership, but it’s been fantastic. And thank you so much for sharing the data points and insights from your recent research and reports. I’m sure all listeners will find that incredibly useful. 

Cindy: My pleasure. 

Rachael: Would you be able to just leave me with your three key takeaways that you would like our listeners to bear in mind and around thought leadership and where we see it going? 

Cindy: I can. Alrighty. First thing I would say and I do say to organizations when I speak about this, is find and leverage your superpower, your thought leadership superpower. So whether it’s your data, whether it’s a particular point of view, as you said, in an industry or a sector, if it’s a unique writing or delivery style, everybody’s going to need something that differentiates them and their thought leadership from others especially as it gets easier and easier to copy things. So that superpower and, unique value proposition, whatever you want to call it, you have to find it and leverage it to your advantage and to the advantage of your organization. So that’s number one. 

Number two is don’t be afraid of the technology, this or any other technology. Grab onto it. Experiment with it. Be cautious. But be ready to figure out how you’re going to use it to make you better at what you do, how to enhance that superpower. We say a lot that it isn’t going to replace people, but people who use AI are going to replace people who don’t. 

So figure it out on your own. Get your teams to figure it out, again cautiously, go with guardrails. But you’ve got to experiment. You’ve got to be ready for when, like I said, some of the hype dies down. So that’s number two. And number three is you got to calculate your ROI. There just is going to be no choice moving forward but to demonstrate the value that thought leadership delivers in business value terms, right. We’re just not going to have a choice, saying, well, we think it’s helping because we’re seeing some of the indicators, that the days of being able to do that are over with the availability of data and measurement and metrics. So get familiar with the numbers; however you use it, whether you use our calculation or some other, there’s going to have to be some way for you to prove the value of the work that that you do and that we all do. 

So those are be my three takeaways. And Rachael, it’s really been a pleasure talking with you and I hope we can do it again. 

Rachael: Thank you, Cindy. So appreciate that. And I absolutely love it. Identify and bonus your thought leadership superpower. I think that the three points that you mentioned are music to my ears and the three key areas that we’re always banging the drum for. So I hope everyone takes that to heart and can really take something from that as well. And thank you again for sharing your fascinating insights and for joining me today. Thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and hope we can do it again soon on some other topics. 

Cindy: My pleasure, Rachael. I’ll talk to you soon. 

Rachael: Thanks, Cindy. Take care. 

Cindy: Bye. 

Rachael: Bye. 

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