Thought leadership trends 2018

Written by John R. Thompson, Ph.D. on January 8, 2018

Are you tired of 2018 Trend posts yet? Hope not.

This blog will differ from some of the other trend forecasts in meaningful ways, however. This post is about what 2018 might sound like when we listen to visionaries, read thoughtful blogs or experience the best of content marketing. Forecasting thought leadership trends is not the same as proclaiming that specific events will happen; though you can extrapolate various events from what follows. Various technologies provide the foundations of several items below, but the point to glean here is not really about those technologies per se. Whether any one of the technologies mentioned below hits concrete milestones in 2018, the ideas they represent hold the power to shape how we talk about the world.

These will be ideas such as:

The “Era” Era

When your visionary CEO is on a big stage somewhere, a common template frames that speech by tracing different “eras” through which a company/industry/discipline has passed on the way to the speech’s big reveal – “The New Era in the Title of this Speech.” The classic model for this is in the technology industry where the progression from “mainframe to PC to mobile” eras is well documented and possesses the added advantage of truth. As artificial intelligence (AI) broadens its footprint and headlines breathlessly foretell its impact, this new-era template will receive a steroid injection across industries and disciplines.

Everyone will have an argument to make that AI changes their game to such a degree that a new era is upon them.

AI’s theoretical ability to find patterns in voluminous data, automate tasks for which we previously thought humans were needed and – more importantly for our purposes here – provide a compelling ghost in the machine will empower thought leaders to proclaim new eras for just about anything. Everyone will have an argument to make that AI changes their game to such a degree that a new era is upon them.

The crucial thing for thought leaders to remember in this era of era proliferation is to maintain the intellectual integrity of that historical view and the “added advantage of truth” that will differentiate their claim of a new era.

Generational change – hunting the post-millennial

On a tangentially related note, the new year might also be the starting gun in proclaiming the advent of a new generation’s influence (and could be part of identifying a new “era” if you have a speech coming up). In 2018, those born first in the 21st century will reach the age of majority (and yes, I’m ignoring the argument over whether the first official year of a century ends in “0” or “1”). The BBC has gone so far as to suggest that we drop the term “millennial” because, well, focusing on that group just seems sooooo 2015. You can already find this cohort referred to as Generation Z. Giving them a better name is low hanging fruit for thought leadership; but to be sustainable as a thought leadership pillar, that new name will have to draw on identifiable characteristics of those graduating high school in 2018 and make some larger meaning out of those traits. It’s a rich landscape given that this group effectively doesn’t remember a time before smartphones or Netflix and is unlikely to find the term “artificial intelligence” to be exotic by any means.

Brother, can you spare 5Gs?

5G wireless technology will hit its visionary stride in 2018 as early pilots of the device-side radio spec get going. The full deployment of 5G’s promise is still a few years away. But, that promise – ranging from higher data rates for users to connecting the Internet of Things and autonomous cars and more all at a reasonable cost – is quite compelling. So compelling that these initial moves from concept to reality will license a lot of discussion across industries about new business models made possible by 5G. A high public profile for the technology itself is assured by the sex appeal of higher data rates for mobile phones. But, that public awareness, coupled with all the upgrades of wireless technology that creates the 5G reality, hammers a nail into the wall onto which a great many hats can be hung.

Tech Tonics for the Tech Backlash

2017 was a troubling year for Big Tech. There was that Russia thing ensnaring Facebook, Google and other digital dynamos after their leaders scoffed at the idea. There were the Silicon Valley cultural exposes on sexual harassment, gender issues generally, and the politics of the tech world more broadly.

Forecasting that Big Tech will work to put a kinder, gentler face on their businesses is a slam dunk.

This all comes on top of a growing discomfort with the influence these digital platforms have on society and business (though it might be noted we still seem to happily give up our data in exchange for mobile games and same-day delivery). In fact, the owners of these platforms are now referred to as the “Frightful Five” in some corners of the punditocracy. Forecasting that Big Tech, therefore, will work to put a kinder, gentler face on their businesses is a slam dunk. But, from a thought leadership perspective, the real opportunity is for those outside the top tier to differentiate themselves by making an argument as to how they really are empowering people, putting missions above profits and securing the future. Some will argue this is just “marketing,” but no one should make these claims without the will to give them the added advantage of truth.

Closing the gap between thought leadership and content marketing

For the past few years, the Content Marketing Institute has surveyed large content marketers about numerous things, including their goals for the coming year. Invariably, the number one goal for the new year was some version of “more engaging content.” In the most recent survey (that you can find here), those content marketers who report the greatest increased success, attribute the change to a focus on higher quality content. Content is still king. But, the shift in emphasis from quantity to quality gathered momentum in 2017 and will continue in 2018. The focus on quantity fed the Internet’s gaping maw and the rise of increasingly sophisticated tools for click counting. Audiences are now inundated with content and they are sophisticated enough to recognize clickbait even when it comes dressed up in marketing buzzwords. Audience development and engagement are now the strategic needs and require a higher level of intellectual capital embodied in any blog or white paper and a commitment to what the audience wants to hear, rather than what the content marketer wants to say.

Of course, the sound and fury of thought leadership spread over an entire year will go beyond this list. What are your ideas?