Thought Leadership in the Digital World: Escaping the Ecosystem of Owned Media!

July 23, 2021


Whether in your private life or in business: No communicator wants to engage in a monologue. Finding an audience and generating consensus are the key building blocks of thought leadership. And today this is primarily happening online on the web and on social media. But most companies haven’t yet adapted to this change in the media landscape, and thought leadership has slipped through the cracks. But why is that? And how can companies change this?

An SEO analysis (by Sistrix) of key issues in the pharmaceutical industry – using search terms such as “Digital Healthcare”, “Cost of Disease”, “Cancer Therapy” and “Coronavirus” – found that Big Pharma barely makes the top 20 in the Google ranking, even when the terms are directly relevant to their own business and indication areas. The top ranked sites are often health insurance companies and their representatives, as well as patient portals and government agencies. But if a company fails to show up on Google, they can no longer play a role in shaping opinions. In short, they have become irrelevant.

Thought Leadership – Missed Chances
Deep knowledge and strength in innovation, the prerequisites for content, undoubtedly already exist in companies. And businesses have an entire ecosystem of cutting-edge channels and media applications at the start – which are all interlinked. But if we take a closer look, we’ll see that many companies are communicating in their own little world. Trapped in the bubble of their owned media ecosystem, they rarely interact with the wider digital environment. Their ideas and messages are barely picked up by anyone else; even on social media, their posts are only seen by their own employees and those close to the company.

Companies want to help shape opinions and, where possible, influence the behaviour of stakeholders and decision-makers on the issues that are important to them. In other words, they want to be Thought Leaders: making their messages and ideas heard in public discourse (awareness) and winning people over to their point of view (engagement).

Thought leadership:
• improves how competent a company is perceived to be, thereby boosting its brand reputation.
• increases the likelihood of getting one’s own agenda across, e.g. in public affairs.
• creates preference for products and services.
• creates trust and acts as a stabilising force on stakeholder relationships in crisis situations.
• enables companies to bring products to market faster by leveraging a network of scientists, innovation partners, key opinion leaders and universities.

Criteria for Thought Leadership: Novel Point of View, Earned Media and Initiating Social Content
According to Zerfaß/Volk of Leipzig University, we can recognise Thought Leaders by their “Novel Point of View”: companies that are thought leaders typically inject a brand new perspective into public discourse – whether it’s on an existing issue or an entirely new one. This wins over stakeholders to the company’s point of view (according to the criteria of the media and data intelligence provider Unicepta):

• Virality. The number of user interactions in owned media
• Interaction. The quality and frequency of responses to user comments
• Sentiment. Ratio of criticism vs. agreement in user comments
• Channel differentiation. Content/target group differentiation consistent with the channel
• Spillover. Impact of a company’s top five content themes in earned media
• Initiation rate. Earned and social content of other stakeholders initiated by the company’s own content.

The initiation rate is particularly significant. This tells us whether the content has been picked up by journalists and other stakeholders on social media platforms and used as a launch pad for their own communication activities. The key metric for the initiation rate is the Google ranking. Google’s algorithm is well known for the way it recognises how content on owned media is connected to the online presence of other stakeholders, even if the algorithm itself is constantly changing.

Issue Management Strategy: How Companies Position Themselves as Thought Leaders
But for many companies, their content barely has any relation to the topics that make up public discourse. Their communications are not fast or agile enough, and their content is not tailored to the conversations happening in the public sphere. Good storytelling is the exception rather than the rule, and the images they use are unattractive and rarely authentic. Classic web formats such as listicles or infographics are not used.
Thought leadership is a part of issue management, and can be broken down into infrastructure and media aspects. The basis is integrated issue management across all fields of communication: corporate communications, product communications, public affairs. Everything flows together digitally:
• Data-based content strategy with social media monitoring and web tracking.
• Centralised content sourcing. Not every piece of content is created new.
• Targeted distribution. A paid media strategy drives perception of content on a company’s own channels.
• Evaluation and monitoring in real time. Social media and issue analysis happen in real time, and the results are fed directly into content planning via a digital database and scoring.
When it comes to content, a coherent, connected presence across all channels is the basis for success:
• Powerful imagery in ads and films generates attention and emotionalises issues.
• Storytelling, often with a high degree of personalisation, e.g. generating interest in complex issues using the CEO or influencers.
• Digital events in cooperation with other stakeholders fuel interaction.
• Novel dialogue tools, such as chatbots, can engage users.
• Image-and-text infographics and longpagers (page flows) offer a comprehensive overview and allow stakeholders to immerse themselves in a topic.
• Mobile media services increase interaction rates between companies and stakeholders.
• Internal check lists generate relevance with users.
• Community building is guaranteed to succeed. If stakeholders themselves become ambassadors for a campaign, e.g. by clarifying the campaign or raising awareness, this can lead to greater virality.

Execution: Establishing Digital Issue Management
Companies can establish this kind of digital issue management for their own thought leader-ship by taking the following steps:

1. Monitoring and listening. Becoming more connected to their environment and targeting their activities to be relevant to stakeholders.
2. Consolidating their findings. Clearly formulating the “novel point of view”.
3. Data-based content planning and generation. Content is produced in a centralised hub and then disseminated across channels.
4. Quickly reacting to issues and pushing them out across all media. This means third-party media too! Distributing content on owned and earned media in a targeted way, including communication in groups, on third-party sites and blogs.

Companies know how important thought leadership is. But they still don’t have the systems in place to quickly monitor the digital environment and draw conclusions in real time. This is not always due to budget issues; often, old habits are the main obstacle. Lots of companies are still organised in silos, which prevents them from gaining a holistic view and taking integrated, strategic action. In light of the current challenges facing companies, this is a missed op-portunity. You could have the best campaign in the world but if it does not generate any awareness, you are definitely losing ground.

By Jörg Pfannenberg

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