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Thought Leadership, Research, and Getting Your Data Right | Mike Ilecki

Thought Leadership, Research, and Getting Your Data Right | Mike Ilecki

Ask the right questions in the right way to ensure your research is accurate.

An interview with Mike Ilecki about what goes into conducting research surveys that can serve as the foundation for thought leadership.

You’re doing research for your thought leadership? Great!
But how do you know that you’re asking the right questions?

Today, we sit down with Mike Ilecki, Vice President of Public Opinion Research and Thought Leadership at Ipsos, a multinational research and consulting firm that delivers reliable information and true understanding of society, markets, and people.

People’s perception is often their reality and how perception of the world is constantly changing. With that in mind Mike helps us understand how organizations need to invest in multi-year longitudinal research that tracks not only what the audience thinks and feels now but over time as it changes. Big businesses cannot hope to take the right stand on issues if they are only asking the important questions once.

Just as perception changes so too does how people communicate. The method used to capture the data is as important as the questions asked. Mike takes us into the various methods of conducting research and why the method has to match the demographic you are seeking. Because of this it is best to start with the end in mind. Who is it you are trying to communicate with and what are you trying to communicate to them?

We also discuss what thought leaders should be aware of when working with research partners. Mike brings his experience of the topic to the conversation explaining that thought leaders need to break out of the box of their organizations point of view and allow the research partner t consult on what the landscape actually is. By learning the right questions to ask and how to ask them you can construct a solid platform to take your message forward with a wide angle view of the topic.

Three Key Takeaways:
  • Thought leadership can be used to better a business and more importantly better the world we live in.
  • Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. When you step out is when you experience new things, learn and grow.
  • In order to take the right stand on the issues that matter you have to understand how both your customers and the population in general feel about those issues.

If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.



Bill Sherman Org leadership often begins with an insight and I wonder if moment that leads to a hypothesis that can be tested and to test that thought leadership. Well, you need to gather data. Today. It’s easier than ever to create an online poll and gather survey responses. But if you want credible data, you need to think carefully about the data collection process before you get started. In some ways, data driven thought leadership is similar to academia. You have to be prepared to show your work and receive feedback and critique. That’s why I invited Mike Ilecki, VP of Public Opinion Research and Thought Leadership at Ipsos to join us for today’s conversation. Together, we’ll talk about the challenges of running an effective research study. We’ll explore how thought, leadership and brand credibility intersect. And we’ll talk about aha moments generated through thought leadership research.

Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman. And you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Mike.

Mike Ilecki Hi, Bill. Thanks for having me on today.

Bill Sherman So you and I have been working and chatting back and forth over the last couple of years. And I want to start with what on the surface is a simple question. What is thought leadership, from your point of view, from Ipsos this point of view?

Mike Ilecki Certainly that that’s a great question. And I think as many people that work in thought leadership, there are as many opinions on exactly what it is. I will say that I like to define thought leadership by the elements in which it is comprised. And I think about what makes for good, strong thought leadership and I think about what brings something new to the table, would bring some a novel idea or creates a certain reaction amongst the desired audience to have a groundbreaking aha moment. And so, I think about thought leadership as having these new ideas that make people think about something new or think about something existing in a new way that drives a change or a reaction in their behavior. And really, the range of topics typically spans everything under the sun, and you can conduct thought leadership around every topic. It just matters on how you look at that topic, the data that you have to support your position and how it generates reaction from people seeing it or hearing it for the first time.

Bill Sherman I think that’s a really good high level sort of lay of the land on thought leadership. One thing that I would add, and I think we can go deeper on is that usually thought leadership begins with either an insight by an individual or even sometimes just a question of, hey, I wonder if. Right. And then that question, you know, says, okay, I might have my own opinion, but what does the rest of the world say? What does the evidence say? Is this just my point of view?

Mike Ilecki That’s exactly right. And I think as people have new ideas or see current things in different ways, it’s important to explore how other people across the country, across the world feel about that topic and whether or not it aligns with their idea or whether it kind of debunks the way they might be thinking about something. And that’s actually why I love the position that I’m currently in as being sort of a gardener for thought leadership research, where we get to explore topics all across the spectrum and find new ways to look at those topics and essentially research and ask, Hey, does your view line up with other people’s in the way that you’re thinking about this? Do you have reason to believe that this should be viewed in a different way or that this is a potentially new topic arising from changing circumstances or things like that? So as a as a researcher, and I think it was one of your colleagues, Peter, who used the initial analogy of being the gardener, we get to go in and really unpack those ideas and find out whether there’s true thought leadership behind what we’re trying to to prove.

