by Lalu Dasgupta
Senior Vice-president, Global Corporate Advisory Practice at Hill + Knowlton Strategies

A recent study from the Brookings Institution may have implications for the use of thought leadership.

A recent assignment saw me doing some frantic commuting. London to Cairo. Weekly. Out on a Monday and back on a Friday. This continued for four months. It was a hectic time.

Yet in amongst the disruption, a sense of peace would often descend as the plane took off. Flying for five hours also meant being cut off from wifi. And that brought welcome respite from the deluge of content reaching my desk.

I know I’m not the first to feel the weight of content saturation on occasions. Marketers have been wringing their hands on this for some time now – and rightly so. As consumers switched-off to hard commercial messages, content marketing was seen as a way to differentiate, form a connection and build a relationship with audiences. However, in the face of the volume of content we encounter on social; the mentality of being always available online; the tendency to use multiple devices simultaneously; exposure to entertainment streaming channels; new digital platforms; and the rise of brand publishing, and it soon becomes easy to see how – like me – executives will want to switch off entirely, or at least become more selective.

This creates a problem for content marketers there’s anecdotal evidence of companies and brands abandoning the strategy in the belief that it doesn’t work. Indeed, Gartner analysts believe that content marketing is falling into the ‘trough of disillusionment’, the stage of its hype cycle that immediately follows the ‘peak of inflated expectations’. Yet if companies and brands are to succeed at being publishers, then a recent study from the Brookings Institution, Solving journalism’s hidden problem: terrible analytics, may point a way forward for marketers.

The research team behind the study developed a new system of tagging that helped publications to uncover insights about their output, such as what their audiences do or don’t respond to. The study was undertaken with the American Press Institute in partnership with 55 publications and, while the data revealed insights specific to each publication, there were also some common findings.

Some will not be surprising for companies or brands. For example, the study noted the power of photos, audio and video; in the content age, this is just table stakes for marketers. Yet beyond this there were three findings that stood out for me.

First, when covering the business and economy beat there was a focus on what was termed ‘initiative’ articles: telling the stories that were the fruit of one’s own ideas or which no one else had. This was the single biggest driver of engagement. However, there was also a compelling ‘news-you-can-use’ dimension to engagement. Stories which helped to solve problems or save money boosted engagement by 20 percent.

Second was the finding that ‘major enterprise’ pays and that ‘the single biggest change publishers can make is to produce more major enterprise journalism’. Major enterprise stories were seen as scoring 48 percent better than other forms in terms of engagement and reflected major exposés or multi-part series that required effort. Just one percent of all content was classified like that.

Finally, there was a finding that people like long form stories; those averaging 1200 words were said to drive 23 percent more engagement and lifted other metrics such as page views. The study noted that the conventional wisdom, that writing for the web needed to be short and fast, simply wasn’t true.

Sound familiar? For the content marketer such elements may well sound like the related discipline of thought leadership. Yet if that’s true, then it raises the question in this age of content and disruption, what exactly does good thought leadership look like and is it providing value and relevance for audiences with the power to cut through?