Thought Leadership Marketing—What’s Absolutely Changing and What Never Will
Jeff and Jason discuss the things that will never change in thought leadership marketing and 3 big things that are—content consumption habits, trust in corporate publishers, and the role of digital media.
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Jason Mlicki: Hey, maybe we’re thinking about it wrong, maybe we know that we’re cutting off our creative minds by not reading fiction enough. And my point is that there is a lot of business people that are in that space, but there is so much they want to read about whatever it might be. The books that had a big influence on me in the last couple years was a book on networks and a book on blockchain. Two books that really grabbed my attention and really got my head thinking in different ways, but maybe I’m cutting off creativity when I don’t read enough fiction and there are business people in general, that’s a problem. I don’t know, its very random comment.
Jeff McKay: Well, I agree with you. My last blog post was on that.
Jason Mlicki: Was it?
Jeff McKay: Yeah, and it was a list of 50 plus books to help you think more like a strategic thinker.
Jason Mlicki: And how many of them were fiction?
Jeff McKay: I don’t think one of them was fiction. But I agree with you, I used to read when I was reading fiction, Tom Clancy, who is phenomenal at story telling. I mean he can build a character that you love or hate in one paragraph, and then kill that person 400 pages later in this butterfly effect or something, I mean its really something. But when I was reading fiction, it was more of those type of books. No, I take that back, I take that back. Gosh, I remember it was five, six years ago I was working through the 100 top western civilization novels, so I read everything from The Inferno, The Iliad, The Count of Monte Cristo. That’s when I was reading fiction last, and I think that’s probably why I took a break because I knocked out about 50 or 60 of those.
Jason Mlicki: Those are not exactly casual fiction readings, right? Let’s read The Iliad, holy mackerel.
Jeff McKay: Well,The Inferno was the hardest, not evenThe Inferno. I read The Divine Comedy because it was broken into three parts. It starts with hell, goes through purgatory and then goes to paradise. I think that might have been the one to break me.
Jason Mlicki: What do you think about this whole idea that we are not a reading society anymore? People don’t read, they have no attention span. What do you think about that?
Jeff McKay: I think that’s true, I think society is bifurcated on this topic. I think that probably you and I and the type of professionals that we interact with every day, we think its normal, the things we do, our attention to personal development, reading and growing and learning is so different from the broader population. I think when we get caught up in those work environments, or even the communities we live in, we think that is reality, right? When we took the kids home for Thanksgiving, I took them on a two or three hour tour of rural Illinois and let them see how America really lives. And they’re like, whoa, that’s the house they live in? Well why are their houses this way? Or why are their cars like that? Do they actually do that? We actually saw a tractor going around the main square in my hometown that I grew up in, and the kids were just dumbfounded by that. It’s just not their reality compared to Chicago. Their high school has almost as many students as that town has residents. But it’s crazy, I saw a stat the other day, that if I find it real quick, I was just dumbfounded by this fact that 42% of US college students will never read another book after they graduate.
Jason Mlicki: Is that a real statistic though? Meaning that they’re not going to physically pick up a physical book and read it? Is that what they’re saying? Or they’re saying they’re never going to consume another book? They’re never going to listen to an audio book, they’ll never read an e-book on a device. Which of those two thinks do you think it really is?
Jeff McKay: I didn’t write the question, but even if it is either or, that number is alarming. And there were two other facts associated with it. The other one was 80% of US families did not buy a book in the past year, and 70% of adults have not been in a book store in the past five years. I think people sit around and watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians and all this other ridiculous, mindless television and they just don’t read books, they don’t read newspapers, they get their news from CNN or Fox News. They don’t question the reporting, or if they do question the reporting, its kind of in black and white. The station I watch is objective, the one you watch is not objective. They don’t want to read something with a liberal bias and something with a conservative bias and try to reconcile the tension between those two. And I think that’s where things get really dangerous for society because they’re no longer being critical thinkers.