Bill Sherman Well, and I’m thinking here there are many different ways to collect data. You know, the scientific method in terms of the hard sciences, for example, you know, your physics, your chemistry, etc., where you can go to the lab and a bench and start doing tests. But when you start getting to what do people think or how are things perceived, then you’ve got to get inside people’s heads. And that becomes an entirely different challenge to get a good representative sample.

Mike Ilecki That’s absolutely right. And it’s a changing landscape, right? People don’t think now the same way that they thought five years ago, two years ago, maybe a month ago, with regards to their perceptions. And people’s perceptions are constantly changing and the reality is their perception. And so there’s this interesting idea that although the economics, the physics, that the bench sciences will be able to prove things without a question of a doubt when it comes to understanding how people think and how they think about a certain issue, not only is it important to go talk to those people with survey research or qualitative research and things of that nature, but it’s important to to continuously do it because it’s always a changing landscape and understanding not just the population as a whole as it is maybe represented of the US or of certain demographic groups, but to continually check in with those groups and find out just, just how things are changing over time to.

Bill Sherman Yes. So if you were creating what I would say is like an index, right, where you’re measuring public sentiment on a regular basis. And here I’m thinking of some of them where you say, okay, we want to measure the public’s opinion on topic X, whatever it might be, and we have a certain set of questions we’re going to ask a one and done is very different than being able to commit multi-year to a longitudinal piece and say, okay, here’s the baseline, let’s try moving sentiment and then let’s measure again to see how is that moving? Because any organization, even though many organizations are billions and billions of dollars, still have limited ability to make impact on their own, right?

Mike Ilecki That’s absolutely right. I mean, I think public sentiment as it applies to organizations and especially leadership within organizations around multitudes of different topics is constantly changing. And if you think about what we’ve seen even over the course of the past three years with topics such as diversity, equity and inclusion, or on climate change, the new standard is that many people in the public are asking organizations to make a public stance on those issues and in order to make a public stance on issues, whether it be climate change or social justice or things like that, it’s important that organizations understand not just how they’re customers, but how the public in general feel about those issues and feel about them as an organization taking a stance on those issues. And in order to do that, having a really good high-quality representation of what your customers and what the public is thinking about those issues allows those organizations to take a data driven, foundational stance that supports where their business is and how they feel about different public policy issues and different types of stances that they need to take. And so, it’s not just a here’s our public affairs sort of voice, but it is a foundational understanding that they can communicate to their customers and partners, to potential customers, but also help generate and cultivate the culture of their organization and where they want to fall.

Bill Sherman So you and I have had interesting conversations of getting that sample together. Right. And trying to understand the ways. And you talked about how people perceive things in reality changes. I think the ways of reaching people have had to adapt as well. And I want to talk to you a little bit about that because we were talking at one point on a project and you said, okay, do you want a representative sample of the U.S. where we can mail out surveys to, you know, random addresses across the U.S. or there’s phone, there’s online, there’s so many different ways to try and catch people. But at the same time, the population that is looking at an online survey is probably different than the people who are opening their physical mail and saying, yeah, I’ll respond to this. Right. So how do you tackle the question of figuring out the right sample?

Mike Ilecki I think talking to the right people and asking the right people the right questions is probably one of the most important things or critical things to get right in in conducting research. And sometimes folks just want a representative sample of the United States, a microcosm of what it would look like if you asked all 400 million people in the U.S. the same question. We’ve got a research tool that does that without having to ask 400 million people questions. Sometimes the targeted hand is a little bit more demographically specific, either by race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, etc. Luckily, our organization has tools that kind of fit every need. And to that end, sometimes we will find those hard to get to populations or folks that just have a preexisting medical condition or have a certain economic status in a certain geographic area as well. So really, we like to start with the end in mind and say, okay, who are you trying to communicate to and what is it that you’re trying to communicate to them? And then we kind of design the sample behind that to say, okay, the level of accuracy you need, the level of quality you need really commands this specific research engine. And that could be, as you mentioned, telephone collected. It could be one of our panels, it could be more of an opt in sample approach. Further, we might explore what qualitative ethnography we could do to kind of add some character and depth to quantitative information as well. So again, I just like to always start with the end in mind and think about, okay, what’s research? Design and research engine is going to be the best type of mechanism in order to generate the messages that you’re hoping to convey to the right audiences.

