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Thought leadership can be effective, but as I’ve mentioned, the name is outdated, smug, dull and usually misleading.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


Found: search tools that really work

Corporate websites with huge search boxes are trendy.

US conglomerate General Electric's new home page has one. So does the new global site from Italian energy group Eni. Web teams at numerous other companies have told us that they’re thinking of following suit.

Such moves are brave, because corporate websites’ internal search engines are, traditionally, rubbish.

Indeed, for many companies' sites, visitors are better off using Google to find material than the internal search engine. Ironically, this also applies to Google’s own corporate web presence.

But there are some noble exceptions to the substandard-search rule. Here are some:

KPMG

Given the bountiful material available on this Big Four auditor's web estate, users need a powerful search tool – and that is exactly what the firm has delivered on its new global corporate website.

Predictive search terms appear intuitively in an overlay panel for many searches. And the tool remembers the last three searches carried out - these too are presented in the overlay panel, for ease of reference.

Search results are clear and meaningful. Dates are included on timely content, such as reports and corporate announcements, which helps users to quickly gauge relevance.

An excellent array of filtering options is provided to help users home in on relevant results, including tabs for selecting the type of content (Insights, Events, People), sorting options (by date, relevance or popularity) and an extensive set of left-hand topic filters designed to allow people to reach deep into the company's troves of articles and reports to find items that are specifically useful.

The 'People' filter is a good innovation. Search for 'Advisory' and 406 people are found. It appears that KPMG has essentially opened up its internal employee directory - at least where its public-facing employees are concerned - adding a valuable new dimension to the search function and making it easier for customers, journalists and industry professionals to find and contact relevant people inside the company.

Most importantly, the search function appears to have good accuracy: it returned good or excellent results in almost all of our latest tests.

Microsoft

This technology giant continues to have a spectacularly fragmented web estate. But its powerful, cleanly presented search engine helps users to find material scattered across the firm's crazy patchwork of microsites.

Results pages are logically laid out. Anchor links in the left column allow visitors to jump quickly to specific types of results, which are neatly grouped under clear headings.

What's more, corporate material search is seamlessly integrated into Microsoft’s consumer search: the main search engine is as comfortable finding careers and media information as it is music, apps and games (elegant, though I'm not sure how useful a combined search for music tracks and corporate content really is in practice).

Inspiration elsewhere

Other companies’ search tools shine in some areas.

Danish shipping group Maersk's internal search function is well designed and potentially very powerful - a good source of inspiration for any web manager researching ideas for improving their own search tool (look, for example, at the filter panel presentation and the tags to the right of search results in the the screenshot below).

 

The search results pages on both Eni.com and GE.com also provide web managers with plenty of new ideas for designing filters and grouping results in visually clear and elegant ways (see the screenshots below).

US media conglomerate Comcast’s search filters, and its tabbed separation of ‘web’ and ‘image’ search results, are neat.

 

Semiconductor maker Texas Instruments’ product, technical documents and support search and filter tools are very useful - though visitors searching for corporate materials will find no filters catering for them.

Perhaps this is because Texas Instruments puts all its time and money into getting its product-related search tools right, as that's where they think the money is. And perhaps that line of thinking is partly why so many purely corporate website search tools are so poor compared to their e-commerce counterparts. 

- Scott Payton