What the C-suite wants from thought leadership, plus three key themes

There has been an exponential growth in thought leadership with businesses and brands increasingly looking to influence the C-suite with this type of content. Bruce Rogers, chief insights officer and head of the chief marketing officer practice at Forbes Media, reveals the findings of an in-depth survey and identifies future themes.

The fourth industrial revolution, brought on by exponential growth in computing power and the merging of the physical and cyber worlds, is bringing about changes that affect every aspect of business at unprecedented speeds.

Global chief executives are concerned about meeting the demands of the future, facing the disruptions coming at their companies from all angles and finding strategies to pre-empt them.

Much of what they are dealing with is completely new to them. 69% of chief executives are concerned about the number of mission-critical issues they must face that they have not grown up with or experienced previously in their careers, according to "Now or Never: 2016 Global CEO Outlook", a study by Forbes Insights and KPMG.

Such disruption demands that marketing and communications teams must differentiate their brands by creating thought leadership content that educates senior decision makers as to how they can navigate unprecedented change. When it comes to confronting this array of novel issues, executives are open to learning and strong thought leadership is useful to them. But to navigate the blizzard of content, they must make choices; so how can marketers best convey that message and connect with this all-important audience?

To find out how the C-Suite wants to receive business insights, Forbes Insights and Deloitte conducted a survey of almost 300 CXOs (C-Suite executives) globally. We asked them about the types of content they want to read, what channels they prefer and where they get their most valuable business insights. Some of what they told us may surprise you.

The report based on that survey, "Thought Leadership in Action: Strategic Content to Help CXOs Learn and Lead", explains how marketers and communications executives can use strategic content to become a trusted, respected and sought-after source of thought leadership.

Firstly, we found that when pressed for time, CXOs are very discerning about the sources they use for business insights. When asked which source is the most preferred, the largest percentage of executives (22% of respondents) points to white papers, followed closely by business books (21%). While interactive data visualisation tools are also popular (cited by 18%), webinars are most preferred by only 6%, and videos by only 4%.

The interest in long-form content may seem counterintuitive to marketers in the era of "snackable" and omnichannel content. CXOs still find value in short-form content, but they consider it "icing on the cake". Understanding the needs of this audience is key: CXOs need to think and act strategically, which is why they more often opt for longer pieces that take them from hypothesis, through case studies, to conclusion, and are based on credible data.

While content needs to be designed for and distributed via multiple digital channels, there is still room for print, with half of CXOs saying that reading business insights in print is important to them and actually tends to be the preferred format for taking in longer pieces. The preferred format does, however, vary by type of publication, with output from consulting firms being read mostly online and management journals offline.

So what are the key takeaways for marketers looking to reach the C-suite with engaging thought leadership content?:  

  1. The core content of a thought leadership piece should be a longer, thoroughly documented and well-argued report. It needs to connect the dots, fill in the blanks and carry the hypothesis to its conclusion.

  1. Any well-argued piece of thought leadership examines the meaning of data findings. The source of this data is less important, if the data is accurate, relevant and exhaustive. The key point is the ability to understand its meaning and provide insight on how it can be translated into business outcomes.

  1. Different channels work for different types of content. This includes traditional print, which is favoured for longer pieces, and digital channels, which are preferred when reading general news media. The most important factor is that each piece of thought leadership is presented on its most preferred channels, and that it is designed for specific channels to make it easily readable.

For marketers, understanding context and audience preferences are key to delivering the right messages, in the right format at the right time.

Key thought leadership issues that will grow in importance as identified by Forbes

1. Chief executives in the age of the machine

Much has been written about how machines will start replacing humans in certain jobs or tasks, and the implications this will have for job markets and the economy. According to one new report, automated bots could take nearly four in 10 (38%) jobs in the U.S., 30% in the United Kingdom, 35% in Germany and 21% in Japan.

The focus of the coverage of the age of the machine has so far mostly been on the humans losing jobs: how to help humans keep up with the machines, or what to do about the humans that have been replaced. Potential solutions for the latter include creating a universal wage and/or taxing the machines.

But while much mind-wringing has been done about working alongside the machines, much less has been written about the leaders of this transition to machine-driven enterprise—the chief executives. The majority of those who will be ushering us into the age of the machine are not digital natives, and do not lead technology companies. It is time to focus on current chief executives and their needs, roles and responsibilities in that transition.

2. Smart sharing will be key to success

The overabundance of data and the ability to share it across networks provides access to useful and often critical information. These networks extend beyond the traditional company’s borders to include the supply chain or other partners, such as application developers. Open innovation, or open thinking, is one of the pillars of digital transformation. In this environment, sharing is the way to go. But this sharing, while it can mutually benefit many parties, cannot lead to, in effect, giving away the store. Should a retailer offer information from its smart shelves about out-of-stocks to the manufacturer for free? Should a gadget fitness company charge healthcare organisations for exercise data from its products’ users? Should cities charge insurance companies for data on drivers? Apart from dealing with the privacy of the data, the next few years will see us working to figure out levels of openness and the financial structures of this new networked cooperation.

3. "Shifting consumption patterns" will replace the "Age of the customer" 

Much has been written about how the digitally savvy and well-informed customer is all powerful and is driving companies to profess almost slavish customer-centricity. But the pendulum has swung too far regarding how we think about power in this context. Companies have plenty of power as well, often as much as, or even more, than the customers. The power of companies is twofold: They have very creative ideas and are in a position to introduce them to the world. That is why we have smartphones, the ability to livestream and apps that track our physical activity. In each case, we, the customers, did not know we needed these inventions. Companies are also armed with technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that allow them to understand customers better than the customers understand themselves. So it is important for companies to keep their innovative juices flowing, use both their human imagination and digital might, and not be afraid to surprise us

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