Bill Sherman And to build on that. The piece that I would say is choosing the right engine is fundamental to getting clarity from the data, because you could go ask a lot of people, but if you don’t have the right sample, you’re likely to have data that’s not representative of what you were looking for. And then you look, you scratch your head and go, Well, that doesn’t tell us what we really wanted to know.

Mike Ilecki That’s exactly right. And it all comes down to that sample. And, you know, we do a lot of a lot of business-to-business research as well when we’re asking people about their professions and their relationship with their organization and the types of tools and techniques and futures that they may see within their industry. And to that end, finding that person can be extremely difficult to make sure that they have the right level of experience and awareness of their organization’s interaction with the world or their customers or their market or things of that nature. And so, again, it is paramount to ask the right people the right questions and finding the right people and really defining who that sample is going to be upfront is critical to having something to say on the back end.

Bill Sherman And I know Ipsos tends to be particularly concerned that when something is said that it actually is supported by the data, right?

Mike Ilecki Yeah. Yeah. And to add on to that a little bit, you know, as a public opinion researcher in the US Public Affairs division of Ipsos, we are very, very protective of our reputation as objective researchers as well as the data that comes along with our name, whether it be from academically peer reviewed journals or if it’s headlines on the Wall Street Journal. Our brand name is going to be associated as the researching entity of record. And along with that, we’re going to make sure that the data we’ve collected, the way that we’ve answered those questions, the sample, the people that we’ve talked to, is made publicly available for interested researchers, journalists to go in and find and to check in. And that’s our reputation to stay. That’s exactly how we structure our business and is a necessary foundational support tool for all of our clients to do research with Ipsos that want to stand on a very strong platform when they say their message to say, Hey, this was world class quality data backed by Ipsos, here’s the science behind it. Very few casual readers get into that sort of level of detail, but many of the journalists will. And you have the people.

Bill Sherman Who look at the top lines and the people who go to cross crosstabs, and then people who want to look at the raw data itself and say, okay, does this really check out and does it hold up?

Mike Ilecki Yep, yep. And that sort of stress test happens daily.

Bill Sherman And that’s something which I think a lot of people, you know, that leads to high stakes. Do you want your thought leadership to go out into the world and have that sort of confidence that it will stand on its own and people will go, yeah, no, we’re not poking holes in the methodology. Now, the results from the survey may or may not be what you want based on the questions you ask, but do you have your methodology tight?

Mike Ilecki Yeah, yeah. And there’s definitely a minimal bar at which all research organizations, not just Ipsos, have to get over in order to be with ABC News or The Washington Post. Right. Right. Because and you know, that’s a very important relationship that Ipsos holds as well, where folks see the Ipsos name and they say, well, we know this is going to be quality. I’ve checked their methodological prowess before and I’ve seen what their sample looks like. And so to that end, we are very, very careful to make sure that if somebody is building something that they’re going to say and shout from the rooftops that their methodology is gold standard and is going to be acceptable and promoted through media outlets, journalists across the country and really across the world.

Bill Sherman If you’re enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about our podcast, please leave a five-star review at and share it with your friends. We’re available on Apple Podcasts and on all major listing apps as well as

Bill Sherman So let me ask this question. We have a number of people who listen, who are heads of thought leadership, right? And they may be responsible for tentpole research that goes on through the organization. That will be the engine of thought leadership for a year or two. What is it that you wish people who were responsible for thought leadership within organizations were thinking about? What advice would you give to help them work with a research partner better?

Mike Ilecki I think that’s a great question, and my initial reaction is that there is tends to be a lot of of navel gazing where organizations and the heads of thought leadership within organizations have a very organizationally mandated view of what thought leadership is and what’s going to be interesting and where they should take a stand on a certain policy or issue and to kind of back away from that organizational lens and really allow your research partners to consult with you on what the actual landscape is, not just from the issue of technology or diversity, equity inclusion or of social justice types of things. But to back away from that, that organizational set of blinders and say, okay, let’s get a broader feel for what the landscape as a whole is, Let’s consult with these folks that do nothing but ask people questions for a living, to say, what are the types of questions we should ask? How should we ask them and what can we expect as a result on the back end to allow us to create that firm platform to stand on when we do go forward with our policy messages? And so I would just say in very, very short terms, step out of the box and think very wide angle view of the issue. You’re trying to attack and start with the end in mind.

