The best thought leadership triggers the story reflex

(An earlier version of this post appeared on The Marketing Strategist, the IT Services Marketing Association blog.)

Like the best stories, the best thought leadership changes the way readers see the world. It plants a seed that continues to grow long after the words are forgotten. It opens readers to new possibilities and starts new conversations.

The ultimate goal is to convince the audience that you’re a credible partner. Stories can help you do that, but there’s a more directly compelling reason to use stories in thought leadership: They keep people reading.

Think about the lead. There’s a good reason journalists call it the hook. It’s the most important part of an article because it determines whether the reader will stick around. Many journalists like the anecdotal lead because it draws readers in. It presents a protagonist with a problem that the reader identifies with.

Harvard Business School’s case study guidelines suggest that the “worthiness of the protagonist” who has tried to “overcome high barriers” will increase the odds that readers will “relish the challenge” of engaging with same issues as the main character.

If you’ve been to business school, you may remember being picked up and carried along by the first words of a Harvard case study. For instance, the case study “Can Nice Guys Finish First?” starts with:

Adam Baker had been bothered all day by the blunt message his boss and mentor, Merwyn Straus, had delivered to him on the phone that morning: Adam was not the right guy to lead their company’s latest venture.

“That door isn’t open to you” was how Merwyn had put it. It was one of those comments that sting a bit at first but inflict much more pain as time passes.

We immediately identify with Adam. We know from the title that he’s a nice guy. But he has just heard something that would bother anyone: he’s not good enough. We’re already in his corner, ready to join him in his struggle. Even better, we don’t know the outcome yet, but we want to.

You’ll look far and wide before you find an anecdotal lead in B2B services thought leadership. More typical is the essay-style lead, which starts with a description of the situation or problem.

A typical lead is: “The past few years have witnessed widespread change in the manufacturing sector.” Or a report might begin, “Overseas travel by high-net-worth consumers is expected to grow, fueling increased demand for luxury goods.”

The information may be valuable. It may establish the authors as experts in their field. But it’s unlikely to read carefully by more than a handful of executives.

Consider this: According to Google, the average bounce rate across all web pages is about 40%. Of the readers who stay, only 22% scroll to the bottom. Many don’t even get to the halfway mark. (Slate made fun of readers’ short attention spans in an article titled “You Won’t Finish This Article.”)

How do you plan to keep your audience reading? We all have a “story reflex.” Any whiff of a story and our ears prick up and we want to know what happens next. Think about how to use that reflex the next time someone propose a thought leadership initiative.