The 3 Rs of real thought leadership

What is thought leadership – and what can it really do for your organization? I typically ask these two questions of all the thoughts leaders I interview, and few answers have been as specific as those from Gareth Lofthouse, Co-Founder of Longitude, the UK-based thought leadership consultancy recently acquired by the Financial Times (and even more recently exported to the US).

You’ll find his answers in this video, and a wealth of additional insights in the full interview that follows, including the Longitude perspective (and some new research) on:

  • What does it take for original research to stand out amid today’s flood of content?
  • How can you break through to the C-Suite with thought leadership?
  • What kind of content are senior executives consuming?
  • How should senior executives participate as thought leaders?
  • What are the key trends ahead in thought leadership?


Chuck Kent: Gareth, thanks for joining us today. Would you introduce yourself and tell us what Longitude is and does?

Gareth Lofthouse:  I’m one of the co-founders at Longitude. We are a specialist agency in thought leadership. Basically, that means helping brands to be thought leaders in their space, so they’re recognized as experts and visionaries on whatever issue they’re trying to associate their brand with, and providing the kind of research and content that helps them create that perception.

CK: Everyone has a slightly different take on what thought leadership is, so first of all, how do you define thought leadership?

GL:  I think it is about are you perceived by your clients, or by your audience, as the absolute leader in your space, the source of the most innovative thinking and ideas. Are you the expert that they turn to  help solve their problems? That’s being a thought leader. Thought leadership is, then, how as a brand you scale that process – how you, through marketing and communications, make yourself that absolute thought leader in the market.

CK:  Do you make any distinction between thought leadership content and just sales funnel contact marketing content?

GL: Yes and no. All of our research points to thought leadership as a very powerful tool to support the sales funnel, to drive revenue; but it works by providing value and insight to the end audience. There is an awful lot of content out there at the moment which, at best, is interesting, but interesting opinion, and not much more than that. At worst, it’s self-serving and rather sales-y. Good thought leadership does more than that. It brings original insight backed by evidence, and that’s why you see research as a big part of the thought leadership mix.

All of our research points to thought leadership as a very powerful tool to support the sales funnel, to drive revenue

CK:  We talked about scaling up the notion of thought leadership from individual leaders to the brand. Are there particular parameters that define a thought leadership brand for you?

GL:  Obviously it varies, depending on what the company is trying to achieve. But there are certainly some ingredients that real thought leading brands have. They know how to add value to the conversation with their audiences by bringing some original insight into the conversation. That’s key.

Thought leading brands are also great storytellers. They know how to go beyond, “this is the issue, this is the problem,” to tell stories around addressing those issues and problems. And when you’re dealing with complex business issues, that’s a real art and a skill. That leads to assembling editorial skills, content creation skills, and the whole marketing engine. These days, it gets right through to sophisticated techniques with marketing automation. The whole package has to come together if you’re going be a thought leading brand.

CK: So, not all that simple.

GL:  No. It is challenging, but it’s worth the effort.

CK: Getting back to the notion of what thought leadership actually accomplishes for you… On your website you make a fairly bold statement in terms of a kind of a claim for thought leadership, that you create thought leadership that enhances reputation, relationships, and revenue. If you take those three – reputation, relationships, revenue – how do you see thought leadership impacting and presumably building each?

Reputation, relationships, revenue


GL: Let’s start with reputation.

Thought leadership can be very effective for a brand that wants to make a splash on an issue and get lots of PR coverage. Now, data, research can be an incredibly powerful tool for that. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

We’ve worked in the U.K. with Barclays, creating for them an index that compared 10 countries in terms of how sophisticated their citizens were of each of those countries in using digital technology. Things like, are they good at securing themselves against cybercrime, but are they also good at using that technology to collaborate with other people?

Now, we built the research, we built the model for that, and out of it you get a ranking that says, “This country is really fantastic, and their citizens are empowered and enabled in the use of digital technology. These other countries are lagging behind.” That is a very powerful sort of story for journalists, so it got Barclays an awful lot of coverage, an awful lot of broadcast media.

