How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Reactive, Promotional, Strategic

There are three approaches researchers and their comms support (if they have it) can take to creating thought leadership — three gears, if you will.

As with gears (speaking as a long-time devotee of manual transmissions), you should know which one you’re in, why you’re in it and whether you’re going to stay there or shift up.

First gear: reactive. You only create thought leadership content in reaction to things — conferences, news events, somebody else saying something with which you disagree.

If reactive thought leadership were an animal, it would be a single bird in a virgin tropical forest. You’re trying to get traction, but the competition for attention here is beyond fierce, and your results usually underwhelming compared to your effort.

Reactive mode is also often letter-to-the-editor mode. Another expert or pretend expert has gotten a jump on the topic, and you’re struggling to make your objections heard. So you send a real letter to the editor or the equivalent on Twitter or elsewhere, just to get your argument on the record.

Second gear: promotional. You have new product — a paper, a report, a public event, a book — and you want your target audiences to know about it. So you create some accessible content around it that you post or shop to media.

Promotional is PR thinking, and the gear in which most research-driven organizations are stuck. (How ironic, when so many researchers still feel squeamish about the word “promotion.”) But promotion mode feels natural to these organizations, because it matches the pace of their product generation, and because they usually don’t feel a lot of pressure to be more strategic for bigger goals.

The problem with promotional, PR gear is that it seldom aggregates in the mind of the audience. You see the cohesive worldview behind all the individual products, but your audiences won’t. They don’t see your positioning and your unique perspectives. They don’t see that you consistently have fresh solutions for problems and fresh lenses for understanding those problems. They just see a string of products…when they see them.

The third gear: proactive or strategic.

Strategic thought leadership moves beyond the product to give voice to the big idea(s) that the research product implies — ideally, through a campaign of content interventions you unfold across all the platforms your audience feeds at.

Strategic thought leadership also takes a long view. It understands the necessity of repetition for an idea to be heard. That’s why it unfolds across months, instead of a single point in time tied to an event. Why its ideas have explicit positioning, white space and multiple angles and ramifications to explore through content. And why it measures the impact of its interventions and makes course corrections to maximize that impact (e.g., it’s time to go hard on podcast guesting because that’s where a previously unknown portion of our audience pays its undivided attention).

If the researcher is part of an organization, strategic thought leadership works across that organization so all of its important functions (from fundraising or sales to hiring to marketing/comms) can use and benefit from the content.

And because it’s competing for attention in a world now all about individual brand, strategic thought leadership doesn’t hesitate to build brand for the voices behind the big ideas — the researchers themselves.

Takeaway: Being proactive and strategic about your thought leadership content means you see the hill you want to own — even if your idea is creating it, especially if your idea is creating it — and you make a plan to take it.

Strategic mode is the mode the rest of the world uses to change conversations. It’s time research caught up.