Data and thought leadership are two things that work better together, especially in public relations and content marketing.
Today’s guest is Amy Littleton, Executive Vice President of Public Relations and Content at KemperLesnik. Amy talks about how to make thought leadership more accurate and authoritative to land massive PR wins. She knows what it takes to use data-backed insights to tell stories that earn media attention.
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Some of the highlights of the show include:
- Thought Leadership: Common reasons it fails and doesn’t produce results
- Good and Bad News: Search for and find information that is right, not wrong
- Authenticity and Credibility: Marketing agenda vs. thoughtful data-driven advisory
- Proof Points: Always better to have examples and information you need to know
- Research Resources: Surveys are simple to complex and everything in between
- Content Length: Consumed on multiple channels, equipment, and platforms
- Curiosity: Gives info to get customers to care, explore new things, drive results
- Inputs In/Out: Fill your brain to produce better ideas and make better decisions
Ben: How’s it going, Amy?
Amy: Great. How are you?
Ben: I can’t complain. It’s the middle of April and we’re on day two of getting buried with snow here in North Dakota. But that aside, I really can’t complain too much. How are things out in Chicago?
Amy: We are actually having multiple days of sunshine, which is atypical. Usually, we have some snow as well. We see those Cubs games and there’s a blizzard happening. I have nothing to complain about either.
Ben: I am slightly jealous. Before we get too far off track, what we’re going to be talking about is using data to tell stories, and using data and thought leadership together to land major PR successes. To open things up, in your opinion, what one thought leadership content when it misses the mark, and as it sometimes does, in your mind, what are some of the most common reasons why it fails and just doesn’t quite get the results that people are maybe looking for?
Amy: The idea of using thought leadership to tell stories is not new and companies try it across many industries, even the way that we search for news and information on our personal lives. In business, you’re looking for news and information, and you can get that from multiple sources. Back in the day, you’d have to read a trade magazine to see what was the information that you have there. But today, you can Google and search, and find information. Whether that’s good information or bad information, you’d have to be the judge.
There’s so much content out there that you can find for yourself and find out what is interesting and what is not interesting. The good part about that is there’s a lot out there. The bad part about that is that it’s sometimes hard to see what you should care about and what is actually factual, or what is actually good advice and good counsel. A lot of companies have found that, hey, we can publish your own content, and they may have no business publishing that content. They decide to publish something and it’s poorly written, it’s not well-researched. It’s a marketing piece that they’re trying to spin as a thought leadership piece.
Sorting through that clutter is tough for companies when I’m looking for information for consumers and businesses to look for that information. The first thing you would do is lose trust with your audience if you put out crappy content. You’re not going to get people to want to come back to you for information if the information you put out is really a marketing piece disguised as thought leadership, That’s the difference between good thought leadership and bad thought leadership, is when you have something that has an agenda in terms of marketing and sales agenda and a really thoughtful advisory data-driven piece.
Ben: It sounds to me like there needs to be that element of authenticity there and a commitment to being genuinely helpful to people, rather than very flagrantly trying to dress up something that very clearly benefits your own company. On the flip side, when thought leadership is really done well, and when it actually leverages data effectively, how can accurate and authoritative data really help ensure that thought leadership content actually does provide the reader with something useful, or something concrete that can maybe help them make better decisions, or really help guide the reader in a positive direction, based on something that’s quantitative?
Amy: It is a little bit counterintuitive for marketers to think about thought leadership as providing value on its face without having their marketing hats on, and wanting to push marketing messages. It does take a different mindset. It’s more of a journalist mindset than a marketer’s mindset. It’s a different kind of sales approach to use thought leadership, whereas you’re pushing a marketing message for a clear marketing and sales effort. But in thought leadership, what you’re pushing is, we are the smartest people. We’re the most knowledgeable. We have the best ideas. We have the best talent. We are thinking about your challenges and issues in a very deep and meaningful way, and we’re coming up with solutions potentially to these challenges because we’re investing in this every single day. It’s what you see consultants do very well like PwC as an example.
Those companies put very thoughtful research together that actually provides insights. When you think, I’m trying to solve a problem, who are you going to call? You’re going to call the people who have the best insights, not the ones who sent you a great marketing piece. That’s the mindset you have to get in. You have to get into that journalist mindset and out of that marketer’s mindset.
To your question about the data, how do you make sure that it’s positive, important, and relevant data? I honestly think data can come from anywhere. Your own curated data, third-party data, information that you found that is already publicly available, and any combination of that can help you to inform a thought leadership piece.
If you dial it down to the lowest common denominator, it’s about credibility. You want your piece to have credibility. If the data comes from you and it’s credible, it’s done well, it’s statistically significant data, and you feel very confident with that data, that’s credible. That’s great. You can use that. If you feel like you’re pulling from a third party and they have that integrity in their data, then use that data. You can have a wide swath of information. It’s always better to have examples, or what we call proof points when you have your thought leadership piece because it’s like a thesis.
You’re saying, we believe this is going on, or this is the current situation, or from our perspective, this is information that you need to know. Then, you put in all the proof points for supporting that position. That’s where the data comes into place, where you can pull in credible data that says, this is what’s happening in the X industry, and this is the data that supports. What we’re telling you today is information that you need to have.
