You don’t need a crystal ball to see that 2023 is shaping up as a tough year for businesses of all shapes and sizes. The top-of-mind concern, of course, is global recession. If the economy softens, business leaders are likely to cut spending and prioritize investments that boost short-term performance.
Sadly, thought leadership budgets will not be immune from cost-cutting. Whether the recession culminates in a soft landing or a protracted downturn, organizations will be forced to do more with less. Therefore, thought leadership program managers need to prepare for whatever economic conditions emerge. In that spirit, here are eight thoughts to factor into your thought leadership planning for 2023.
Thought #1: Focus on topics that matter most to customers.
B2B organizations that build eminence through thought leadership emphasize areas where they have unique solutions to their customers’ stickiest business challenges. Invest in bold ideas critical to customer success, realizing that if they benefit so will your firm. Research we conducted with Rattleback and Phronesis in 2022 reinforced this. More than 70% of 5,700-plus B2B executives said thought leadership content is more important to making business decisions today than it was in the previous five years. Moreover, 35% of executives at companies with $5 billion or more in revenue said thought leadership is “extremely important” to them. Yet our survey of companies that produce thought leadership content found most don’t focus it on the largest revenue-producing parts of their business. Only 23% said their investments in thought leadership were totally in line with current or future revenue contributions of their product/service lines. Some 42% said their content was poorly or only somewhat aligned with what their firms actually sell or plan to sell. A recession will force firms to separate must-have from nice-to-have thought leadership.
Thought #2: Embrace research techniques that reveal valuable but hard-to-find best practices from afar.
Best-practice examples that demonstrate the effectiveness of a novel solution to a complex business problem are a foundational element of thought leadership. But it isn’t easy to get companies to provide such examples. At face value, many clients don’t see the benefits. And companies that aren’t your clients may not want to reveal their secret sauce. But this shouldn’t deter your thought leadership research team from searching high and low for best practices. Your readers need them to have faith in your firm’s ideas. What your researchers should do (if they aren’t doing so already) is to take advantage of the growing array of publicly available sources (what we call quasi-primary research) that illuminate how the best companies do what they do. This means finding and applying insights gleaned from top executives in podcasts, blog posts, analyst presentations, books, and other content about how their companies solved key challenges.
Thought #3: Turn your biggest ideas from thought leadership research to into new products/services.
In our study last year on B2B producers of thought leadership, we examined what the best ones did differently than the worst. One of many differences is that the best companies at thought leadership were more than twice as likely than the worst to convert research into new offerings. Some 52% of the best companies at thought leadership did this. That was more than twice the number (24%) of the worst firms at thought leadership. If your thought leadership research reveals a new and better way of solving a business challenge and your firm hasn’t turned that insight into a new service offering, it may be missing an opportunity.
Thought #4: Manage your thought leadership budget like it’s your own money.
If a recession strikes and budgetary knives are sharpened, thought leadership program leaders will need to be seen as good corporate citizens. You can do this by demonstrating as much fiscal restraint as possible. This means making tough choices on what to fund and what to move to the margin. Put vanity projects on hold or cancel them. Preserve your budget for work that advances the business now.
Thought #5: Make nice across disciplines throughout your organization.
Even if you already work closely on thought leadership initiatives with allies in sales, marketing/comms and strategy, you’ll need to work even more closely with them in 2023 if budgets tighten. Speak early and often to the folks who run campaigns (digital or otherwise) and marketing communications to make sure key thought leadership initiatives are on their radar and that you have their unflagging support. They usually have great instincts on ways to evangelize your content among key constituents (clients and prospects) and influencers (media, industry analysts and equity analysts for public companies). This will help you keep your program on track and allow your firm’s SMEs to focus their limited time on ideas with the greatest business value.
Thought #6: Don’t forget about long-form content.
We live in an attention-deficit world that is mesmerized by short, and often vacuous, social media messages. However, don’t ignore the vital role of long-form thought leadership content. In fact, TL consumers in our study favor long-form digital content (e.g., white papers and research reports) over short digital content such as blog posts — although they value live webinar, video presentations and podcasts even more. But if budgets tighten, be prepared to prioritize fewer long-form pieces since they can be more expensive and time-consuming to produce. Produce shorter pieces, organize them by themes and package them as a quasi-magazine (digital, preferably) or an e-newsletter for greater impact. Rely on more freely available data (see Thought #2) to reinforce your firm’s unique thinking if your deep-dive research is cut.
Spinning off long-form content (e.g., primary research reports and deep-dive white papers) into shorter pieces can be a great way to get your big ideas placed in prestigious media publications as op-eds authored by your SMEs. When you build them with proprietary IP and deep case examples, these pieces can become calling cards for event organizers seeking keynote speakers for virtual or in-person conferences. And if on-site seminars and conferences events continue to return as they did in the final months of 2022, you will have many more opportunities to raise your SMEs’ profiles and increase your company’s eminence. You can’t do this without a foundation of strong long-form thought leadership content.
Thought #7: Double-down on interactive digital content and webinars.
As noted above, you need foundational research and other long-form content to have impact with thought leadership. When big insights emerge from your research, don’t forget about the many ways you can bring them to life. Videos, data and/or concept visualization are great ways to preview upcoming reports and articles. They can also create more engaging and empowering experiences for your audience after you publish longer-form content. They provide more reasons for targets to learn more and perhaps even request a meeting with your sales teams and/or SMEs, so they are worth the investment.
Thought #8: Establish or reinforce your culture of thought leadership early and often.
Whether you are new to the thought leadership game or an old hand at it, having values and beliefs in your company about generating, implementing and marketing big ideas is critical to sustaining your program’s momentum. Our research found that such a culture is crucial to separating winners from also-rans. At companies that excel at thought leadership, 71% said they have an extremely or very strong thought leadership culture. In contrast, at the companies whose thought leadership programs were ineffective, only 43% had an extremely or very strong thought leadership culture.
Without a thought leadership culture whose values and beliefs lead to producing superior expertise for your customers, investments in knowledge creation and dissemination will have tenuous lives. As our colleague HR guru Dave Ulrich puts it, a thought leadership culture must start from the outside looking in – the expertise your firm needs to produce superior results for your firm’s customers.
If a recession is indeed impending, heads of thought leadership and the people they manage will have to raise their game. But they will also have a great opportunity to help their firms stand out in the new year, a time in which their customers will be even more likely to seek guidance to keep their firms on track.
We wish you and yours a happy, healthy and safe holiday season and a prosperous new year.