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Prove the value of thought leadership with the FT’s new framework

March 4, 2020 | By Theresa Cramer – Independent Journalist @Cramerstrasse

Marketers know that thought leadership is an important part of a strategy to build awareness and trust, and to help their companies get a seat at the table. But until now, they have had a hard time proving it. The reality is that marketers are under pressure from all sides to prove their contributions to the bottom line.

While metrics are available to track many marketing activities, thought leadership efforts have been nearly impossible to measure. With this in mind, the Thought Leadership Network (TLN)—a joint venture of Longitude and The Financial Times—has released its first-ever framework for measuring the effectiveness of thought leadership in its report “Proving our Value: Measuring the effectiveness of thought leadership.”

After years of talking to clients about their challenges, Rob Mitchell, CEO of Longitude and Chairman of Thought Leadership Network, says he saw a gap in the market for a network devoted to promoting thought leadership as a career and to promote best practices. Thus, TLN was born, to bring “together thought leadership practitioners to share knowledge, experiences, and ideas.”

Mitchell thinks of TLN’s mission as “Thought leadership about thought leadership.”

Tia McPhee, Global Brand Director of The Financial Times and a Thought Leadership Network advisory board member says that she hopes the group’s annual slate of events allows thought leaders to learn from and support one another. But as the group started coming together, it was clear there was one challenge members were struggling with more than any other: measuring the effectiveness of thought leadership.

What is thought leadership?

The term “thought leadership” is familiar. However, defining it is difficult. Some might say, “You know it when you see it.” But in the age of content marketing—when every company is pumping out content—it can be even harder to separate real thought leadership from more run of the mill content marketing efforts.

“Content marketing can be part of a strategy to develop yourself as a thought leader,” says McPhee. She adds that content marketing is really the “delivery mechanism.”

“Good thought leadership starts with the strength of the ideas,” says Mitchell. To be a true thought leader, you need an original idea. Content marketing is just the avenue through which you deliver that idea.

What’s the goal?

More importantly, content marketing often focuses on short-term engagement metrics—think downloads and clicks. However, TLN’s research shows that the key to measuring the effectiveness of thought leadership is all about taking a long-term view.

When thinking about thought leadership efforts, it’s important to understand what this branch of marketing is really designed to do. According to the report, campaigns can do three things:

  • Reimagine—Pivot the business to a new reality.  
  • Renovate—Build on past successes and move into new areas that will attract attention from both new and existing customers. 
  • Reinforce—Strengthen customer loyalty and retention for existing, mature products and services.  

But the question remains: How do you know if you’re achieving those goals?

A measurement framework

In order to help TLN members better prove the value of their work, the group has compiled a report that details the metrics that matter most, six principles of effective measurement, and provides a checklist to make sure efforts align with business goals. Mitchell says the report is the result of “trying to distill” his years of experience, combined with primary research—speaking to clients and advisory board members—and even bringing in outside experts to get a new perspective.

“Alignment” is the foundation of the three-tier effectiveness model presented in the report. “It is all about ensuring that there is buy-in from every relevant function in the business, as well as agreement about the overall goals,” says the report.

Next, you have to take a look at engagement, though Mitchell warns against putting too much weight on short-term metrics. He wants to “shift the focus a little bit.” Mitchell says, “Right now we measure what’s easy to measure.”

He sees a need for a “shift toward alignment, influence, and impact.” Mitchell suggests spending 40% of your time tracking alignment, 40% on impact, and 20% on engagement. Ask yourself, are you changing behavior? That’s how you really know you’re having an effect on customers.

“These longer-term metrics are harder to measure,” says Mitchell. And therein lies the challenge. In order to determine if your thought leadership is moving the needle on influence and impact you need to track whether your perception of expertise is increasing, customer lifetime value (CLV), meetings generated, and profitability. You’ll also want to understand how your content is contributing to the marketing pipeline and generating qualified leads. 

Reading that list may have you scratching your head. Really, how do you know how your expertise is perceived? Can you really know how many meetings your thought leadership campaigns have generated?

Admittedly, the “influence and impact” metrics are the hardest to track. They will require that you invest in customer surveys and other in-depth outreach efforts that go beyond simple engagement efforts. However, Mitchell and McPhee promise that putting in the effort to track these numbers will go a long way to understanding your effectiveness.

Ultimately, says McPhee, TLN and the report give you “the tools to make your case.”

“Tribal subscription marketing”

But for publishers like The Financial Times, thought leadership is a slightly different animal than it is for other brands. After all, McPhee asks, what are you doing as a publisher if you aren’t regularly putting out interesting new ideas? Good journalism isn’t necessarily the same as thought leadership. But publishers are embracing the practice as a way to build loyalty and enhance CLV.

For instance, The FT launched its New Agenda which McPhee describes as “a rallying cry to business leaders to think about responsible capitalism.” In practice, it’s a collection of the publishers’ best pieces around the idea of protecting “the future of free enterprise and wealth creation by pursuing profit with purpose.”

She says she’s seen the model replicated across other publishers—think Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” It has led to what some in the industry are calling “tribal subscription marketing,” which creates a sense of belonging among readers.   

“Thought leadership can get people behind you,” says McPhee. That’s as important for publishers as it is for any other brand—especially in the age of digital disintermediation and a near constant fight for every subscriber.

“Providing expertise in thought leadership—both in terms of the content itself and the measurement of its impact—is an obvious addition to what the FT can offer clients,” adds McPhee. Ultimately, thought leadership may be just what you need to find new ways to add value for your subscribers and potential sponsors.

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