Thinking about building an online following

‘Thought leadership’ is remarkably resilient for a concept that has such a bad reputation. Like the fashion for ‘stories’, thought leadership is too often exactly the opposite of what the name implies.

Apart from not always being terribly well thought out, a lot of supposed thought leadership – rather than lead anywhere new – simply follows the latest trends, herd-like, over a cliff of irrelevancy; ‘big data’, ‘digital transformation’ and ‘emerging markets’, yes, we are looking at you.

Another problem is that the label is inherently smug. This was neatly summed up by marketing expert Allister Frost, who said, at our annual conference last month: ‘Who put you in charge of thoughts?’

Why, then, are we still talking about it?

One of the biggest reasons is because, when done right, it can be incredibly effective as a marketing and communication tool. From a marketing perspective, there is the white paper that starts a conversation that leads to a multi-million dollar contract. For corporate communicators, a steady stream of well-focused and high-quality editorial can be an important part of ‘selling’ the group to its stakeholders and boosting it reputation with customers.

It has been many years since ‘thought leadership’ was a cutting edge buzz phrase, but corporate digital teams are still being asked how best to position their organization’s thinking on websites and social medial channels. We have picked out a few examples of best practice across the corporate web that we think are worth emulating.

Don’t call it thought leadership

Thought leadership can be effective, but as I’ve mentioned, the name is outdated, smug, dull and usually misleading. That is why, even if it is handy shorthand internally for what your organization is trying to do, it should not be used as a label on the website.

Goldman Sachs, for example, prefers ‘Our thinking’ as a primary menu label on its corporate website (Bowen Craggs also uses this as a signpost to our thoughts about the corporate web). KPMG, the big-four accountancy firm, goes for ‘Insights’; as does its competitor EY.

Linklaters, the UK-based multinational law firm, uses ‘Insights’ as a primary menu item, but ‘thought leadership’ crops up in the secondary menu, along with the categories of ‘publications’ and ‘seminars’. This brings up another labelling no-no – referring to categories of content rather than themes. ‘Publications’ and ‘seminars’ make the website sound like a filing cabinet rather than a destination to learn something new.

Insurance company Axa’s new website does a good job of naming the themes and headlines for its thinking from the perspective of target audiences’ likely interests – such as ‘future of insurance’ and ‘a new way to work’. Axa does not always get it right – ‘environmental challenges’ and ‘protecting people’ are on the vague side – but the intent is clear (and it’s all far better than ‘seminars’ or ‘publications’).

Exploit the home page

KPMG’s global home page is effective at showing off the company’s thinking on current business issues, offering multiple points of entry for existing and potential customers to browse the Big Four auditing firm’s views on Brexit and renewable energy, as well as promoting its in-house research, a CEO survey.

Be creative with design and try different formats

Axa, as well as choosing good headlines to draw people in, uses a modern design – large, clear fonts, original imagery, and clever use of pull quotes and captions to draw people into in. In its ‘Spotlight’ section, thought leadership often blends seamlessly with storytelling, as in the case of ‘Axa Lab Asia: commerce goes mobile in China’. 

Goldman Sachs’ corporate website is carefully designed and curated to position it as a font of knowledge and expertise about socioeconomic and financial trends.

Its ‘Exchanges’ podcasts are housed on its corporate website in the ‘Our Thinking’ section. The series started in 2014, and is updated two or three times a month.

Each episode features Goldman Sachs experts analysing global financial, social and technology trend. They are regularly updated with an interesting mix of editorially engaging topics; draw people in with sharp headlines; employ an easy-to-use menu on the site; and allow people to subscribe on iTunes.

Goldman Sachs is taking advantage of the rising popularity of podcasts in the wider digital world, and adapting the form well for its own online needs.

Consider a blog

EMC, the US technology company about to be merged with Dell, uses blogs written by senior leaders and topic specialists to help build up a meaningful portrait of what the group cares about, and what it knows about.

Becoming a ‘destination’ with an editorial approach

An organization’s experts may not always have the time or editorial skills to finish a piece that is web-ready, or to come up with the right ideas in the first place. It takes a dedicated editorial team to source a steady stream of fresh content that highlights relevant themes; and to shape contributed draft copy into punchy prose.

The mix can include human-interest features from around the business, and issue-based pieces on topics of direct relevance to customers’ business problems.

At our conference, brewing giant SABMiller highlighted the importance of having an editorial board with deep networks in the business, in order to encourage everyone to contribute. You may already be lucky enough to have someone blogging somewhere in the far corners of the organization, and their efforts can be brought into a larger ‘content’ strategy for thought leadership material.

A central editorial team can also help to avoid some of the hallmarks of bad thought leadership – thin arguments, dull headlines or a failure to see how multimedia elements such as video, infographics or interactive features could bring the content to life.  

Following some of the above examples – good labelling, strong signposts, creative design, a clear editorial voice and focus – can help to turn the corporate site into a ‘destination’ on important industry themes, and a nonstop idea factory that creates and maintains sales leads; and boosts your reputation among important stakeholders such as journalists and jobseekers. 

- Jason Sumner