That’s what we mean when we talk about using thought leadership to project reputation into the market. That’s a reputation play.

CK: So, it’s the classic earned media and PR play.

GL: That’s right.

CK: And yet, there is much more now that one needs to do to fully use an index like that, isn’t there? What are you doing beyond media relations? Is this something – if you’ll pardon the buzzword – that you’ve atomized through social channels and whatnot?

GL: Yes, absolutely. The PR play is just the start. Again, back to those thought leading brands, those firms who are really good at this stuff, they’re able to join up different teams, divisions, even agencies (in the case of a big company). You just talked about atomizing the story, the research, the content – they’ll have lots of shareable media around this. They’ll be able to slice and dice that story and then they’ll be rolling it out through social media. It will be a dialogue through those channels with their audience for months and months rather than weeks and weeks, as was the old model with thought leadership.

The PR play is just the start.

CK: While we’re on the subject of research and indexes and surveys…they’ve been a popular tool for a long time. They’re really popular right now, and they come in all shapes, sizes – and qualities.

GL: Yep.

CK: Given the fact that your survey is being put out in front of journalists alongside one that, say, somebody put up in half an hour on Survey Monkey, how do you elevate it? What does it take for a piece of research to really stand out?

GL:  I think you’re right, there’s an awful lot of “research” out there. Not all of it stands up to scrutiny, and if you’re going after those really respected media owners and titles, they are going to check that this story is based on something robust, that it’s about good research design.

There’s an awful lot of “research” out there. Not all of it stands up to scrutiny.

Some of it is about making sure that the poll is statistically significant, all those sorts of good factors. But I wouldn’t dwell too much on that side of things. You can get clients that worry so much about engineering a study that they forget about the most important thing of all, and that is, “Is it interesting? Is it saying something new?” This is why the research design process is so integral to the success of these things, where you go from, “This is the kind of story that might be interesting and resonate with our audience” to “How do we turn that into testable research hypotheses?”

And then, when you’ve got that data coming back from that process, you’ve got to have people who are great at storytelling, people from a business journalism background, paired up, as we do at Longitude, with people who really get data. They know how to find those hidden nuggets of insight that lie typically underneath the surface.

You’ve got to have people who are great at storytelling, paired with people who really get data

CK: Humor me with another minor digression. What is the essence of a good storyteller, or storytelling organization, what qualities help them convert data into what one presumes is a more understandable format, via story?

GL:  For me, it’s about having the ability to tap into lots of insight, and to be open to where the story might come from, rather than prejudging the story. Having genuine inquiry is what research should be doing.

But then there comes a point where you have to distill and simplify what could be thousands of data points down to, “These are the three pegs for our story. This is the narrative that takes us from beginning to end.” Ultimately, that’s what any good business journalist would tell you, but when you’re in the space of thought leadership, seeing the wood for the trees is a challenge. Brands often need help with that process of distilling and simplifying their story.

Brands often need help with that process of distilling and simplifying their story.

CK:  Beyond atomizing…I noticed there’s a relatively new article on your blog that talks about taking kind of an account-based marketing approach to thought leadership. Are you starting to equip clients with special data slices for particular target audiences of exactly the points they should be emphasizing? Is that part of what you’re doing to make it more actionable?

GL: It’s definitely one of the evolving areas in thought leadership, the desire to take this insight and personalize it more to specific accounts or a specific buyer. This is a challenging space, because if you want to personalize content and tell stories – well, we don’t have an algorithm yet that tells stories.

CK: But there are people who are trying.

GL: People are trying, but at the moment, that’s quite a labor-intensive task. There’s only so much you can personalize down to the individual. What we say is, create a story that’s most likely to resonate with a very clear understanding of who your cross section of audiences are, and then personalize a wrapping. Give context around that and play up those issues in a story that are most likely to resonate with them.