Jason Mlicki: Its interesting. I guess I’ve been of the opinion, and maybe I’m entirely wrong. I guess actually you’ve just changed my view, I’ll just come out and bluntly say it that I think you’ve told me I am wrong. I guess I haven’t believed in the “people don’t read anymore” line, I think that’s false. But I guess where you have changed my view is that I think the circle of senior executives that most firms hope to attract with thought leadership, there is a reason Warren Buffett reads 80% of his day every single day. I don’t think that is any different for most senior executives in successful companies. I think that your point is really great, and you totally changed my view in the sense that I think you’re correct, that those statistics are real, and the broader population probably doesn’t read as much as they used to. But I think that the audience that most firms I’m aware of want to attract — business executives do. I would argue I think they read probably more than they ever have, they just maybe read in different ways than they used to. Maybe reading is the wrong term, they consume thinking in different ways, meaning that the opening space for them to consume video and audio, that is also equally educational and sparking of new thought.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right and I do think they are society’s outside of academia critical thinkers. So they do absorb information from a lot of different sources and you probably know this as well as anybody, given you work with Bob Buday and the Bloom Group around what it takes to produce real though leadership and get that thought leadership published. That the stuff that goes into the channels or sources that people read is highly competitive, very much scrutinized in a tight quality.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah I think its really interesting, I don’t know that I have enough historical context on this as maybe some folks do. There was a tried-and-true model for thought leadership I think for a very long time that a lot of firms played. And that model was fairly straight forward, you publish a book, you take that book and publish some derivative HBR articles or articles in other well respected third party business publications assuming you could get the privilege to do so by working with editors and you have something compelling to say, which presumably you do because you got it published in a book in the first place. From there, you hit the speaker circuit, and so mostly external events hosted by third parties that are going to infer reputational quality on your thinking.
You know, we started seeing this about five years ago, we just started getting all these firms, I shouldn’t say all these firms, I’m acting like there’s thousands of them, but we’re getting firms calling us saying that the tried-and-true model they had used for 20, 30 years wasn’t working as well as it used to and they weren’t sure why. All of a sudden, that wasn’t delivering the volume and quality of business leads that they had been accustomed to from that.
I do think that does speak to some of the behavioral changes that even senior executives are having, they’re consuming media in different ways, maybe they are consuming it from different sources, maybe they’re looking at content in more bite-sized pieces as well as long form content. I think there are a lot of different avenues to that, I think that the web is obviously playing a much more pivotal role both in attraction of clients and engagement of them, and hopefully conversations with firms more than it used to.
I think a lot of [firms] were a little behind, especially smaller ones, they hadn’t put enough thought into their web presence and how their web presence was behaving as a tool from a thought leadership perspective and also a transition perspective from thought leadership into real business conversations.
I think the central question that we’re hoping to talk about today is where is thought leadership going? What is the future of thought leadership? I think its interesting to look at the past and see where its been and then think about what’s going to change and what’s not going to change.
Jeff McKay: I think you’re spot on in that regard, I think the one thing that is not going to change is this. Clients and buyers have problems they’re trying to solve and they want to hire people that can help them solve them. You know that popular marketing adage that people don’t buy drill bits, they buy holes is the mantra, we as marketing people and as firms need to keep in mind. Because thought leadership is really making tangible the intangible solution. Read it, touch it, digest it, approach it, when it’s in written form. The barriers to entry in creating holes or at least communicating how you make holes have just almost disappeared so I think that the best hole maker, whatever that hole metaphor represents, who can get that message out to their ideal client are going to be the most successful. So in that regard, nothing has changed.
Jason Mlicki: You know its funny, when I was thinking about our conversation, I wrote down the exact same things. I don’t think any of that changes, but I think that there’s no doubt that only the caveat I would add, and its not really even a caveat as you’ve said is, is that I don’t think firms always understand. I think clients want to find those answers from trusted resources that actually have a solution. I think there’s times that firms think thought leadership is all about problem definition and they feel like whenever they get too specific about solutions, that it implies that we’re trying to sell you something. But I think clients actually expect that, and they want it. I want the answer and I’m willing to pay for you eventually to give it to me, if you can give me proof that its there and its real. I think what’s interesting about that is that if that’s not changing the desire for advice on how to solve the pressing issues of the day for any senior forward-thinking executive, but if that’s not going to change, then what is changing? I don’t know, I’ve got some thoughts but what do you think is changing?
