Define Thought Leadership To Get Ahead

Successful pursuit of a thought leadership strategy means first defining your ambition. Start with this sound definition.

Are we on the same page?

I approach the topic having been involved in thought leadership efforts for a number of financial service companies that had varying levels of success with their thought leadership programs, where messages worked very well or less well, and the cultural and linguistic issues were identified and managed to different degrees. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from the experience is that a thought leadership effort requires a common understanding/definition of thought leadership. Otherwise, problems can arise.

One clear challenge for organizations that have either embraced or are intending to embrace thought leadership is to nail down exactly what kind of thought leadership they want to produce and identify their intended audience. The fact that the definition of the term ‘thought leadership’ remains elusive, and does not translate easily into foreign languages can severely hamper efforts in multinational firms to agree on a course of action. Even in situations where everyone speaks the same language, thought leadership often means different things to different people.

Also known as…

As far as business jargon goes, thought leadership is not the worst term out there. It does however lend itself to considerable confusion and misinterpretation due to its seemingly straightforward meaning. Variants on the term ‘thought leader’ exist, and range from equally serious constructs such as opinion leader or guru, to the more vernacular rock star or even ninja.

Pictured: Teenage Mutant Thought Leaders? By 専門店の即時から via Wikimedia Commons

Coming to terms

For my money, it’s hard to beat the definition provided by Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard Business School, who in an interview stated:

“I would define a thought leader as someone who stands above subject-matter expertise and is an authority in their field. And they have to be able to prove that expertise with a track record. Think of it this way: subject-matter expertise resides within a company. Thought leadership resides within an industry. Thought leaders provide clarity, especially to industries that are in flux. They teach.”

At face value, the term ‘thought leadership’ suggests being at the forefront of innovation and the ability to offer new ideas. But this is a narrow view that–while fairly clear for an individual–hinges too much on a single person and thus makes it harder to apply to an entire company. To anchor thought leadership in a wider organizational context, I offer the following definition:

Thought leadership (n): the practice of achieving an ongoing dialogue using educational content that influences how your audience thinks in order to achieve recognition as a trusted expert in your field.

A thought leader plays 3 roles: 1) recognized expert, 2) valued communicator and 3) muse.

1. Recognized expert

It’s widely agreed that the designation of ‘thought leader’ is socially defined–that is, it’s a function of being perceived by others as such. The definition calls out the social nature of the concept by identifying an audience along with the role to which one aspires–that of trusted expert. It implies a relationship just as leadership does between leader and follower(s). Note that obtaining recognition as a trusted expert is the goal or stated objective here (‘in order to achieve’) which gives it a sense of purpose.

2. Valued communicator

This definition also offers an indication of how this occurs: through an exchange of ideas–educational content–that are both helpful (people find a use for it) and compelling–meaning that the audience values it so highly that they  strongly embrace and even shared it with other. It’s important to distinguish the kind of content that’s transmitted as thought leadership content from more garden-variety content such as product specifications or advertising which companies produce in abundance.

3. A muse

Describing the nature and impact of the type of content that is transmitted defines what kind of thought that we’re dealing with here. The message must be formulated in such a way that it leads the audience to change their way of thinking (influences or significantly alters the way they think)–that is, in receiving the message the audience cannot help but react, though how this is accomplished will vary. It may be done by re-framing a familiar issue and portraying solutions in a new light, offering up data that shocks or surprises, advocating actions that run counter to current practice, etc.

Now head that direction

This definition provides guidelines as to the actors, mechanics and purpose of thought leadership. As you can see, this interpretation strips away the sheen of thought leader as innovator or contemporary Einstein that consistently churns out groundbreaking ideas one after the other–a difficult if not impossible task.  By highlighting the audience and the nature of the content, it shifts the focus to that of a strategic communicator acting as a guide to prospective and existing clients. It also places thought leadership squarely in the realm of content marketing.

Leverage Your Market Sizing to Raise Your Profile in 5 Steps

If you already do market sizing, use that as fuel for content that raises your firm’s profile.

When it comes to business, certain bits of information are essential for us to put a firm or its products into context. The size of the market is one such tidbit. It allows us to grasp how a firm ranks versus its competitors, shows whether its share of the pie is growing or shrinking, and how the pie itself is growing or shrinking.