Ben: Got you. That makes sense. An interesting point to pick out of that is, whether you are using your own data that you’ve gathered or generated yourself through your own research, or you are citing that data from a third party, really what matters is authoritativeness and trustworthiness, and accuracy, and relevancy. Because certainly, even if you’re not the source of the data point yourself, maybe you can still bring unique, or useful, or interesting perspectives to what that data means. We see it all the time in the marketing space where someone puts out research reports, or some statistics, or something that they gathered, but they’re not necessarily going to provide context for what they found. That leaves all kinds of openings for a smart marketer or communications professional to provide that almost journalistic angle to that data that might be missing.
With that said, original research can be very powerful. If you are the source of that information that’s been put out there, if you can do both, answer and solve, obviously, that’s very powerful. Just to drill a bit deeper into that point, from your perspective, are there any advantages to having your own research? If you own the data and other people are going to be citing you as a source of that data, maybe with their own thought leadership pieces, are there any advantages to that? Is that a worthwhile investment, for a company to put their focus on?
Amy: It depends on the business and it depends on the business objectives. If you’re a professional services company and you’re looking to be an adviser of some sort, your original data would be very beneficial to communicating that message that you’re the smartest advisor out there and that you should be listened to. If you’re a manufacturing company and you’re looking to underscore the reason that there should be a demand for a product, you may not necessarily need to produce that on your own. You might be able to find information out there. However, if you have a great audience and you can tap that audience to get insights from the audience, and it’s not a huge and heavy lift, it might actually make sense. It would be a very case-by-case basis.
The questions to ask are do we have enough critical mass in an audience to get some real insights? As an example, we work with the company Aon, which is a global insurance broker. This company produces a global risk management survey every two years. This survey surveys about 3000 or more risk managers from companies across the globe, which is a critical mass. That’s their customers, across the globe. They will dial into this to talk about what are they changing in the following risks that people are aware of and care about today, and why is that happening. Then, they’ll aggregate that data and produce a report that has significance because they have that audience that is ready to provide their insights. It’s from the same perspective of a risk manager for companies across the globe. If you have that kind of critical mass, not that you have to have a global corporation, but if you have a critical mass of an audience, where if you reach enough of them, you’re going to get some good insights, then it’s probably worth your while to do that original research and to tap that audience.
It’s the same if you’re doing a customer satisfaction survey or reaching out to your customers. If however, it would take a lot to try and find the right audience and reach out to them, there are a lot of services and solutions out there where you can commission your own data, produce it yourself, or get it from a third party—a third party that does this sort of thing and has a statistical approach that would add that credibility that you need.
Ben: That makes a lot of sense. That’s very useful in clarifying whether or not you really need to gather your own data before you dabble in thought leadership because that’s a huge lift.
Amy: Absolutely. Companies, large and small, even large companies don’t have a lot of resources that they can just send out there. There are ways to do research today from very simple to very complex, and everything in between. There’s a LinkedIn pulse survey where you can fire up the survey over LinkedIn. There’s SurveyMonkey where you can put together a survey and send out an email, and get some results. There are omnibus surveys like Mike Harris’ which is a research company. You can add a question to an omnibus survey which means a big survey with a bunch of different questions. You could have one or two questions in that survey to provide insights and information to you. Of course, you can hire a research company that has statisticians and they put together the full survey, and that is a pretty heavy lift. But there are some solutions out there for capturing information.
I would also add, thought leadership and data-driven thought leadership don’t have to be 40 pages and 100,000 words. Today, no one has time for that. No one’s going to read it. I don’t know if even back in the day if people had time for it they would read it. Just that the pace of life is so much greater now that you want very poignant, thoughtful, direct-to-the-point thought leadership data-driven insights without a lot of love around it. You don’t have to draw out into this big heavy piece that you think has this weight to it. It can be very tight and it should be very tight, and delivered in a very tight way. People will get it. They’ll get it quickly. They’ll get more effective if you do it in bite-sized pieces.
Ben: While original research and own data can be both powerful and help put your brand at the center of the story, it’s important to remember that you don’t necessarily always need your own original research, which can be just very resource-intensive to generate, in order to power your content or your pitch. Just so long as you have an authoritative source of some sort to back you up or where you are extracting that data or, that statistic, that is helping to support your content or to support the story that you want to tell. Sometimes, just putting a unique spin or a new perspective on an existing statistic or insight can be all it takes to spark a conversation that gets the media talking. Now, back to Amy.
For marketers, particularly for content marketers, that piece on length is really key.
Amy: The other pieces, multimedia. It’s not only having a piece of thought leadership content that could be one or two pages. It could be 500 words, like one paragraph, two paragraphs. But to deliver it with an infographic, to deliver it with a short video, to deliver it in a podcast format, there are a lot of ways to get that across to people because people are consuming content on their phones, on their tablets, on their computers, wherever they may be in their lives. Those are all conducive to different forms of media. You don’t want a big, very word-heavy piece if you’re on your small iPhone. You want to have a little graphic or a short video. Those kinds of things are better. You want to reach everybody where they are. Multimedia is really important.
