As a boy, rummaging under the tree on Christmas morning, I remember the surge of excitement often giving way to bewilderment. Presents from yules past have included football boots (I was always into bikes), Adam Ant annuals (two in the same year – my preference was Madness) and even a doll (this was the 70s and 80s, when dolls weren’t really for boys). Did these aunts, uncles and grandparents know me at all!? Did they not hear my gasps of awe when other boys on BMX bikes rode past or see my ‘pick-it-up, pick-it-up, pick-it-up’ ska dancing in the kitchen?
The truth is, no. They weren’t listening or watching. They didn’t know the trends my friends and I were in to. And, like a Bad Santa, they didn’t think to ask. There’s no need for pity. These were occasional, if notable, mishaps. I got lots of great presents I did want. People got it right, too.
But what this nostalgic tale exposes is the likelihood of getting things wrong when you don’t understand what people want, are interested in, or are already getting from someone else. The chances of buying a present for a stranger and meeting their tastes and wants is slim. Yet many organisations take this approach with their thought leadership. Marketing and communications teams sit in meeting rooms, making assumptions about what audiences want to hear. It’s no surprise that they often get it wrong and, as a consequence, their thought leadership fails to hit the mark.
Like buying a present, if you want to know, the best thing to do is simply to ask. Speak with the audience and see what topics they want to know more about; what issues concern them; where they would benefit from greater understanding. This might take the form of a short survey, or a handful of in-depth interviews. Alongside this, understand the zeitgeist for your audience group. Don’t give football boots when the recipient wants a bike.
Lastly, check in to see what competitors are doing. Don’t go to the expense of producing insights when others have already got to the topic before you. Nobody craves that duplicate Adam Ant annual.
Thought leadership, like giving gifts at Christmas, can be a hugely rewarding activity. The goodwill it can generate when it hits the mark, when it shows that you really understand someone and have taken the time to do so, is enduring.
It’s important not to spoil the mystery of Christmas but you can certainly take the mystery out of understanding the sort of insights your audiences crave. It’s worth listening and getting it right. The thought really does count.