Despite an unsettled economy and marketing budget cuts, now is not the time to panic about our profession. Here’s why people who love this work should stick with it.
Recently my son’s friend asked me a question that spurred deep soul-searching: What is the outlook for jobs in thought leadership this decade? It’s an understandable one, especially if you work in a company that is slashing marketing and laying off staff.
Should you look for another line of work? Change professions? Move to a more mundane vocation than thought leadership?
I suggest you don’t, and that now is not the time to panic about the thought leadership profession. If you love the work, I urge you to stick with it. In addition to advising people to do work they’re passionate about (espoused long ago by Built to Last co-author Jim Collins and What Color is Your Parachute? author Richard Bolles, among others), I see career opportunities in thought leadership abounding this decade. I think they will even surpass those of the last decade, when the field was vibrant and growing.
Of course, these are not the views of a labor economist. Instead, my opinion is based on working in thought leadership since 1987, a time when it seemed that only management consulting firms marketed their expertise through educational ways (op-eds, conference presentations, books, white papers, and so on) rather than blatantly promotional means (advertising, brochures, trade show booths, etc.) Since then, many other B2B sectors have embraced thought leadership — software, wealth management, and IT services among them.
This article explains why I’m optimistic about our profession. First, I show what U.S. government data (gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) says about the future of occupations that draw upon skills in thought leadership marketing (writing, market research, public relations, etc.). I then discuss BLS’ drivers of job growth and how they might apply to thought leadership marketing. Finally, I mention six thought leadership skills that I believe will be in high demand and short supply in years ahead. Those predictions are based purely on intuition.
Job Projections in Related Occupations
First, it would be wonderful if BLS had a category of occupations for thought leadership content development and marketing. Of course, it doesn’t; our profession is likely too small and too relatively new to be mainstream. Lacking that, what is the outlook for occupations that BLS does track, and that draw upon the primary skill areas of thought leadership: research, writing, editing, journalism, public relations, and others? Might increases or declines in job growth be an indicator of whether thought leadership jobs will expand or contract?
The statistics and projections in five job categories that draw upon skills necessary in thought leadership jobs are from BLS publications issued this spring. (A caveat: They likely reflect BLS analysis pre-pandemic, so they may be revised downward later.) Note that BLS’s predictions about increases or decreases in occupational growth were correct 78% of the time over the 10-year period of 2008-2018, although its projected average growth rate (10%) was higher than the actual average rate (7%).
Here are BLS’ data and job growth predictions between 2018 and 2028 in six occupations that draw on skills required in thought leadership:
- Writers and authors. This April, BLS predicted little to no change in jobs between 2018 and 2028 (about 123,000 jobs in the U.S.), citing “Strong competition is expected because many people are attracted to this occupation.” But it also defines writers and authors as working as employees or freelancers for a range of organizations, including publishers, movie producers, ad agencies, non-media businesses and politicians
- Journalists. BLS forecasted that jobs in this category (nearly 50,000 jobs in 2018, and designated “Reporters, Correspondents and Broadcast News Analysts”) will shrink 10% by 2028 due to declining ad revenue.
- Editors. This is another occupational category that BLS predicted would show a decline in jobs (3%) by 2028. BLS estimated there were 118,300 editors in 2018. Of that total, 86% worked in companies across industries, while 14% were self-employed. However, the largest sector by far in which editors were employed was the “information” industry: publishing, music, movies and broadcasting. Nearly three-quarters (63%) of those editors worked in those sectors.
- Technical writers. I view BLS’ employment projections for this category (nearly 56,000 jobs in 2018, growing 8% by 2028) to be in more in line with thought leadership content development than the journalist category. Most technical writers are likely to work in non-media companies, especially technology firms.
- Public relations specialists. A close cousin to thought leadership, but not the same. I see PR jobs to be more about getting the media and other public influencers to write about or quote an organization — and less about getting that organization’s people to write. (I know some PR firms will argue with this and say they do it all.) Whatever the case, BLS predicts 8% growth in 2018’s 81,200 PR jobs by 2028. I see that as a positive indicator for thought leadership jobs, especially those whose task is building a large audience for a company’s expertise.
- Market research analysts. BLS predicts job growth (618,900 people did this work in 2018) to soar 20% by 2028. For sure, the market research field covers much more than thought leadership – e.g., research to determine market size, get customer feedback on products and marketing campaigns, and so on.
Taken as a whole – declines or no growth in three occupations and increases in three through 2028 – the overall BLS outlook may seem mixed. But consider this: Thought leadership jobs are much more likely to be found in the kinds of organizations that employ technical writers, PR people and market researchers. These organizations include professional services, tech, and other B2B companies. Even if writing and editing jobs at media companies continue to shrink over this decade – and I hope they don’t, given America’s need for strong journalism – I believe that thought leadership positions will offset some of these losses because they require the same skills.
And if you probe the editors category, you see additional evidence that thought leadership skills may indeed be in higher demand outside the media industry by 2028. BLS projections of where editors would be employed by then (vs. 2018) showed an interesting trend: While it forecasted that the number of editors working in the information industry would decline 10% (from 63,900 to 57,600), it predicted that editors working for professional, scientific and technical services companies would grow from 10,800 to 12,200, a 13% gain. That industry category includes consulting, IT services, accounting, legal, marketing, scientific R&D and other sectors.
More companies will need people who can help them deal with complexity and change.
As a result, I see this as a hopeful sign for thought leadership jobs. Another encouraging sign is that companies are changing faster and becoming ever more complex, and they will need people who can provide expertise and products that can help them deal with such complexity and change.