Picture of pie
Pictured: The pie (that I made myself that was every bit as delicious as it looks)

Show me the pie

Market sizing is curious activity. It can consume a lot of resources and serve as a key input for strategy and investment discussions. It’s also closely guarded and rarely communicated outside of the company. There is, however, a reason to use key figures from the exercise: namely, to gain credibility with stakeholders including clients, prospects and the media.

Minimum required information

In some cases, the size of the market is a basic data point that you have to provide prospects in order to gain their custom. In financial services, investors will want to know how an asset class compares to what they already hold in their portfolio. Institutional investors are looking to gauge capacity issues. Any basic case for investment type of material will detail both the primary and secondary market volumes: the first in total outstanding and the second in yearly amounts. In other sectors, clients may be completely indifferent to these considerations–though you can still leverage the data to gain an advantage.

Here are a few tips for turning market size figures into thought leadership:

1. Choose the market

You have 2 options: either size the market for your product (choose 1 category) or for your clients’ products (again, choose 1 category). With the former, you position yourself as being knowledgeable about your own activity–a step down the path of demonstrating expertise and later thought leadership. With the latter, where your clients compete globally and their production volumes (supply) have an impact on prices (demand)–you’re offering them a kind of customer service to help them better understand their industry and competitive context (B2B service).

Pick one. I’ve seen either work for different firms.

2. Confirm the target

I meant to do that.

Is there a common understanding of annual market turnover? For a product such as smartphones, the answer is clearly yes. Those manufacturers release regular reports on the number of products sold. For public firms, it’s a clear factor for revenue and earnings projections closely followed by analysts. No mystery there.

If you’re tackling more of a niche sector that may be highly fragmented and there doesn’t appear to be a trusted source of this data, that’s a sign you have an opportunity to build a common reference point for the industry. (Bear in mind that consultants and market research firms will also be fishing in these waters).

3. Pull back the curtain

Is anybody out there?

Share some of your key figures with the outside world. Start with where you’re at today, or perhaps fill in the past few quarters or years to provide context and show a trend. Be descriptive. From there, you can begin to discuss trends and factors that influence them. It’s an opportunity to speak to clients about those trends, and for you to solicit their views. For highly regulated or compliance-sensitive sectors, it gives you the chance to talk about something other than product when you have a public platform (live event, webinar, etc.).

4. Be bold

If you’ve got the courage and internal support, give your views on where the market is headed in the future. Make a projection. Caution: this one can be intimidating for many folks. If you can stomach it, you’ll benefit from the anchoring effect. In essence,  Being the first to put a number out will tie the discussion around your reference point. Clients and journalists may go around asking your competitors for their views/estimates, but largely to compare with your figure. You gain the lead.

5. Rinse, repeat

The source of all marketing strategy, less dandruff

Marketing basically follows the instructions on your shampoo bottle. Repetition is key, so insert your market figures into discussions with clients, journalists, etc. And if you gain traction, plan to repeat the exercise on a regular basis (probably quarterly or yearly). Good luck.


How to Relaunch a Flagship Publication in 8 Steps

As content marketing continues to dominate B2B marketing discussions, many firms are reviewing their preferred tactics and key messages in order to reinforce their content marketing effectiveness.

A few years ago I was tasked with formally reviewing a firm’s flagship print publication–a notable example of content marketing launched with the right intentions, objectives and support from top management. Here’s a series of eight steps to relaunch a flagship publication based on that experience.

Despite a 6-figure annual budget and dedicated headcount, the publication had languished since initial launch–unable to gain traction with its intended audience and increasingly recognized within the company as a required, if not painful, exercise.

Weighing in at more than 100 pages per issue, the print publication appeared erratically several times per year, in part due to production lead times of up to 5 months. It had few fans and plenty of critics–both inside and outside the firm. It was a classic white elephant, commanding prestige while incurring costs far in excess of the value it delivered for the company.

Here are the steps I took to assess, re-position and relaunch the publication.

1. Get a baseline reading on inputs and outputs

With a recurring publication, it’s fairly straightforward to measure the inputs–what it takes to bring the thing into existence. Total hours spent and budget are common metrics. The goal here is to mark a starting point so that you have a basis for comparison later on. This was helpful to me since I was new to the project, hence unfamiliar with some of the elements set out years ago.

