One of my favorite weekly pastimes is reading The Economist online. It's a great way to experience the illusion of being fully informed on world trends. It's also an interesting place to see the best and worst practices in thought leadership.

Companies that advertise in the publication often sponsor very informative campaigns. They underwrite research to validate their arguments. They invite you to download insightful white papers and case studies. And they prominently feature other media — such as videocasts and audiocasts — on the microsites they promote at The Economist's online site.  Economist_logo

One reason for affiliating themselves with the publication is that it is read by movers and shakers. My theory has always been that it is widely read by the advisors to the world's most influential leaders — be they in the private or public sector. (I don't suspect the actual leaders — the CEOs, Presidents, Chairmen — have much time for reading it themselves. Then again, Bill Gates has said it's his favorite magazine.)

Anyway, The Economist understands thought leadership. Not only does the London-based publication act as a thought leader by generating influential editorials (called "leaders" in Brit-speak), in-depth features (dubbed "surveys") and accessible global reporting, its sister company, Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), even creates thought leading research on behalf of corporate sponsors.

In a 2008 report on "Megatrends in B2B Marketing," EIU recognized thought leadership as a top marketing priority among the companies it surveyed. "Today B2B marketers are turning to thought leadership as a way to differentiate their products and services in an increasingly competitive market," it wrote. "Traditional approaches to B2B marketing are losing their impact."

Well, now, given this background, I am always interested to see the variances in approach that play out in the pages of The Economist.

Philips — a massive European firm — has been running a banner ad that caught my eye. It began with a pulsing screen that said, "Because we'd all like to see a heart attack coming from a mile away…" But then it ended rather flatly: "Learn more about Philips and health care." That's it. Click on the ad and — sure enough — you'll find yourself on a site that's all about Philips. Not a lot of insight. No clear connection to the heart attack issue the ad had just raised. But there is an opportunity to "pre-register for our upcoming news and information service." It's a spectacularly poor effort. No reason at all for me to have gone to the site in the first place and — see for yourself — no reason to stay once you get there.

For an excellent alternative, let me point you to a simple white paper promoted on the same site by a travel and expense software company called Concur. "Don't let a tough economy force you to cut business travel," says the headline on the company's landing page. Highlights of the paper are nicely bulleted and you are invited to download it after filling out a brief registration form. Boom. Timely message. Relevant content. Excellent execution. 

I'm sure Concur has far fewer resources than a company like Philips. But here, in this simple example, you can see how one company put thought leadership to work and one simply didn't. Well, I'm no economist, but I can see here in The Economist that one firm can expect a far greater return on its marketing investment than the other one.