Executives say they are getting more discerning about the sources of content they choose, and reward brands that are credible thought leaders with sales, loyalty and advocacy, according to a new global study released today by The Economist Group in association with Hill+Knowlton Strategies

The study of more than 1600 producers and executive consumers of thought leadership content worldwide,
Thought leadership disrupted: New rules for the content age, concludes that while thought leadership can still offer big rewards, practitioners face several challenges, including the need to refocus on producing original, evidence-based content and embed greater discipline in its development while at the same time continuing to push back the frontiers in terms of targeting, presentation and delivery.

“C-suite and senior executives are overwhelmed by content but continue to seek out new thinking and ideas that are credible, innovative and fact-based. They’re consuming more thought leadership, but from fewer sources,” says Jeff Pundyk, senior VP, global integrated content solutions, at The Economist Group. “For marketers to make the list they need to reverse the trend of ‘more is better’ in favour of doing less, but more impactful, work.”

Adds Lars Erik Grønntun, chairman and CEO of H+K EMEA: “The study exposed a big shortfall in the discipline applied to the development of thought leadership. Presently marketers appear to be struggling with internal alignment and who to involve as well as connecting goals and KPIs. Thought leadership is a strategic activity and as such should apply far greater levels of rigour, much as you’d expect of any other high value activity.”

Among the findings:

  • Three out of five global executives sometimes feel confused or overwhelmed by the volume of content they encounter, with more than half noting that “intrusiveness” has increased.
  • Still, marketers continue to churn out content: 80% plan to increase the amount of thought leadership they produce in the coming 12 months.
  • Both executives and marketers agree that, on average, only a quarter of all the thought leadership content seen every day is engaged with, leaving much to go to waste.
  • 75% have become more selective about the thought leadership they consume, with just over 80% citing the volume of content as the reason.
  • Yet 33% of executives consume thought leadership daily and 20% have increased consumption “a lot” over the past 12 months.
  • After consuming compelling thought leadership, seven in ten consume more from that same source; 76% are influenced in their purchasing decisions, 67% would be willing to advocate for that brand; and 83% are influenced in the choice of potential business partner.
  • Marketers see thought leadership as a flexible strategy that can help with a range of goals: differentiation (47%); recognition for company or individuals; (42%) building brand awareness (34%); increasing revenue (27%); paving the way for a change of direction or entry into a new market (20%); and supporting the policy agenda (17%). However only 8.8% currently use thought leadership to campaign on societal issues.
  • Compelling thought leadership is “innovative”, “big picture”, “credible”, and “transformative”, while unimpressive content is “superficial”, “sales driven”, and “biased.”
  • Credibility of thought leadership is based on the quality of research, not the brand; nearly half of executives would consider a new source of content if it were a “source of hard facts”.