If you want to be more sophisticated, you can breakdown the cost per hour along the various production stages in order to get an indication of where it may be most effective to outsource parts of the process.

2. Check the publication’s objective and target audience

Dust off the documented purpose/objective of the publication and its intended audience. Make sure that these still match the company’s strategy. In my case, these were not document. If these are not written down, talk with those at the genesis of the project and document that understanding. Then share these notes. I found that this can help clarify the aims of the project and garner support, especially when you can demonstrate how the project’s objectives coincide with a stakeholders’ aims.

3. Ask the audience

After establishing a baseline for production and confirming the goal and target audience, look at how the readership reacts to the content. Website statistics offer a good starting point. The crucial determinant of success is whether anyone wants to read your content. The easiest way to find out? Ask them. For the publication I conducted a readership survey that allowed respondents to answer online or by post (postage paid, of course). The challenge here is to make participation as frictionless as possible for the readers: if it’s in any way difficult or frustrating to provide feedback, response rates will suffer accordingly. Also, solicit feedback from your internal stakeholders. Having them complete the same questionnaire can be an eye-opening way to show that perceptions inside and outside the firm can vary significantly. In this case, I found it valuable to get the sales team’s input as well.

Results from the readership survey revealed that the audience was interested in more accessible, shorter pieces of RELEVANT content–e.g. that the content address their needs and interests. It also provided an indication of what kind of topics they expected the company (as a service provider) to cover.

4. Set an editorial policy

Your editorial policy will encapsulate information from the earlier steps including the objective, intended audience and writing/production guidelines. In a way it can be thought of as an agency brief that can be handed over to someone else for execution. The more clarity and detail a policy provides, the better. I prefer editorial policies that include quality standards or a checklist for contributors–though these may not be necessary if your organization already has writing guidelines or an editorial approval process.

In a medium or large sized organization, it’s wise to convene an editorial board that governs the editorial policy and meets regularly to review performance. The board can then assign daily implementation of the editorial function to an individual or a team.

The upfront work of setting an editorial policy will help improve the quality and relevance of your content over time.

5. Review the ‘look and feel’

Some people mistakenly focus all their attention on the content–what’s being said or written–or that design is merely an artistic consideration. All of these strawmen are wrong.

While content matters a great deal, it’s not the only thing that matters. Contrary to the old adage, many people do judge a book by its cover. So make that cover appealing. Use it to entice readers to turn the pages.

For the relaunch I conducted, the production work proved incredibly expensive, because the dimensions of the 100+ page documents were so costly to print and ship. Scaling down to a sleeker, more attractive, look and feel for the publication not only matched what the audience asked for in the readership survey–it also cut production time and shipping costs by 35 percent. To lock in these savings, guidelines on size and weight were set.

A few more design tips:

– Use image and color to set the tone

– Build out multiple levels of reading that allow readers to skim and then ‘dive in’ where they see an interest

– Avoid stock photos

– Consider how the work will appear in print and onscreen

6. Set a schedule

While technically your publication’s frequency (daily, weekly, monthly) should be contained in the editorial policy, publishing frequency is only the tip of the iceberg–the visible part of the production process. What’s hidden is the production time–which can range from a few hours for a blog post to several weeks or even months for an article or white paper. Your publication schedule will help you to sort this out. Update this often, share with stakeholders and build in some flexibility (i.e. swap publication dates of different pieces or have a backup piece prepared) in order to avoid excess anxiety over deadlines.

Adhering to a schedule–rather than publishing when a piece is completed–will help set your audiences expectations. Further down the road, if you are successful, your audience will anticipate and look forward to upcoming publications.

7. Deliver multiple formats

Your audience receives and consumes content in a variety of ways. In some countries, it’s preferable to hand-deliver print publications, which requires engagement from your sales teams. In other places, postal delivery is difficult or unreliable–so electronic delivery is preferred. A print publication can have a whole new life online. Here, it was necessary to revamp the website, update the email delivery process leveraging a state of the art emailing tool, initiate a social media campaign and create a smartphone app that offered readers their choice of ways to consume the content–all in addition to the print publication.

