By Alan Alper and Bob Buday
The thought leadership journal has been a staple of the thought leadership marketing mix for B2B firms for at least 60 years, ever since McKinsey & Company introduced McKinsey Quarterly. A compendium of articles reflecting a firm’s best thinking at a moment in time, these journals have long provided tangible evidence of its superior expertise.
As Bob chronicled in his book “Competing on Thought Leadership,” the best thought leadership journals have served three important purposes:
- Burnishing the brand: In the management consulting, firms such as Booz & Co. (with Strategy + Business, now published by PwC) and McKinsey remind executives of their deep expertise by frequently publishing thought leadership journals.
- Controlling content quality: The best thought leadership journals are created by topnotch editorial and graphic design teams. They codify the expertise of the experts far better than the experts can themselves. In some cases, the content rivals top academic journals and business magazines.
- Reinforcing intellectual purity: Based on their client experience and primary research, these journals don’t try to sell you anything. They are there to reveal how deeply their experts understand client problems and how to solve them.
These are still fundamental goals for companies that want to show off their expertise. But the digital and print formats that most of them have followed are now grossly out of date. It’s like wearing a 1960s Nehru jacket to a 2020s formal event. A thought leadership journal that features a collection of new articles is now obsolete.
Why? One factor is that the oversupply of extremely thoughtful content about running organizations. This content is no longer the private domain of companies with big publishing budgets. Gone are the days when only deep-pocketed B2B firms could afford the big print and mailing costs of producing a quality thought leadership journal. Thanks to low-cost digital publishing on corporate websites, the idea marketplace is saturated with content — some good, some not. Yet regardless of their quality, executives in seconds can summon an avalanche of content through a search engine or generative AI tool. The result: Even the best ideas from the best firms have a hard time getting heard.
What’s more, access to big audiences is now free and no longer guarded by the lions at the gate: editors with quality standards. With the mainstreaming of social media like LinkedIn and Medium, B2B firms gained a virtual forum – filter free – to share their best thinking with millions of viewers.
The third factor is the portability of small digital devices and the inconvenience of paper. A tsunami of powerful high-resolution tablet devices and smart phones tilted the content playing field even further toward digital publishing. Executives now consume it anywhere without having to sit in front of a desktop computer or remembering to stash a print journal in their briefcase. And with ubiquitous access, consume it they have: The average person spends 500 minutes a day now on digital media, compared with 285 minutes on traditional media, per Statista.
Yet most thought leadership journals we know of, even their digital versions, still follow fundamentally the same model as the print versions they first emulated. That’s created a big problem: They are way out of step with what their readers can get from other content sources.
This can’t continue for B2B firms that want to compete on thought leadership, and view their thought leadership journal as a key asset.
Rebooting the Digital Thought Leadership Journal
We’ve spent the better part of 2023 evaluating what separates the best B2B thought leadership journals from the rest. But before we go into these differences, it helps to understand what we believe has been driving “the rest.” We do not think it’s a failure to uphold high standards for content, although that can happen. We do not think it’s because they have less talented editors or graphic designers. In fact, from the articles we see, they have highly capable ones.
Instead, we believe the problem is harder to trace: It’s that many editorial and marketing professionals cling to traditional publishing conventions, a leftover of the print era. These beliefs constrain thinking about what is possible on a website, that medium of all media, where videos can show the impact of best and worst practices in ways words and pictures cannot, and where digitally interactive charts can let you see the trends you care most about.
In particular, four vestiges of this print mindset constrain innovation in the digital thought leadership journal:
- The editorial calendar: Like managing inventory in a grocery store, thought leadership professionals adhere to a rotation schedule for moving new articles in and old articles out. They view their old articles as no longer palatable, like supermarket managers who remove perishables past their sell-by dates.
- The editorial package: Thought leadership journals like McKinsey Quarterly and Strategy & Business followed the model set by academic journals before them. That model was originally based on the cost efficiencies in publishing and mailing multiple articles in one edition, rather than separately. But the problem with this mindset today is it kills timeliness; your most important article becomes hostage to the straggler articles that aren’t ready. Great content you were ready to publish today can wait weeks or months until the other articles arrive and are edited.
- The article itself: For authors who create content, articles have been the locus of idea development. This sounds banal but it isn’t. Here’s why it’s now archaic: Authors have been trained to see their article as a stand-alone treatment of their ideas. But that’s a leftover from the print era when you couldn’t, of course, hyperlink to another piece of content in your print journal or previous ones. (You could footnote it, but how many readers would then search back issues?) The way thought leadership journal articles are developed leads to islands of thinking within a firm. The firm’s best thinking on any issue is typically reserved for the authors of new articles. Tapping into the ideas of other firm thought leaders happens by accident, if at all. Every new article is an opportunity to reinvent the wheel.
- The separation of church and state: Articles aren’t linked to the services and products the authors’ firm sells, which are their raison d’etre. To be sure, thought leadership content can’t be blatant sales pitches. But if readers love an article and want to talk to the authors about implementing their advice, why make those conversations logistically difficult? Why force the reader to spend minutes on or off the site trying to figure out how to connect with the authors? This practice is another vestige of the print era, when editorial content did not pitch products, and when advertising and advertorials were clearly labeled as advertising.
These print model practices are so ingrained that most editorial and marketing people don’t question them. They assume them to be constants.
The best way to jettison them is to embrace a new publishing model, one we call the “digital hub.” Four qualities make the digital hub a superior way to publish thought leadership content:
- It isn’t a slave to the editorial calendar; it is a slave to what’s pertinent now. Being first to market with a big idea takes precedence, not when can fit in the editorial calendar. The digital hub solves a major print problem – not waiting for an entire issue’s worth of content is finalized before a great and timely article can be published.
- It doesn’t distinguish between new and old content, but rather between relevant and irrelevant content. It connects new content to old but-still-highly-relevant content on their websites. A digital hub allows firms to continually expand their old but still relevant content with new material published in a variety of media types and housed in one place for the reader who wants depth. Experts don’t have to reinvent wheels that other experts in the firm developed in previously published articles. They just need to provide hyperlinks to past articles that explain concepts more fully. That frees up authors of new content to focus on new ideas. This has huge implications for how companies develop thought leadership content.
- The separation of church and state goes away, creating an easy path for prospects to talk to company thought leaders. Thought leadership content in the digital hub must be connected to what the firm sells (its consulting, legal, accounting, software, etc., offerings) and the authors’ profiles. This makes it easier for those authors to sell the firm’s offerings, or bring in business developers who can take the handoff at the right moment.
- Text doesn’t necessarily dominate the webpage; formats that best convey an argument do. Here we are saying that digital hub content producers must determine the best way for their firm’s experts to make their arguments. These producers decide on the optimal mix of text, images, video, audio and data visualization.
Moving to the Digital Hub
Thought leadership content chiefs and chief marketing officers need to take note. Thought leadership journal leaders PwC and McKinsey have stepped up their digital publishing games. PwC discontinued the print version of Strategy + Business in late 2022 and embraced a full-on digital hub approach that connects most of its big-idea content. McKinsey still publishes the print version of the Quarterly. However, its digital edition includes audio, videos and motion graphics, which makes the experience more immersive.
We continue to closely watch this space. Stay tuned for our special report on digital thought leadership hubs.