CK: I have one more question on the reputation area and then we’ll move on to relationships and revenue.
Reflecting on what thought leadership is, relative to research on it, for instance…

I interviewed Nicole France, when she was head of thought leadership at Cisco, and she had an interesting point to make. She holds that if you want to be a thought leader, if you want to present thought leadership, it needs to be leading, it needs to be out ahead. And she made a very clear distinction between that – projecting into the future – and the standard “best practices content in marketing approach. How much do you think thought leadership needs to talk about what’s coming next? Or is that just one role?

GL: I think that’s one role, I don’t discount, as thought leadership, the idea that you could identify best practice. The key for me is, “Is it original? Is it valuable? Is it backed up by substance?”

It could be best practice that reveals how to do something, and it brings data that supports an approach. It could be that for the first time, we’ve identified a way of behaving, or certain types of strategy, which delivers better performance. If that is backed by evidence, and it hasn’t been demonstrated in the market before, that could be one of the most valuable things that you as a brand could tell your audience. That’s thought leadership, as far as I’m concerned.

The key for me is, “Is it original? Is it valuable? Is it backed up by substance?”

CK: Let’s move on to that second R, relationships. How does thought leadership help develop or strengthen relationships?

GL:  A lot of this comes back to that original point. If you want to have a conversation with someone, and you and all your competitors have sales reps, or even partners, trying to get a conversation with an absolutely inundated CEO, with the CFO…why are those people going stop, pause, and actually take a meeting with you?

Thought leadership removes that obstacle. It helps you get through the door with something that says, “This is relevant and valuable to you, I’m not just going to be pitching at you. I have something that is genuinely of interest.” If you get that right, people will take meetings.

We’ve done this with many of the big four clients we have, clients like UI and KPMG. They would incentivize and measure their partners in terms of how many meetings they would get with CFOs off the back of this content. It’s just about having a smart way to, once you’ve got the insight, making sure that you’re going out to talk to prospects, talk to your clients, and that you’re setting things up like seminars or workshops – opportunities to meet and discuss a problem, but with data to back it up. That’s relationship building. 

CK: In other words, you’re using the data as a door opener for conversations.

GL: Absolutely.

CK: So…Reputation, relationships, and the third R is revenue.

GL: That’s right.

CK: How do you see thought leadership building revenue – and are your clients able to measure that?

GL: Ultimately, for marketing and any type of communication (thought leadership is in that mix), the value is, “Is it driving business outcomes? Are we driving revenue? Are we driving profit?” And I think that’s a real measure. Marketing often doesn’t get down to that level. We’re often looking at slightly vanity metrics around clicks and so on, but for me, that doesn’t really drive outcomes in terms of a real business.

CK: Does that just get us back to how many CFO meetings did you have?

GL: Could be CFO meetings, but, yes, I think that’s part of the mix. It’s also a question of is your content and insight, is your thought leadership bringing business to you? You have that kind of outbound kind of process where you’re trying to get meetings off the back of this kind of content. If you do it well – and you see some of the brands are getting very good at this – thought leadership is good for demand generation. So, you make a splash with a thought leadership story, it gets noticed, perhaps, through media, or social media, and then people are interested, then they’re engaging with that content.

You can see when prospects and customers are engaging with that content. That all feeds into that good old sales funnel, and it means that the organization can target its time more effectively. It marks a qualified lead if, you like, when people have engaged with the content.

Thought leadership is good for demand generation

The other thing that you should find if you’re using thought leadership effectively is that you’ll get more inbound inquiries. They’ll be asking to download the reports, then they’ll be interested in taking a conversation around that insight, and then back into the sales funnel. You can measure the impact of this content at every single stage of the funnel. We advise clients to have thought leadership at the top end of the funnel, and right through to the end.

To be honest, by the time you’re going down that funnel, you’re also needing more content about relevant solutions, and products. But don’t forget the insights that drive every stage of the conversation through the sales journey.

CK: So that’s reputation, relationships, revenue. I believe that, while you do a lot of research for other people, you do a lot of research for yourselves as your own thought leaders in this space. You mentioned have a new report, looking at how senior decision makers find and engage with thought leadership content.

