The digital dimension

There’s a lot of talk about Thought Leadership and how to take advantage of digital media to promote expertise and insight within businesses and organisations to best effect; and how to avoid the potential pitfalls in doing so.

The observation by Marshall McLuan, back in 1964, that “The medium is the message” seems prescient if we look back at developments in communications – more recently driven by digital technology – over the last 50 years. It is difficult to overstate the impact digital channels and devices have had on the way we communicate with each other and on the way we engage with and respond to opinion leaders and shapers.

Think of the first telephone and now consider the latest 4G mobile; or television, originally a piece of furniture and now, often as not, the same hand-held device that can access any one of a billion streams of video or send and receive messages and browse communities of friends and colleagues. This ultimate converged device – the mobile phone/tablet – has for the last five years been taking over from ‘desktop’ bound computers so that, now, half of all web pages served to the three billion internet users worldwide are consumed on these devices.

Marketers understand the combined importance of digital and mobile: research from Accenture shows that 78% of CMOs see digital, analytics and mobile as a prime focus in the year ahead and forecast that three quarters of the marketing mix will be digital by 2019. Of that, half will be spent on mobile. That trend is having a major impact in B2B communications, where embracing digital and mobile channels is critical for businesses wanting to build relationships with customers and potential clients. Prospects now use the internet not only to make purchases but also to form opinions about the partners they want to do business with. According to Acquity Group, before making contact with suppliers, 94% of business buyers conduct online research, and, increasingly, a cross-channel strategy is important with 60% of mobile visitors who visit a website that is not mobile-friendly going on to visit a competitor’s website immediately afterward.

Since 2003/4, social media has potentially eclipsed traditional consumer content sites and, in the business arena, social sites now complement pure product and services information and fill in the softer information about who will be a suitable business partner. Business people look for trusted sources of information and for positive endorsements about brands and suppliers, and so reviews, critiques and anecdotes from peers are becoming as important as carefully crafted white papers, opinion pieces or conference transcripts.

Where opinion leaders and experts are in demand, they are more than ever put on the spot and interrogated through webinars, live chat and discussion threads.

This presents a challenge and an opportunity for businesses wanting to use thought leadership as a way to position their brand and to engage and build customer and stakeholder relationships. The shake-up in traditional publishing and broadcasting channels available to thought leaders is evidenced in the launch of Google’s Digital News Initiative and Facebook’s Instant Articles. Business communicators now have no alternative but to embrace digital channels and interactive dialogue as a way to demonstrate their expertise and mastery of their industry sector.

Emperor conducted a survey last year into how effectively UK professional services firms were organising their content around digital and mobile. We found that only 33% of firms had a responsive site and only 12% had a mobile solution. 69% had video content on their site but it was more often just a talking head shot of a CEO or managing partner. 56% had one or more Facebook ‘sites’ – often untended or off-brand graduate pages. Twitter use was reasonably high but the content was often disconnected which confused corporate and individual voices.

Seeding thought leadership has always fallen heavily on the shoulders of the marketing teams and the challenge is now to encourage direct and dynamic, socialbusiness engagement by senior players. For businesses to derive the benefits that thought leadership can bring now requires mastery not only of the topic but also of the medium through which it is distributed. No one individual can have the last say; it’s about starting a dialogue, taking part in the conversation and listening to what is being said. Perhaps it is more appropriate to think less about thought leadership and more about collaborative thought sharing: originating, contributing, commenting and listening.

Steve Paul is an experienced senior digital strategist at Emperor, working with a range of clients, from law firms to accountants and financial services to transportation and healthcare. Visit