The key thing to bear in mind is that moving from long form (article-sized) to short form (social media) content requires additional effort and that the storytelling takes place in a more open (shareable) though confined (140 characters or less) space. Allocate the necessary resources to make this run smoothly, rather than treating it as an afterthought.

8. Measure effectiveness

A successful relaunch doesn’t end when the ‘new and improved’ version is unveiled. It’s a milestone that marks the time to step back review the ground that has been covered. The editorial board is a great forum for this discussion. Gauging your audience’s reaction requires conducting a second readership survey, along with analysis of web statistics, for comparison of the before and after results. In this particular case, audience engagement indicators–how much time was spent reading the material and how often the content became a part of discussions with clients–more than doubled. This can largely be attributed to the editorial policy and design work. In addition, the roll-out of multiple electronic formats allowed sales teams in some markets to increase their audience reach by 800 percent.

Give yourself time to succeed

Overall, this particular relaunch resulted in higher audience engagement, greater audience reach, quicker production times and lower costs. But not all of these benefits come immediately. It takes time for an audience to recognize improvement. (Incidentally, it presents the opportunity to run a relaunch marketing campaign if you want to play up transparency around the effort).

Relaunching a flagship publication can be a time-consuming effort. Given the potential benefits, along with the opportunity to forge a stronger connection between you and your audience, it’s an exercise worth considering. With these steps in hand, the effort should be that much easier.

TED Talks Offer Tips for Content Marketing Success

The other day I was shown the WORST online TED talk I’ve ever seen. But since the individual who shared it with me has a real passion for the topic and is genuinely interested in delivering high quality content, I could not resist jumping in and uncovering a few choice insights about giving a great TED talk. Along a journey of discovery I found some incredibly valuable lessons for anyone interested in effective communications techniques, storytelling, content marketing and thought leadership.

If you’re not familiar with TED, it’s a nonprofit ‘devoted to spreading ideas’ according to its website, holding annual events for more than a decade. Though not without its critics, TED has single-handedly industrialized the purveyance of insight, with experts skillfully delivering interesting presentations in 18 minutes or less. The key question is, what makes a TED talk great?

The short answer: it’s about public speaking

Sam Leith, in a well-written review of Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, paraphrases the 9 ‘secrets’:

  • Be passionate about your topic
  • Engage the audience by telling stories
  • Treat your speech like a conversation
  • Tell the audience something it doesn’t know
  • Include a few jaw-droppers
  • Use humor
  • Keep it brief
  • Engage all the senses by painting word-pictures
  • Be authentic.

There are a few more tips. As Leith points out, acting plays an important role, too. Delivery relies on good body language, voice control and a ‘a sweet spot of about 190 words per minute.’ Why 190 words per minute, which is at the high end of normal speech? According to at least one speech communication professor, Stephen D. Boyd, “[p]sychologists have found that speakers who deliver at a rate of 190 words per minute are more likely to seen as credible, objective, knowledgeable, and persuasive as compared to slow speakers.”

Kelly Stoetzel, TED content director, puts a lot of emphasis on rehearsal and preparation. In particular, you should ‘expect something to go wrong.’ That’s why it’s crucial to ‘know your material backwards and forwards.’ Importantly, you should construct your presentation for those who are listening. As Stoetzel notes, ‘the best type of speaker is one who is constantly thinking about the audience.’ For me, that last point should act as the overarching guideline to keep in mind–above the list of tricks and tips.

The long answer: it’s more than public speaking

Chris Anderson, TED curator, is in a unique position to weigh in on successful public speaking. In this video, he explains how to get the  best ‘substance’ (read: high quality content + strong delivery) to room full of TEDx conference organizers–coaching the coaches of TED speakers across the world. If you have 20 minutes, it’s worth watching in full. If you don’t have time, just keep reading.

Here’s what I take from Chris Anderson’s talk:

Every journey begins with a single word

The “very first thing that must be done in a talk […] is to pick a journey.” Anderson refers to each presentation as a step-by-step journey along which the speaker guides the audience. He describes a journey as a process of discovery and persuasion that can (but doesn’t have to) have the structure of detective story. Start with a question, a riddle, or an unexplained observation. Then start down the path. Along the way show clues. Sprinkle in ‘aha’ or eureka moments to taste.

