Compelling thought leadership – Part 2: Using research intelligently and creatively

In the second in a series of articles exploring strategies professional firms can use to create compelling thought leadership, Alastair Beddow considers how research can be used to support the development of a thought leadership campaign

For thought leadership to have real impact, it must tell the reader something new or reframe a topic in a way that challenges or extends existing thinking. Most executives, for example, would probably agree that to remain competitive and continue to meet customer demands their business must innovate its product and service portfolio. This is not news. Instead what makes compelling thought leadership is case studies of success and frameworks to follow. Readers want to know how best to innovate, the approaches that generate the most success, and the characteristics that set leading organisations apart.

To achieve the level of genuine insight that clients want from thought leadership firms can draw on the knowledge and experience of their own professionals. However, to build case studies and fresh perspectives, thought leadership campaigns are often supported by original research.

While thought leadership insights can be collected in a variety of ways, the most effective campaigns often blend two or more of the following research methodologies:

  • Online: online research can be a cost-effective way to gather insight from a wide audience. Pulse polls – half a dozen questions that can be answered in just a few minutes – provide a useful snapshot on topical issues. Instant diagnostics and benchmarking studies are also popular means of collecting data online. However, it is important to bear in mind that response rates can be low if online research is not positioned well or executed poorly.
  • Telephone: telephone research allows for more detailed, nuanced conversations than online research, and the insight collected will usually lead to richer analysis and commentary. When planned well it is surprising just how much insight can be gathered from a 15 or 20 minute telephone conversation.
  • Face to face: face to face research allows for more discursive, in-depth conversations that get into the detail of a given topic. This type of research is particularly useful for generating case studies that can be used in thought leadership collateral. Executives often welcome the opportunity to get involved as it provides an opportunity to raise their personal profile.
  • Desk research: much can be gained by synthesizing or re-analysing existing data sources collected through desk research using publicly-available sources or specialist databases. Data on corporate deals or stock market performance, for example, can all be used to support research hypotheses.

The best thought leadership utilises these various research methodologies in intelligent and compelling ways. In practice this requires putting in serious thought at the outset of a campaign about the questions the target audience might want answering, and the hypotheses that the research can be used to validate. Only then should you think about how best to design a research process to answer these questions. Starting with a research methodology and trying to retrofit a line of questioning that will meet objectives is much more challenging.

The best thought leadership synthesises multiple research strands and weaves them into a compelling output. Quantitative data from an online survey, for example, can be supported by a handful of in-depth interviews to draw out the qualitative insights that sit behind the numbers. This provides a robust research basis from which to draw conclusions, and a depth of insight that can be used to tell attention-grabbing stories.

Three lessons for using research intelligently and creatively:

  1. Think about whether your thought leadership topic best lends itself to a data-led output, or more qualitative-based insight. Does your reader want data to help benchmark their performance, or to read case studies about successful businesses, or both?
  1. Consider what you know already, and then design a research programme that will fill the gaps in that knowledge. Too often professional firms waste time, effort and resource producing thought leadership research that doesn’t say anything new or extend the existing debate.
  1. Utilise existing research channels to gather cost-effective thought leadership insights. Many professional firms already regularly survey their clients through online or telephone feedback questionnaires. Is there any opportunity to introduce a small number of thought leadership style questions to maximise the value of this client conversation?

By Alastair Beddow