Jeff McKay: No, go ahead and jump in.
Jason Mlicki: Well I mean I think the biggest thing I see changing, and some of this comes back to the start of our dialogue today, and I don’t know exactly how it is changing, but there’s bit of a shift from active learning to passive learning. We don’t want to have to work so hard to get the insight and I think certainly you are seeing in podcasting more video in the broader content marketing universe and the extent that thought leadership is a subset of that. And so I think that you’re definitely seeing buyers of all type saying you know, I am a little more time compressed and I don’t want to have to work so hard for this as much. So I think there certainly is a desire for more passive media consumption, things that I can multitask on, I think that’s why podcasts have become back in Vogue again is because I can do something else while I’m listening to this subjective insight. When I sit down to read, that’s the only thing I can do, I have to focus on reading and its my only option and so there’s something to that certainly.
Jason Mlicki: The second half that I think there’s a tension, I think that there’s the old days, and maybe back in the day you got Harvard Business Review and it was mailed to you, and you open it up and you read it, and your assumption was that if HBR published it, then it was absolutely worth my time. I would probably read most everything that interests me in this publication. I think to your point of that there’s so many hole makers, its what you said, anyone can make a hole, that now its like we need proof of concept. I’m not going to give you 20 minutes of my time, or 30 minutes of my time until I can see that within a minute and a half that its going to be worth those 20 minutes and that proof of concept can come in a lot of forms. It can be coming shorter form content, a blog, article that leads into the longer form stuff, whatever it might be, but I need some proof that this resource that’s giving me thought leadership at length, is worth my time. And I’m not sure that that matters whether it holds through to third party publishers as well.
Jeff McKay: I think very much so, probably to some degree even more, and its a double edged sword because I think that when I look at the types of electronic communications I get from curators, I have become much more critical of the type of content I am receiving from various publications because I think so many of these publications are trying to feed the content monster. That the quality has gone down, and if you look at things like Fortune, Forbes, Inc., you know, pick your favorites, I feel like the quality of those stories have really dropped, and they’re nothing more than click bait. The writer spends more time on the headline than they do on the actual content. And I don’t know if I’ve reached a point in my career where everything just seems old and repackaged, but I don’t see a lot of new thinking coming out of those periodicals. I think I see more new thinking popping up via the Wall Street Journal, HBR, and even HBR is doing incremental stuff around the edges, but I think you’re absolutely right, there’s a cynicism, and not that my point of view reflects everybody’s, there is a cynicism around content for content sake that is click bait and not really thought provoking, help me out type of stuff.
Jason Mlicki: It’s funny because for years and we’ve done research on this, we’ve surveyed clients from consulting firms, we’ve surveyed consulting firm marketers on and off for a number of years about what the most effective delivery mechanisms are for thought leadership and consistently, year over year over year both clients and marketers will say that trusted third party publications like HBR are the most effective ways to take thought leadership to market and self published mechanisms, corporate blogs, tend to be in the bottom tier. Well, not bottom tier I shouldn’t say that, I have to look at the data, but relatively speaking that third party publisher is more respected than the corporate self publisher. I don’t see it in the data changing, I guess just my gut says its changing, that there’s a few publications that are still holding that regard. I think HBR certainly, but then I think there’s a lot that just aren’t because when you get to the website, and its just a cobbled mess of ads, and things that are trying to grab your attention away from what you’re trying to consume, you just lose trust. We see more clients interested in self publishing than we see interested in publishing elsewhere, even though I think both are valuable, and I think they need to be doing both, absolutely. I just wonder if maybe we’re actually getting more trust in the corporation as publisher than we’re used to.