The way that we do it is we start with the thinking, and the idea and the content—the written content, the data, the insights, the thought leadership—whatever that might look like in words. Then, parse it out into other mediums where we see there are really three good insights in here. Let’s do three infographics. Let’s do a long-form video with these three insights. Then, let’s do really quick hits on all three of these. We can roll those out to our audiences over time, and get that engagement with those audiences over digital channels. Then direct in various ways to our customers.
If you’re going to go to a meeting, and you want to leave it behind if you want to just hit them by email and say, I wanted to make sure you saw this if you want to use your social channels. A lot of ways to get that content to your audiences.
Ben: Absolutely. That piece there on repurposing, atomizing maybe a larger piece down to smaller chunks that you can use to quickly catch people’s attention on whichever format or platform they happen to be on. That’s very important because, for one, you’re meeting people on their own level. You’re presenting the content in the formats that they want, on whichever channel they happen to be using. But also, it just really maximizes the amount of mileage you can get from that one piece. If you can turn one long-form piece into a short video, Instagram story, tweet thread, a YouTube video, newsletter, even just like a subject line, maybe that’s one of those, an insight or share something of value, that really can’t be understated how powerful that can be.
The last question I’ll throw your way, data is where things start from what it sounds like, but in order to make that data interesting to people, you need to have an angle or a story that you want to tell. Journalists and PR folks are going to understand that. That’s obvious to them. But for people who are maybe coming out from a different area and marketing means—these are marketing generalists, maybe they have some other type of role or maybe they’re not super experienced—how would you recommend that they begin to identify angles for stories and for content based on the data that they’ve gathered because obviously, you don’t want to just say, such and such source says, X-percent of Y did Z and got X-result or whatever? You don’t want to just be pointing out the obvious to people. How do you go beyond that and actually present that information in a way that does tell a story that’s going to get people to care?
Amy: I would say the first critical piece is to be curious. Curiosity is what gives us information and allows us to explore new things. Even as a marketer or someone who wears 25 hats and is like, okay, how am I supposed to do thought leadership? Just take a step back and think about what you are curious about. What is keeping your customers up at night? What’s happening in your industry that’s disrupting things or changing things? What’s happening in the world that’s causing the change? What are some solutions that your company is providing that are going to make an impact, are going to make people’s lives better? What are all those questions that you could ask? In those questions, you will find nuggets of story ideas and storylines. You’ll find the current relevance of what you’re doing. That’s going to help to inform you. I always look at it like it’s a hypothesis.
Our hypothesis is that customers in this industry are having a real problem with digital transformation. We see that this industry used to be totally offline, but now there’s a lot of technology in the mix. We weren’t used to that in the past. I can just predict that our customers are trying to figure that out. That’s just an example, but you could see. Where can we get insights for that challenge that we think our customers are having—moving from offline to more technology-based solutions or whatnot—and really ask a lot of questions about that particular challenge or a particular issue, and you can really drill into what’s going on, and get to the heart of some really interesting and relevant questions?
Those questions are the things that are going to get you to be able to develop the survey questions, to be able to develop those points where you want to say, let’s find out how much, for example, not just how much is digital transformation impacting your business, but more how specifically are your customers engaging with you on these channels, and what is the future of that for you? You could really dig into those challenges in those issues through thought leadership, so really curiosity.
It goes back to my original point about journalistic mindset versus marketing mindset. Journalists are curious. Journalists just ask a thousand questions, and right after they get an answer to a question, it brings up another question, it raises another question. Continuing to ask those questions and peeling back the layers will get you to really the heart of some interesting content, and that’s where you’ll find the juicy stuff about leadership.
Ben: The more you follow those rabbit holes to where they naturally lead, sometimes the more you’re able to extract insights and ideas that might be even better or more interesting than whatever you thought your angle was going into it.
Amy: Now, you have those a-ha moments where you’re like, what about this, what is it like? Yeah, I didn’t think about that before. It gets you going and gets you much more interested.
Ben: Yeah, it’s a process for sure.
Amy: It is.
Ben: Usually not one where you start with the answers. That’s great advice. Amy, this has been fantastic. But before I let you go, is there anything else you’d like to add or any burning issues or thoughts that are just right on the tip of your tongue that you’d like to leave our listeners with?
Amy: I heard advice when I was young in my career, and I am in PR and do a lot of communications work, and have that journalistic mindset, and that is, inputs in, provide inputs out. To fill your brain with information and to be curious, and to go exploring, and to find information, and see what other people are doing, and see what’s happening in your industry or in the news, or what your competitors or whatever it might be with consumer behavior, putting those inputs in your head will allow you to dig into the information and produce better ideas.
You can’t sit at your computer with your cursor on and expect to have a brilliant idea. You’ve got to put different information in. You’ve got to think about it. You got to persevere on it. Then all of a sudden, you’ll have these moments, oh, here’s an idea, there’s an idea. It’s going to be, inputs in and inputs out. Be curious. Be thoughtful. Think about things in the shower. Get up in the morning and check your news feeds. Just put information into your body and that will help you produce great results.
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May 3, 2021