4 Reasons Why Thought Leadership Projects Fall Flat

Aug 11, 2015

by Jeff Garigliano

When accident investigators analyze airplane crashes, they often try to identify the “chain of circumstances” that caused things to go wrong. That refers to the series of small factors that wouldn’t be a problem on their own, but compounded lead to a catastrophe. The fuel on a plane was a little low, the cargo load was a little heavy, the weather was unexpectedly bad, the pilot was on his fourth hop of the day—disaster.

Thought leadership projects are a little different. For one thing, as I think we can all agree, the stakes are a lot lower. But more to the point, they don’t require a complicated chain of circumstances to go wrong. Instead, one central element is usually enough, leading to wasted time and money, and a thought leadership publication or piece of content that fails to resonate in the market.

Based on my experience working with authors and marketing teams, here are four of the most common reasons why thought leadership projects fall flat:

1. Relying on stale ideas.

Sometimes companies know they want to say something, but they don’t know precisely what. So they resort to the familiar thinking—the same analysis they put out last year, or ideas their competitors have been putting out. This is the “tent stake” theory of thought leadership (“Let’s just get something out there”).

If you’re going to take the time to publish a white paper, it’s usually worth spending a few more hours, especially at the front end, to refine the argument and publish something good rather than a retread of someone else’s insight.

2. Describing the problem, instead of the solution.

Another frequent problem is balance. Often, in a 1,000-word outline for a thought leadership article, an author will use 800 words to describe trends in the industry (this is known as “admiring the problem”) and only hint at the proposed solution with a few superficial bullet points at the end.

Think of it this way: Your target readers are probably already aware (acutely, excruciatingly aware) of the challenges in their industry. They see those issues up close, every day. Don’t waste time and ink telling them things they already know. Instead, spend a paragraph or two at the beginning of the piece summing up the current state of the industry to make sure everyone’s aligned, and then get to the heart of the matter: your brilliant ideas for how to solve those problems.

3. Writing above the heads of your potential audience.

Many of the author teams we work with have a tremendous amount of experience in their industry, and they often have brilliant ideas.

But they write the piece at their own (elevated) level of understanding, rather than at the level their readers can understand. They resist any efforts to simplify ideas and eliminate jargon, and the result is highly complex, technical prose that you need a machete to get through. (I have a theory that some of these author teams are writing for the competition as much as for potential clients.)

Understand that it’s literally impossible to get everything you know on a topic into a few thousand words. And if your prospects and customers understood the material as well as you do, they wouldn’t need to hire you. The objective isn’t to dazzle them—it’s to convince them that you understand their problems, you have some clear suggestions on how to address those problems and you can communicate those suggestions effectively.

4. Pushing an explicit marketing agenda.

Most thought leadership is a de facto form of marketing—it’s how firms get their ideas into the world, but the ultimate purpose of that exercise is to get potential clients to pick up the phone. There’s a fine line, however. When you lapse into explicit marketing messages or sales pitches, you undermine the credibility of your argument.

How can you tell the difference? True thought leadership is aimed at expressing ideas; marketing is aimed at selling services. If your objective is the latter, you should put that material into a brochure rather than a white paper.

Remember: When you publish, you’re competing in a very crowded market. Your piece will be one of about 37 things that show up in an executive’s inbox, all clamoring for that person’s attention.

Because the competition for mind space is so acute, you must avoid the pitfalls discussed here. Stick with a clear, differentiated message, keep it concise and stay on point regarding the solution. With this approach, you’ll convince readers that your insights have value, and that your thought leadership is worth following.

Which thought leadership challenges have you experienced? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!