‘We have nothing interesting to say, and no-one wants to hear from us anyway’

More and more companies are using thought leadership as a way of demonstrating their expertise, building relationships with clients and enhancing their brands. Yet many continue to struggle with developing a clear, differentiated point of view. Company leadership may have great ideas – but it can be difficult to extract these and covert them into content that can be taken to market.

Why is this so challenging? Sometimes, there are just too many conflicting points of view to distil into a clear perspective. Other marketing teams find it hard to identify a point of view at all. One head of corporate comms I know told the story of meeting the marketing director of a previous employer on his first day. When he raised the subject of thought leadership, he was told: ‘We have nothing interesting to say, and no-one wants to hear from us anyway.’ 

By nature, many large organisations are conservative. We marketers know that content needs to be provocative to attract attention, yet many leaders will shy away from having too strong an opinion.

Business leaders are time-poor, and often too pre-occupied with short-term business goals to clear space for the long-term, strategic thinking on which successful thought leadership depends. Many still don’t see the value in finding time for what they consider to be a “peripheral” activity.

In our experience, managing internal stakeholders is one of the most time-consuming – and potentially challenging – aspects of any large content or thought leadership project. Over time, we have learned a few tips that we think can help maximise the success of thought leadership projects, and lead to happy external and internal stakeholders.

  1. Involvement from the outset

It is essential to involve key internal stakeholders right from the start of a project. Perhaps the most common cause of project failure that we see is embarking on a content project without the blessing – and input – from senior management.

The worst case (and all too common) scenario is leaders who take a sudden interest in a project only once it is near completion, when the major decisions about messaging and point of view have already been taken. The danger then, of course, is that they disagree and want to change course.

By contrast, involving them early on unsurprisingly makes them feel engaged. This, in turn, makes it more likely that they will be advocates for the project and share it with their teams and clients.

  1. Find a comfort zone

When selecting a topic for thought leadership, it’s essential to choose one on which your stakeholders feel comfortable commenting. Thought leadership can often cover broad, macro issues which, while interesting to your client base, may not be within your executives’ comfort zone.

The result – they don’t want to talk about it, and certainly don’t want to share it with clients in case they get asked difficult questions. So, make sure you choose topics that are relevant to both your external and internal clients. 

  1. Choose your champions carefully

Some marketers make the mistake of thinking that the more stakeholders they involve in a project, the better the outcome. This is rarely true. Bringing together lots of people with different points of view and axes to grind leads to diluted content because, while trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.

If you do have to have a large number of representatives on a project, make sure you have a strong lead sponsor who can get them into line and help to form a strong, consistent overall narrative.

  1. Lead from the front

The best project leaders we have worked with involve seasoned professionals who can guide senior stakeholders towards interesting insights, while making them feel like they have ownership of the messaging.

Your executives may know a lot – but they don’t always have ready-formed opinions, and they may find it difficult to think beyond the four walls of the organisation. It’s important to have marketers who can coax insights out of these individuals, and ensure that they take an external, rather than internal, perspective.

  1. It’s not all about you

Remember that the best thought leadership has a generosity of spirit. Marketing professionals – and the business leaders they support – need to be prepared to convene broader, sector-wide conversations, rather than just focusing on landing their own messages. Audiences will quickly switch off if they think they are on the receiving end of a sales pitch.