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What will thought leadership look like in 2021?

Written by Richard Broughton

Much like the term ‘business guru’, ‘thought leader’ is not a title one should ever assign to oneself. I imagine I would have strong views of anyone who introduced themselves as a guru – of any discipline – and for me, thought leader undoubtedly falls into the same category.

To be regarded (by others) as a thought leader, you need to demonstrate informed and insightful views that offer a unique perspective – on topics where you can demonstrate you are an authority. Ultimately, it’s the ability to consume the thinking of those = which went before you, challenge it, and then share your opinions in a way that confers real value and provides context to your audience.

From a brand perspective, thought leadership can play a powerful role in your positioning and how your audience views your capabilities, but just because you see its value to your business objectives, the above still stands. The first task, therefore, is to identify those within your organisation who can meet the accepted definition and accept that thought leadership is best when provided by an individual, not a faceless brand.

In reality, only a fraction of brands or their executives can claim to meet this simple definition. Business leaders aren’t automatically experts, and many highly successful managers and CEOs are generalists, with an ability to understand the numbers but with little interest in the workings. This judgement is supported by management consultancy McKinsey, which found that ‘supporting others’, ‘seeking new perspectives’, ‘keeping a focus on results’ and ‘solving problems’ were all more important qualities than subject matter expertise for board-level executives.

Despite conclusions like these, more than one million individuals on the professional networking site, LinkedIn, currently describe themselves as thought leaders in their bios. After you’ve finished eye-rolling at the Donald Trump-level narcissism displayed by those self-identifying as experts, you begin to realise the challenge that content marketing and, more specifically, thought leadership is facing in 2021 and beyond.

Required change

While the fact that every self-aggrandising LinkedIn user believes their opinions hold the same weight as Sir David Attenborough’s is not surprising (the power of the ‘personal brand’ is strong with many), the unfortunate reality is, it does matter. As a result of this type of bombastic overuse, ‘thought leader’ and ‘thought leadership’ are increasingly becoming nothing more than descriptions of promotion masquerading as insight. The content equivalent of ‘free’ holidays concluding with a high-pressure timeshare presentation, if you will.

This already present issue has been further exposed by the current pandemic. Brands massively increased their output during lockdown, churning out content at a frequency that made the C-suite happy but perhaps wasn’t as strategically led, insightful, or actionable as it should have been.

The continuous growth of thought leadership content over the last decade, combined with the cocaine-fuelled explosion during lockdown, means that users must now navigate through an ever-growing quagmire of average, uninspiring, commercially-driven content before they uncover the unique perspectives that they covet. According to a recent Edelman-LinkedIn study of US business decision makers, only 18% of thought leadership content is rated as very good or excellent, with 30% being judged as mediocre or very poor. Audiences’ social feeds and inboxes are filled with promises of revelatory and actionable advice but, after countless disappointments, they are becoming jaded – leading to a retreatment away from exploring new brand-originated content and towards trusted brands and specialist media outlets.

Sometimes too much is just too much

Another issue many brands struggle with is simply a matter of saturation within their niche. To a point, it doesn’t matter how engaging your content is if there are too many others playing in the same space and all trying to say and do the same thing at the same time. The cream still rises to the top – but it can take a long time to get there when the bottle is full to the brim.

Back in March and April, brands rightly presumed that COVID-related content discussing ‘how to cope with X’ or ‘how to overcome Y’ would reflect what audiences were searching for. However, what was too often forgotten was that authority, relevance and value were as essential during lockdown as they ever have been.

When audiences are inundated with content options, a brand’s awareness of the right questions isn’t enough to pull them away from more established voices, or off social platforms – especially if they don’t believe the brand has ‘skin in the game’ and an authoritative, unbiased position from which to speak.

The poor performance of much of the COVID-related content was sometimes exacerbated by the acute commercial pressure brands were/are facing. The need to drive enquiries and replace opportunities lost from the suspension of physical events and face-to-face meetings was huge, but this more urgent focus on conversion saw the line between insightful leadership and promotional messages get blurred – a lot – further diminishing the value of the content and its author, both now and down the line. The same Edelman-LinkedIn study found that poorly received though leadership can have significant consequences for its creator, with 60% of respondents stating that they would stop following a writer or organisation after reading their thought leadership content. What’s more, 29% said they had decided not to award a piece of business to a company based on its thought leadership.

How do you create real cut through?

The collective impact of these trends, combined with other common challenges in areas like organic SEO and consumer behaviour, can make it feel like achieving the right levels of traction, and delivering the right ROI, is an unrealistic expectation. It may be challenging but, as is true of almost any industry or sector or business, the ones that prosper are those who understand their audience best and are able to offer real, tangible value and actionable advice, spoken with authenticity and candour. Those more focused on extolling the virtues of their own products and services, or inflating the social profile of the author, are transparent in their objective and destined to repeat the previously mentioned mistakes.

So, if you think you can meet the true definition of thought leadership, what do you need to know to succeed in 2021?