The journey metaphor works because there’s a starting point and a destination. I think this is particularly powerful because it implies a purpose: you have a motivation or objective to achieve — and it involves getting your listeners’ brain gears churning along the lines you set out in the direction of your target aim. That’s why Stoetzel’s admonition to be ‘constantly thinking about the audience’ holds so much weight.

Plan a few pit stops

“Talks can’t advance difficult ideas without populating them with these rich examples,” says Anderson. Big concepts fly over people’s heads rather quickly if there’s nothing tangible or compelling to back them up. Likewise, anchoring the speech to several key examples helps fix the distance you’re able to travel with the audience. There are only a certain number of steps you can take in 18 minutes. Some speakers try to go too far. Anderson reminds that “in an 18-minute talk, trying to give more than three big examples is pretty hard.”

Jettison jargon

Anderson examines what works–and what doesn’t–for TED talks. One barrier is the speaker’s fog of unclear communication: “language that, in the context of a speaker’s worldview, makes total sense–but it isn’t where the people are.” This means using accessible language and avoiding jargon.

It also signals something important about the journey: it begins from your audience’s starting point, not yours. Technical experts need to strip down messages to simple, lay terms. Put yourself in the listener’s shoes. Assume your audience has an average education level and low awareness of your topic–then adjust these assumptions as needed.

Strike the right chords

“People think they have cracked the TED code with emotion” Anderson says, seemingly unconvinced–leaving the impression that this is not the best route to follow. First of all, it’s not that straightforward. “Inspiration is not something you get by targeting directly,” but rather a combination of authenticity and the sense of possibility, he adds.

When wielding emotion as a speaking tool, there is at least one ‘no go’ area. “Too much ego on stage is a bad thing,” notes Anderson. As listeners, “[w]e don’t like arrogance […] we start to shut down. The opposite of that is vulnerability.” A number of successful TED speakers have highlighted vulnerability as being the emotion they sought to convey. Vulnerability is powerful. Speakers willing to take a risk and ask the audience to join them on the journey create a human connection that makes people want to get involved in the conversation.

On humor, Anderson equivocates. Use humor, if you can. Not everyone can do humor, he adds. His most concise tips may be the most meaningful. “Be authentic. Don’t sell.”

Ask for help

Identifying your story and shaping it for an audience means that you’ll confront several critical questions. Anderson has identified the most challenging ones: “Is this person a leader? Do they have an idea the world needs to know about? Have they found a  way to make it accessible? Is this idea, or the scope of their work possible to fit into eighteen minutes? If not, what is the angle?”

Convincing others that your topic is fresh and it matters is, according to Anderson, “the single hardest thing to do.” He adds that “this is where speakers need help. It almost takes a journalist.”

The good news: it can be learned

As Chris Anderson wrote in ‘How To Give a Killer Presentation’ for Harvard Business Review:

“Since we began putting TED Talks online, in 2006, they’ve been viewed more than one billion times. On the basis of this experience, I’m convinced that giving a good talk is highly coachable. In a matter of hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from muddled to mesmerizing.”

For those of us looking to deliver great presentations, that’s reassuring.

What do you think? Are there other keys to delivering a great TED talk or presentation?


How Content Marketing Is Sweeping Asset Management

More and more asset managers are riding the content marketing wave. What began in so-called Anglo-Saxon markets like the US, UK and Australia has quickly swept Europe and Asia. Firms are looking to create new content teams or reposition existing ones in order to refine the focus and to boost both the quality and volume of content. In this post, I explore the key drivers underlying this trend, along with opportunities and risks for asset managers. Finally, I offer a set of guidelines to help asset managers raise their content game and successfully navigate the oncoming deluge of less-than-stellar content.

Wait. Content what?

Content marketing relies primarily on storytelling and publishing to reach prospective clients. Messages are transmitted via a range of channels that include online articles, how-to guides, videos, documents (case studies, white papers, brochures, magazines) and more. Most content marketing evangelists advocate giving it away for free. It differs from other types of marketing that focus more on promotional and price-based offers.