GL: Yes, “Learning from Leaders.”

how to reach the c-suite with thought leadership content

CK: What did you find? How are corporate leaders finding and engaging with content?

GL: The first point was, they value thought leadership content, providing it’s good. And “good” means some of those things I was talking about:

  • It delivers new insight.
  • It’s relevant to my problem.
  • It’s backed by credible research.

They like opinion, but opinion on its own is not enough. It has to bring something else, some evidence behind the assertions being made. But if you take those three things and then you bring it to life in a way that’s easy to consume and it’s interesting to engage with, then there’s a hunger for it. There’s enough going on in the world, enough challenges that these executives are uncertain about, so that actual insight telling them something they don’t know helps them solve their business problem and is valuable enough for them to engage with.

Other things we found include how long senior executives spend consuming thought leadership. On average, in this research, senior executives were spending four hours consuming different forms of thought leadership content a week. If you compare that with typical digital marketing metrics that talk in terms of seconds and minutes, it shows something that has real power. I think that’s very exciting.

In this research, senior executives were spending four hours consuming different forms of thought leadership content a week.

Those are two things coming out of the research, and then there’s a whole set of things about how they use it to inform decision making. For example, when decision makers perceive a brand to be exceptionally good at thought leadership, then they are more likely to favor that brand in terms of considering them for business tenders. So that, to me, tells me that, if you’re a thought leader, you are already putting yourself in a preferential space.

CK: But quality counts, it’s not just having the content out there.

GL: That’s right.

CK: You’ve looked at how senior people consume content, how they use it, et cetera. What are your observations – and this wasn’t part of the study – but what are your observations on the role of senior people, particularly the C-Suite, in formulating, projecting, leveraging thought leadership. And how important is it for individual executives to be thought leaders themselves?

GL: That’s great question, attaching on something that we’d like to see more of. The very best organizations, I think, have an alignment between a marketing function, or perhaps a thought specialist, or leadership function that’s driving these programs and campaigns day to day. And that’s fine. You need specialists with the time and the resources to drive it. But the programs that work are the ones that have a very senior business stakeholder, or a set of business stake holders, who want to own the message. They bought into the program right from day one, and their mission is to be the face of the campaign.

And that goes internally. Ideally there’s a really senior business sponsor, right up to C-Suite, who’s saying, “This is our big bet for the year, this is something we absolutely need to build our reputation profile around, and I am going to be up there talking about this.”

The programs that work are the ones that have a set of business stake holders who want to own the message.

We’ve worked with a brand called AECOM, which is a leader in architectural and engineering industry. They use this kind of work with at places like DAVOS, where they’re up on the podium, they’re referring to the research and helping to establish their credentials as the facilitator and the leader of their industry on particular issues.

If it’s up to that level, if it’s knitted into the CEO and C-suite conversation, that’s when you get a real pair off, I think, on the content.  It hops from reports and these text-based or even video-based assets and becomes the dialogue of the organization.

CK: Should boards, then, be looking for good storytellers as CEOs now?

GL: Yes, they should. I think there’s nothing new about that. It’s always been good to have a figurehead for the organization that’s comfortable in front of public and knows how to tell a story. These days, it’s about how to not just tell slightly skin deep, superficial stories, but actually engage with the issues in a really serious way. Don’t just talk your own shop, talk your own product, but actually show you understand what’s going on in the industry and what’s front of mind for your clients.

CK: You do a lot of thought leadership for yourselves. A lot of it research based. But you also mix in the data with your own storyteller in conversations through blog posts, podcasts, et cetera. You have a full mix. Is that the same mix that you recommend to clients, then?

GL: Yes, that and more. We’re small, 50 of us at the moment, whereas a lot of the companies we work with have hundreds of thousands of people and a lot of resources, so they can afford to do more.