Demand and Supply Factors Fueling Thought Leadership Skills
Labor economists use a range of factors to project job growth for different occupations. BLS’ factors include technological innovation, changes in business practices (such as methods of production), product/service substitutions, restructuring of organizational work, shifting of work to offshore entities, and changes in the size of businesses.
What factors might increase or decrease the demand for people who can help organizations get recognized and generate demand for their expertise? I see two major ones.
- Pull: Drivers that will increase organizations’ need for outside expertise. If more organizations need more and new types of expertise — ranging from digital strategy to talent strategy to legal strategy and everything in between — then this should open up the doors for consulting, law, accounting, training, architecture and other suppliers to create new services and expand their existing services. And, of course, new firms would spring up to supply such expertise. In turn, that should prompt professional services and other B2B firms to hire more thought leadership professionals to respond to growing market “pull” for more expertise in more specialities. Using some of BLS’ factors for job growth, what might increase the number of thought leadership jobs? One driver could be based on a combination of accelerating technological innovation and the restructuring of organizational work: increasingly complex business processes (marketing, selling, service, R&D, etc.), and the new and more specialized jobs that will result. Experts in these new disciplines can help organizations sort through all this, but these experts will need thought leadership marketers to help them raise their profiles with companies that need them.
- Push: Drivers that will increase expertise providers’ ability to create, collect and market their expertise (and thus hire more thought leadership professionals to do so). In addition to responding to greater “pull” or market demand for their services, I argue that suppliers of expertise will need more people to respond to the forces of “push” —new marketing channels, technologies and other factors that are making it easier to market a firm’s expertise. Consider podcasts as an example. This June, there were 850,000 active podcasts in the U.S., more than 50% higher than the number in 2018. If your marketing department wants to create podcasts this decade and not just articles for the firm’s thought leaders, it might need to add a person (or cut some other marketing activity to free someone up). Data visualization, social media and other more-recent technologies are similarly widening the tool kit of thought leadership marketers. To be sure, some of these new marketing jobs could be automated – e.g., artificial intelligence software that takes a detailed outline and writes prose from it (like basic sports game results and quarterly earnings reports AI has been writing since the last decade). If you believe that AI and other technologies will automate much of the “creative” work of thought leadership, then they would be job killers. Call me optimistic, but I can’t see it happening any time soon.
These factors and their potential job impacts are simply ones to mull over. Getting a far more accurate prediction would require a labor economist to sort through them and other factors. But hopefully I’ve brought some useful facts to the table here.
High-Demand, Short-Supply Thought Leadership Skills
If you believe as I do that thought leadership will be a dynamic and growing occupation this decade, what skills should job seekers acquire or improve in order to excel?
In my long career in thought leadership I’ve found these skills to be most valuable:
- Thought leadership strategy: Helping an organization define what client problems it needs to “own,” the goals of its thought leadership activities, what content development and marketing activities to fund, the processes and skills to create and market content, and how to measure progress.
- Argument development: Often confused with prose writing, it is not the same. Argument developers work with internal experts to convert their thinking on a topic into an outline of a rigorous and persuasive argument, the framework for the prose that follows.
- Writing: The best writers follow a detailed and sound argument to describe a problem in the world and a better way to solve it. Some writers, but not all, can develop the outline as well. Great writers make the copy a joy – not a chore – to read. People who are skilled at both outline and prose have been – and will be – in high demand and short supply.
- Online thought leadership presentation and viewer experience making: Publishing thought leadership content in PDF documents or blog posts with links is so last decade. More and more, presenting thought leadership on a company’s website requires an interactive experience – going beyond prose, pictures and charts and other age-old elements of print publications, to explaining a complex argument through videos (eg., in which the authors talk about why they wrote about the topic), charts that viewers can click to see results in their industry or country, and other capabilities when content is in a digital format. This is the new world of data visualization, online storytelling, and digital videomaking. These skills showed up first in journalism (e.g., NY Times digital, Washington Post digital). Firms like McKinsey are leading the way in professional services.
- Thought leadership research: Attitudinal surveys are not nearly enough to help get executives to embrace a firm’s solution to a complex problem. Groundbreaking thought leadership concepts are built on primary research that shows the key differences between organizations that excel and struggle on a particular problem. We need people in thought leadership who can design and execute case study and survey-based research, and who can also gather data on the web to discover how certain organizations are tackling the research issue at hand.
- Audience building: Social media will continue to give thought leadership marketers great tools for getting the right audience to view a piece of content. But email isn’t going away. Knowing how and when to use these and other audience-building tools will become a crucial skill this decade to help compelling content gain the audience it deserves.
I see people who excel in these areas to be in high demand at B2B organizations that compete on the basis of marketing and delivering superior expertise.
The Best Places to Apply These Skills
One last thought in this highly unscientific look at job growth in thought leadership: Try to get into an organization that not only embraces thought leadership marketing, but also puts content quality on the highest pedestal. If you do great work, your job will be safer in these companies. My logic is this: Without compelling content, thought leadership campaigns ultimately deliver little client interest and revenue. When the next economic downturn comes, when CMOs and heads of thought leadership are called to defend their thought leadership budgets, they’ll have a hard case to make.
Build a career at a place that believes in creating, codifying and promoting superior expertise – expertise that a company’s researchers create through groundbreaking studies; that its argument developers and writers turn into compelling content; that its online experience creators make stimulating; that its audience builders make popular.
Every B2B company that decides to compete on the basis of thought leadership will need to attract, develop and retain people with stellar skills I’ve described here. Those will be great companies to work for in the years ahead.