4 things that just aren’t thought leadership

Jul 20, 2018

Every well-meaning marketer wants a piece of “thought leadership.” But apparently not everyone knows what it is. Even fewer seem to know what it takes to create it.

That’s not a big deal if you’re in an industry where intellectual capital just doesn’t do much to bring in business. But it’s a problem in any company where big ideas are real marketing currency. (I’m talking about you, professional services firms.)

Here are four things I often see posing as thought leadership:

  • Blogs. The majority of the blogs I see are unoriginal observations of current market trends or they’re anecdotes based on personal experience or some such. (Some are as short as 400 words.) Occasionally there’s a distillation of a big idea that’s about to publish in a longer article or report or even a book, but for the most part, blogs are light on the insight. Yes, they’re good for keeping your face in the place, but don’t go there looking for deep insight and analysis. Don’t let the publishing pendulum swing too far toward short-form! Think in terms of “content portfolio” – a carefully curated mix of long, short, opinion, fact-based, narrative, analytical, graphics-rich, etc., etc.
  • “Data-dump” reports. Too many research reports are basically data in insight’s clothing – all findings and little if any interpretation or analysis. Don’t try to pass these off as thought leadership. Just don’t. It doesn’t matter how deep the quantitative research if the text is just regurgitating the data. The day is coming – if it’s not here already – when robots can produce text based on research data. What your human experts are supposed to be doing is analyzing and interpreting the data to say what it all means and what readers should do about it. If they’re not doing that, you’ve put the interpretative burden on the reader’s shoulders. Not good.
  • Brochures: It’s not at all uncommon to see brochures in thought-leadership clothing. What the marketers of these pieces (and almost certainly the authors) believe is that because the brochure is long and includes some interesting data and ideas and perhaps a mini case study or two, then it’s thought leadership. Nuh-uh. Ergo Editorial’s guideline is super-simple: if the publication is overtly describing solutions or offerings or products, then it’s a brochure. If the focus is squarely and authentically on a big, original idea and the piece never mentions the firm’s services, then it’s thought leadership.
  • LinkedIn posts. Let’s be honest: not everything that’s posted on LinkedIn is packed with insight. It’s a terrific channel for sharing your perspective on news and trends or your points of view on industry-relevant topics (as I’m doing here). It can be great for teasing an upcoming big idea which you plan to publish soon as long-form content. But writing in-depth analyses of research findings? Defending novel hypotheses derived from tons of empirical work with clients? Not so much. Truth is, there just isn’t room in such a tight format to produce anything truly profound.

OK, having said what thought leadership isn’t, I know I’m obliged to say what it is.

Here’s Ergo Editorial’s take: “Thought leadership involves continually creating and communicating insightful and persuasive ideas that clearly distinguish [your company] on the topics that matter most to its current and future service offerings.”

First and foremost, thought leadership content is a core component of content marketing, which itself is an element of strategic marketing. Note that I said “marketing” and not “sales”: this kind of content is categorically not sales material. There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that it will cause a client to get out the checkbook right there and then. But it is highly effective at the top of the marketing funnel. Done right, it demonstrates expertise and intellect and capability. It supports and burnishes brands. It’s a door opener, a conversation starter, a way to generate and sustain awareness with clients and prospects alike. It strengthens existing relationships.

If that’s what your organization finds valuable, then make it your business to know exactly what thought leadership is and how to do it right.

Don’t fool yourself – and don’t let your experts fool themselves – into thinking that because lots of stuff has been published, then the job is done. Blogs, LinkedIn updates, brochures, and reports of research findings all have their place in a well thought-out content program, but thought leadership they most certainly are not.