Content marketing’s global domination

To some observers, there’s nothing revolutionary about content marketing–especially since the key tactics and formats have been around for decades. Yet, the term ‘content marketing’ itself appeared only in the late 1990s, and has really gained traction among marketing professionals over the past few years, with the founding of organizations such as the Content Marketing Institute. Worldwide, over 90% of marketers recently surveyed say they currently use content marketing.

content marketing table global

Asset managers board the content train

In this context, it’s no surprise that asset management firms have come to embrace content marketing. In some cases, this entails boosting headcount by adding investment writers or marcomms coordinators, often dedicated to a specific client segment. In continental Europe, some asset managers have created new content marketing teams and labelled them as such. Others have drawn from already-established product marketing, investment writing, PR, design, video & web teams. While the evidence is, in part, anecdotal and relies on discussions with industry marketing and HR professionals–I have no doubt that these moves signal a real move towards more thoughtful content marketing buoyed by additional resources and greater support from top management.

Why this makes sense

In a way, content marketing in the financial services sector is nothing new. In a guest post for Digiday, Barry Lowenthal details Why Finance and Content Marketing Go Great Together. To reiterate a number of my favorite key points:

  • “Financial-services clients [companies] have long been in the content game, investing tens of millions of dollars in research that they distribute to their clients.” Investment banks and sell-side research teams especially have perfected this activity.

  • ”They already have a publishing machine in-house.” Yes, nearly every firm can publish. But some firms have yet to uncover the true potential of a well-tuned machine.

  • ”They’re usually not selling anything online, so their KPIs lean toward engagement, which is the sweet spot for content marketing.” While some firms lament their inability to sell online directly to consumer (due to lack of infrastructure or regulatory hurdles, for example), it reinforces the role of the sales force and two-way interaction with clients.

  • They ”intuitively grasp the importance of being thought of as thought leaders.”  Go here for more on how asset managers’ thought leadership can create value for investors.

To these points I would add that content marketing suits financial services particularly well because education is key. Market developments, regulatory changes and product innovation–which are constantly in a state of flux–can all impact clients’ financial outcomes.

Several additional factors are making themselves felt in the asset management space:

  • Social media is becoming a must-have, at least for retail/advisor segments & recruitment purposes. This very public form of two-way communication and the opportunity for content to ‘go viral’ mean that managers have to focus more on delivering messages that meet the audience’s needs. Evidence from PwC confirms that firms that do this well have the greatest success.

  • Heightened competition, fee pressures, the growing popularity of passive strategies, and the decline of sales commissions (distribution fees) make it essential for managers to communicate more on the relevance and the added value of their product and service offer.

Proceed with caution

Without a doubt, asset managers’ embrace of content marketing merits praise–this is a positive development that will help revitalize firms’ attention to clients’ interests. Bumps and challenges may present themselves during the transition.  An amazing slideshare presentation from Velocity Partners warns of the unseemly underside of content marketing’s ascent, namely, lots of:

According to Velocity, key potential obstacles to include:

1. Coping with a marketing skills gap: finding “people who ‘get’ content, understand context and can actually produce things that audiences want to consume.”

2. Generating friction through mediocre content. Audiences will raise their defenses and become less trusting.

The warning: poor content brands risk being washed away amidst the effluence, while strong content brands stand to gain ground.

So, what’s an asset manager to do?

The marketing skills gap can be combated by informed hiring and training decisions. Consistently delivering high quality content and building a strong content brand is less straightforward. Here are a few tips:

1. Go a step beyond know your client (KYC) to know your audience (KYA). Find out what they know, where they get their information, how they make decisions. Document this and share it within your organization so that everyone is ‘on the same page.’

2. Identify and address clients’ most important issues–these are your benchmark. How you relate to them largely determines your relevance.

3. Raise the bar for the quality of your communications. Set a written content strategy and editorial policy.

4. Pay attention to the messages, articles and videos that capture your attention. Re-use the most effective storytelling techniques you find there for your own content.

5. Plan ahead, execute to near perfection, measure and analyze the results. Make adjustments, rinse and repeat to follow the path to continuous improvement.

6. Be patient–the road to success–earning your audience’s trust–takes time.

By following these guidelines, asset managers can build strong content brands. As Velocity points out, a strong content brand creates a virtuous cycle: strong content brands tell great stories that attract new talent (that tell great stories).

What’s your view? Do you have other examples of how content marketing is sweeping asset management? Additional tips on how to create great content?