How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Delivery = Originality

The leaders today in delivering insights from research, to read between the lines of a new essay by Jason Mlicki of the marketing firm Rattleback, are by and large not researchers.

They’re consulting groups such as McKinsey and BCG. Journalism such as The New York Times series The Privacy Project. Corporations such as Salesforce. (Salesforce? ) And platforms such as LinkedIn.

All are using formats designed for the attention habits of decision makers today, running rings around the “digital but not really” fare turned out by think tanks, research centers, NGOs and consultancies.

Two of these consumption-friendly formats the leaders are deploying, according to Mlicki:

  • The digital hub, which uses short-form content to pull audiences into long-form content. Examples: McKinsey’s The Next Normal (each edition of which explores the future of an industry) and The Five Fifty (a podcast whose discrete episodes come in both a five-minute briefing and a 50-minute exploration) as well as The New York Times’ One Nation, Tracked.
  • Article 3.0 — basically, a mixed media article on a single topic. Example: McKinsey’s January report “Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts, “ which features not just nicely formatted conclusions but beautiful, easy-to-grasp figures; video; pop-out sidebars on research methodology; and downloadable takeaways. (Oh, and the full PDF report, too.)

Mlicki’s argument: the “traditional thought leadership publishing model” translated to digital (which he describes as “Keep writing. Just do it digitally”) has been dying for more than five years. Non-specialists still highly value research-driven insights — but their consumption habits have changed. Research must keep up.

The McKinsey climate report is not very deep. It’s an IPCC report redrawn in stick figures with crayon. But it delivers just enough information — in tiny packages you can break off easily — to make a decision maker conversant, or to prompt their further questions.

It reflects the importance of how insight is delivered as much as the originality of the insight.

Most research-driven organizations don’t or can’t budget for creation of a digital hub or even an Article 3.0. And so we are seeing a bifurcation in the research insight market between those groups that prioritize delivery (format, placement, speed, relevance, findability) of insights and those that don’t.

The two axes of research-driven insight: delivery vs. originality/credibility. In the old days, when (as Mlicki puts it) it was enough to “author a book, publish a handful of HBR articles, and hit the speaking circuit,” research could count on owning delivery on its own terms. Originality and credibility could shine forth (as long as you could get a book contract).

But in a world of digital hubs and Article 3.0s and constant updating, all of which require investment, the more important it becomes for the brand creating that delivery experience to also own the insights being delivered.

That’s why we’re seeing Axios, for instance, often minimize mention of the research reports it cites in its short think pieces. Axios owns the “brevity” part of its motto “Smart brevity” — but they also have to own the “smart” as well. Journalism doing its own research-based authority content.

When delivery is as important as originality, it’s best to own both. The clock is ticking down for research that outsources delivery of its insights to journalism (or social platforms) and neglects investing in upgrading its delivery.