Bill Sherman So do you wind up sparring and in a good way intellectually sparring with folks in terms of the types of questions asked and expanding some of the range on that and say, well, if you’re doing this, you might want to ask this, too.

Mike Ilecki Yes, the short answer is yes. And really, it’s good sparring. I’ve never had a a questionnaire creation process that was a one and done. It’s always iterative and always very back and forth, complementary of what we see using this word this way. But I see how you’re using it this way and there’s no wrong opinions. As organizations, they may want to ask really sophisticated questions about technology or something. And you say, Well, the average American is not going to know how algorithms affect their daily life in interaction with the Internet. We need to back that language off to say and ask it in in a different way, if that is your audience. So, the idea is very much a consultative back and forth intellectual sparring relationship that typically results in a better questionnaire and typically results in the better data on the back end.

Bill Sherman And you mentioned something which I’ve seen again and again in research as well that we’ve done, where depending on how you ask the question, you can get very different responses to something on the surface which looks very similar, you know, and then it’s depends on how people interpret your question rather than what you meant to say.

Mike Ilecki That’s exactly right and question wording is paramount. And I will also say that people change throughout the day. So, you can ask the same question twice, which we prefer not to do, and get different answers because the only constant is change. And even how people think about themselves and identify themselves changes over time. And so you have things as simple as demographics that can change over time within the same survey. Respondent And you also have things, opinions and perceptions. People might just be having a bad day, which is again, just the importance of, of not just taking one temperature check on a specific issue but taking a temperature check and then going back to the same or similar population and taking another temperature check. And we call those tracking studies and we do a lot of them. We did a lot around the COVID 19 pandemic. We do a lot now around climate change and social justice issues. And it’s just part of our job in keeping a finger on the pulse of America as it comes to politics and those issues that are just so hot in just about every news station around the world.

Bill Sherman So you have positions similar to mine where we are inside of one organization conducting thought leadership, but we touch many different organizations. Have you seen any patterns of late? And as we record where in February of 2023, what sort of themes or patterns might you be seeing in terms of types of questions asked or research being done from a leadership point of view?

Mike Ilecki Sure. That’s a great question. And I think right now the topic that tends to be on everybody’s mind is climate change. And that’s really a global phenomenon. And now the government and the policy changes that are happening are impacting. No kidding. Bottom line businesses. And so if businesses have not explored the topic of climate change, how they contribute, what their role is in the greater conversation, it’s time to do so because sooner or later, policy is going to force almost all organizations to understand what their carbon footprint is and to understand what their supply chains carbon footprint is and to contribute in a meaningful way to reduce climate change. So that’s one of the things that I’ve seen be very, very particularly of high importance to all organizations. Obviously, there’s the conflict in Ukraine that has been very important as well. We have an ongoing index for American politics on what we call two Americas. So, we have a very divided country politically right now between the left and the right, of course, the diversity, equity, inclusion and the social justice topics have been growing pretty steadily as well for the past three years as we saw George Floyd and the resulting protests and a lot of organizations forced to kind of publicly take a stance on those somewhat controversial issues. And so, we constantly have been kind of the foundations and the research engines behind those types of topics. One thing I’ll also say that excites me personally about research and thought leadership research in particular is the thought leadership research for good. And when I say good, it’s not just for the good of the organization and for the platform that they want to create to stand on, but it’s also to create good, positive change. And I’ll give a really quick example with some of this bias. We were working with a very large global non-for-profit out of Washington, DC, and they’re interested in an idea of financial inclusion. Financial inclusion basically is defined as people having access to financial services and. And that means banks or digital wallets and things of that nature. Well, across the world there are quite a few people who are financially excluded, meaning they don’t have access to a bank or digital wallets or the ability to save money and things like that. What we know is financial inclusion increases financial health. If you have the ability to save money and get guidance and learn about how money works, then you can increase your financial health and save money. Well, by researching that and create a creating a new dataset around the idea of people’s access to financial services, we were able to spur enough interest and change in communication where big financial firms, the credit card issuers of the world, the Visas Amex, Mastercards, etcetera, got interested because they said, Hey, this is not just something that’s going to help good, but it’s going to be good for our business. And then we. No kidding. Changed the number of people globally that have access to financial services as those companies saw the commercial viability of reaching out into new markets and creating financial services available to folks that previously didn’t have it. And so then you’re actually making lives, people, people’s lives better. That starts all with that idea of let’s do some research on financial inclusion. Spread the word and generate some momentum of companies that can actually help solve this problem while creating new markets for themselves. And that that was one example of a project where I, I feel really proud to have been a part of it because we helped make lives, people, people’s lives better.