I think one of the other things that we’ve learned from the research we’ve done recently is that you’ve got to give your business audiences choice. There are a lot of people who prefer to consume information these as a video or podcast. But there are still plenty of our executives who, are more traditionalists, in terms of willingness to concentrate on text, and so I wouldn’t rule out. Actually, the value of some of the longer form assets comes in terms of showing there’s real substance and credibility.

You need that mix of serious study, more digestible, snackable, to use the term, sort of content, and everything in between. I think this sort of pendulum keeps sort of swinging back and forth.

CK: One annual part of your mix appears to be a trend forecast as to what’s coming in thought leadership. Longitude features a recent blog post from one of your colleagues, who forecast a dozen or so trends. Can you pick two or three top trends or impact forces for thought leadership?

GL: You’re right, we’re predicting quite a few shifts, as it’s a very fluid space in cutting edge practices moving forward.

GL: The first is, I suppose, a more agile model for thought leadership.

There’s definitely a sense that the model as practiced by corporates needs to move on from doing a project that starts with a very heavy-duty survey, then you  develop the content, and finally the whole campaign comes along. Before you know it, you’ve sunk nine months into a project before there’s even anything ready to share in the market. That’s shifting now to models that are more iterative, and maybe with more of a multi- track process on the research. That means there can be stories to tell and insights to share from, say, month two. You can start getting a story out there and seating the market around the idea.

Maybe it’s more qualitative based, or maybe that’s more opinion, but you’re also trailing the release of bigger assets. With that search for agility, the research tool kit is getting challenged and expanded so we ourselves are increasingly using things like social media listening and sentiment type tools. And it’s taken a while, I think, for our “cottage industry,” if you like, to know how to use that to create robust research output so it’s going to be convincing for the C-Suite. That’s becoming a very powerful and relevant part of the mix. It’s much faster, and it’s much more cost-effective than some of these highly engineered approaches. I don’t think we’re going to see the survey disappear, but I think it’s been complimented by some for some more agile approaches. So that’s one of the big trends, agile.

Another thing we’re going to see is a coming together, if you like, of data plus creativity. I think, at the moment, the campaigns that you see out there, the big ones, major on the traditional thought leadership recipe. It’s lots of research and lots of data, but the way that’s packaged and brought to the market can be a little dry, a little academic looking. At the other end of the spectrum, you see media led campaigns, which are heavy on the advertising, it’s extremely good looking, it’s creative in terms of visually creative, at least. But you dig a little into it, and it’s fluffy messaging.

Another thing we’re going to see is a coming together of data plus creativity.

CK: Either substance or style, but seldom a combination of both?

GL: Exactly. I think nirvana is somewhere in between. We’re certainly wanting, in the way we work with clients, to get closer to a recipe that combines this kind of fodder for the left brain and for the right brain, hitting both sides in terms of creative and data-led insight, those two worlds coming together.

CK: I wonder if you’d agree with a narrative psychologist I interviewed recently, Kristian Alomá. He said that the purpose of narrative is to make sense of data. Would you see it that way?

GL: Yes. In our world, I think that’s absolutely fantastic. It’s one of the biggest pitfalls that we see with clients. If you’re chucking the data at the audience just because you’ve got a lot of it, you overwhelm them. But I’d also probably say be careful. There would be brands out there and marketers out there who might be tempted to crowbar the narrative onto the data.

CK: Or stretch the truth to size?

GL: That’s right. When you’re after the C-Suite, you’re trying to engage some of the smartest, most discerning brains out there in the business world. They will see through that, so just make sure that the narrative is true to the data as well.

CK: All right. Well, thank you, Gareth. Thank you for the education today, and for sharing what you’re up to and your perspectives

GL: It’s been a pleasure.

Portions of this article appeared first in Convince and Convert

Suggestions for further reading:

How to make your CEO a thought leader
How thought leadership grows professional services firms faster
How thought leadership builds shareholder value    


About the Author Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, works with executives to help them more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.

Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.

Lead the Conversation provides a practical way to develop authentic thought leadership content for busy executives. We also help the C-Suite create and lead industry conversations, to which they can invite other leaders, turning prospects into relationships.

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