Research from Economist: It’s time to rethink thought leadership

By Angela Everitt

The Economist Group

London, United Kingdom


The Economist Group can boast a highly desirable audience — our instantly recognisable red box logo goes a long way. We also pride ourselves on the quality and credibility of our content.

But it wouldn’t do to become complacent about any of these things — particularly in the current, highly competitive environment in which agencies, brands, and traditional publishers are all creating content.

We regularly undertake proprietary research to gather insights that will help us serve both our audience and our clients better. Early in 2016, I picked up on a piece from an industry source I respect that suggested we had reached “peak content.” I searched the term and found a few more opinion pieces on the topic.

Back in my days as a journalist on consumer titles, we had a saying: Two is a coincidence, but three is a trend. Here I had several sources in front of me suggesting that the B2B landscape was awash with too much content. Was peak content actually a “thing?” And if so, shouldn’t we be worried about the implications?

Working in partnership with Hill & Knowlton Strategies, we decided to examine whether there is indeed too much thought leadership content aimed at the executive audience — and if so, does thought leadership hold the same currency it once did? Is it still a key tactic in a marketer’s communication strategy? 

The results of our study, Thought Leadership Disrupted, should make any marketer sit up and take note. Three in five senior executives feel confused or even overwhelmed by the amount of thought leadership content they encounter, and 75% of them are refining their sources as a result.

Results of The Economist research found executives were awash in too much content.
Results of The Economist research found executives were awash in too much content.

So how do you become a trusted source?

Another key takeaway from the research was that for thought leadership to be compelling, it must be big picture, credible, and innovative, rather than sales-driven or biased. For challenger brands, their content must be a source of hard facts if they wish to break through to executives who are looking for substance.

We like to think we’ve got some pretty good skin in the substance game at The Economist. But there was another added challenge: the days of doing a piece of research, producing a white paper, and leaving it at that are long gone. Technology has revolutionised the distribution of content — we live in an always-on world. And if you are not out there with the rest of the competition, you can have the most innovative thought leadership going and it won’t benefit anyone.

Each digital platform also has its own best practice in terms of what content types prompt engagement. The lesson? Format and impact are as important as the value of your insights.

The good news is that the executive audience is still hungry for information: 33% consume thought leadership on a daily basis, albeit from a smaller number of sources. The onus is on us as marketers to make sure we’re creating solutions that not only meet our clients’ objectives, but that also inspire and inform the audience.

We’ve got to be where the audience is, leaving a bread crumb trail of impactful content that has a substantive idea or credible data as its foundation. In this way, we can enable our clients to be the trusted source that the audience is looking for to help them in their day-to-day thinking. I call this a “We’re here if you need us” approach.

“Thought Leadership Disrupted,” a study by The Economist, provides insight into becoming a thought leader — and partner.
“Thought Leadership Disrupted,” a study by The Economist, provides insight into becoming a thought leader — and partner.

Perhaps the overall lesson in this for us and other marketers is that while the ideas behind thought leadership are still valid (authority and expertise), the way we go about executing it needs reframing. We should all be aiming to be thought partners instead. 

About Angela Everitt

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