Bill Sherman I love that example and the story that you tell in terms of the individuals and being able to measure a problem, right? In that case, the underserved financially. It fits with something I talk about in thought leadership, which is making the invisible visible right now. If you’re someone who is underserved financially, you obviously know this and it’s very, very visible to you and probably your family and those you love, etc., right, in your community. But from the larger institutional or policy level, the problem may not be elevated enough. Or the opportunity in your case where you mentioned and said, hey, there’s a lot of credit card issuers that said, oh, we can serve that market, we can find a way that serves them. You have to make it visible, and you have to get it into the hands of the right people and have them comfortable that they can trust the information. Right. That they say, okay, you’ve dotted the I’s, cross the T’s. Great. Now we can move to the question of, well, what can we do about this? Or what does this opportunity allow that?

Mike Ilecki I mean, you say it so eloquently and hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly right. And it’s finding those questions are what is the what is the invisible currently? So we found the invisible, financially underserved folks. Who else is invisible and why are they invisible? And I, I think about current trending topics like the displaced or migrant populations here in the U.S. that have come in because of strife in their own countries. But I think that particular community is one that currently is a little bit too invisible at the national level. And so I’m just generating and spit balling some ideas here about what do they need, how can they can be served better and what can we do as a country to kind of welcome them and integrate them into our society? And what does that look like? And so I think that’s a topic that we’re going to see more of in 2023 and going forward as well.

Bill Sherman So I want to ask a question and I want to turn the attention to you. How did you get into the world of thought leadership? What’s your story?

Mike Ilecki That’s a that’s a great question. I think I’ve always been interested in people, even as a I don’t know, however many, many years ago, as a high school student and a college student, I wanted to study psychology. And psychology was this idea of regardless of what trait you have, whether you’re an accountant or a firefighter or truck driver or researcher, you’re a person. And so, understanding people was always something that was foundational to whatever I was going to do later in life. And I kind of fell in love with just that idea of, Well, I just want to understand people for a living, what drives them, what motivates them, and how can that information be used for good and to just make the world a better place. And I say that because we all have to lay our head on our pillow at night and say, This is what I did today and this is how I did or didn’t make an impact in a good way on other people’s lives. And so it was that idea of understanding people that I think led me to how can we understand people better and then use that information to create. Good momentum in the world, whatever it may be, about making people’s lives a little bit better.

Bill Sherman And then as we begin to wrap up, I want to ask you this question. You talk about yourself with that love of understanding people. And I think that is for many of us who practice thought leadership, one of the pieces, you know, asking the big questions and say, how do we make impact? But think back to yourself 20 years ago. What advice would you give yourself for someone who would be on this road? The reason I ask is there are a lot of people who are starting a journey in thought leadership, you know. What advice would you give to someone younger?

Mike Ilecki Don’t be afraid of anything, really, but don’t be afraid of failure and take the steps and take the chances that make you uncomfortable. And I think there’s this idea of constricting, comfortable comfortability zones amongst young people that I would like to break apart. And I would say that when you’re outside of your comfortability zone, young Mike, that’s when you learn. That’s when you gain new experiences, and you see things through different lenses, and you gain understanding of the world and the people around you. When you get into your comfortability zone, young Mike, that’s when you stagnate and that’s when you don’t learn anything new. So, remove the fear of getting out of your comfortability zone and go make mistakes and learn faster.

Bill Sherman Absolutely. And I think that’s great advice, not only on a career perspective, but also for a thought leadership, because you’ve got to ask questions that aren’t the ones that everybody is answering, or you have to be willing to accept. Even if you ask the same question that has been asked before. Different responses because you frame it in a different way. Right. So that’s really good advice. Don’t get too comfortable with the world as it is. Learn it for its complexity.

Mike Ilecki That’s exactly right. And very eloquently set.

Bill Sherman So, Mike, I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us today about research, thought leadership and getting the data right.

Mike Ilecki Bill, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you and thanks so much for having me on.

Bill Sherman Absolutely. If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate, and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website and choose ‘Join our newsletter.’ I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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