We would have been skeptical years ago but we’re actually finding, my most trusted resources, the people I read the most, that have had the most influence on the way I think about the world from a business perspective, they’re self publishers. Its not necessarily coming from a trusted third party publication.
Jeff McKay: I would agree with that. So I think what changes and what doesn’t change, are opposite sides of the same coin, lets mix and match metaphors, lets chicken our egg. Is you trust the brand at the top of whatever it is you’re reading, right? I trust the McKinsey Quarterly, why do I trust the McKinsey Quarterly? Because I have read it for decades and I have come to consistently get good information out of it that I think is valid, and valuable. But what came first, was it the McKinsey brand and the Quarterly that made me trust and read the content? Or was is the content that I found useful that made me trust the brand? Right?
Jason Mlicki: I have said forever that thought leadership is your most effective way to build reputation, to build your brand and get someone, who you’ve described as relevance in the past to see you as relevant, I think that’s the most effective brand building tool you have. But you raise a valid point which is that does the thought leadership build the brand or is it the other way around?
Jeff McKay: And I think its a little bit of both and I think what validates brand and thought leadership is that social proof. If my peer group is coming to me and saying you have to read this article in HBR, in McKinsey Quarterly, that Accenture just put out, that validates more quickly, that content, those ideas. And I think that’s the important element that we as social animals need, and that’s why the speaking opportunities, the book writing, all the other things is it just gets you exposed to that population of people that can become social proof. I would say people within that population carry a different amount of weight than others in building the credibility of a given piece. I mean there are people in my network that would say you have to read this and I will read it right away.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I’ve always had that effect on you Jeff. I understand.
Jeff McKay: And then there’s others who say you should read that and I’m like yeah, okay, maybe I’ll take a look at it.
Jason Mlicki: So I’m actually on that side of the coin alright.
Jeff McKay: Now that’s not true, I mean you’ve convinced me that I need to get back to my fiction reading. So I’m going to start doing that, but I think that’s the important thing and we need to understand, and I think this is an important thing in not just thought leadership, creation, and consumption and validation is there’s not one way, one buyer, one consumer of this information. Some people only like third party publications, curators, others don’t like that, they want to hear straight from the horse’s mouth, some are loyal to their alma matter’s publication, right. Or their former employer. We all have different criteria that we use in order to decide what’s valuable to us and how we want to consume it. I think one of the most valuable things that has changed, that probably won’t change that you’ve already alluded to, is we all learn in different ways. We have auditory learners, we have verbal or visual learners, we have kinetic learners and the content and the ideas have to be packaged in a way that works for me, in a way to consume it.
Jason Mlicki: I really like the McKinsey Five Fifty, this new format that they’ve released and what I like about it is that it is digitally native, to use an overused term, but its inherently interactive content in five minutes, and then if you want to go deeper, you can go deeper into a 50 minute dive. I think what I like about it is that it is doing exactly that, its sort of giving you various lengths of content, various formats of content and its being very direct in saying I’m going to give you a proof of concept, I’m going to give you a five minute proof of concept to understand this concept at a higher level, and then if you want to go deeper give me 50 minutes. I thought it was really smart for them to be that direct, I mean we’ve used that model of short form, long form content paired together, topically strong for years, but I guess we’re never so bold to just say bluntly to the reader that this is what we’re asking of you, and this is what you’re going to get in return. And I think that’s really, really smart. So I think on some levels that is the blueprint of what thought leadership will look more and more like going forward, is mixed formats, elegantly delivered together a little more seamlessly. I think that most firms, and us included, deliver varied content, lengths and types and formats, but they’re all sort of siloed. They’re all there and they’re connected on some level, but they’re not really elegantly strung together the way they should be, or could be, and will be going forward.
Jeff McKay: And I think that’s probably the big takeaway from this conversation, what I think has fundamentally changed is that learning is now just-in-time. I have an issue, I have an interest, I want to go deep and search allows you to go out and get smart fast when you need to get smart fast.