Ghostwriters for thought leadership? Nothing scary about that!

Mar 23, 2017

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“Thought leadership and other specialized types of content are always going to be risky to hand over to ghostwriters.” That’s the gist of a recent blog post I stumbled across titled, “Should You Hire a Ghostwriter?

Sorry folks, but I couldn’t agree less.

Full disclosure: My team and I have been ghostwriting for decades, for some of the most demanding clients on the planet: blue-chip consulting firms. So we know a bit about when this stuff doesn’t work, and when it really does.

We’ve found that, done right, using a ghostwriter for thought leadership actually mitigates risk for the companies that create it. 

Here’s why:

Thought leadership is different – and the distinction matters.

Thought leadership is quite distinct from marketing collateral in that it sells ideas, not solutions or offerings, and it’s markedly different from sales literature.  Yet, without a dispassionate, independent ghostwriter in the mix, companies are more likely to produce brochureware that – instead of engaging readers on a great idea – expounds on the wondrous solutions offered by sponsoring company. That’s risky because it turns readers off, and undermines their trust in the company that pulled a bait and switch.

Ghostwriters keep companies out of the promotional tar pit by guiding the story and steering the authors clear of not-so-subtle plugs for the firm’s solutions and offerings. They insist on clear, fresh, differentiated viewpoints, robust research, real data, timely hooks, and persuasive examples.  Those are the foundations of good thought leadership.

Thought leadership is never a “one and done” kind of thing.

Some people believe that thought leadership happens when a clever subject matter expert (SME) drops her pearls of wisdom and someone else – the lucky ghostwriter, presumably – writes them up.  The reality is much different. To begin with, many ideas for thought leadership start out raw and unformed; many others are very much “me too.” Bringing those ideas to fruition involves an intensely collaborative process between SME, writer, and marketer.

The writers who can get the job done are in effect “story doctors” who are present at the ideation state and well able to stand toe-to-toe with the SMEs to constructively, politely pressure-test their ideas, suggest other angles, create structure and flow for the story, and much more.   Take the ghostwriter out of the equation and companies run the risk of publishing a piece that sounds like what others in the industry are already saying. Or, they may produce a stodgy academic treatise – not a strategic marketing asset that cuts through the content clutter to grab readers’ attention. The result? Wasted time and money. Risky business indeed.

Thought leadership happens best when there’s a triad to propel it along.

Think of a thought leadership team like the US government. The Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches work together to ensure checks and balances.  Can you imagine the pickle we’d be in without all three? (Especially these days!)

Three is also the magic number for effective thought leadership: the SME whose idea it is supposed to be, and whose business stands to gain from publishing the ideas; the ghostwriter who is the instrument or agent to bring those ideas to life; and the marketer or project manager who keeps the thought leadership machinery moving, and then some.

These roles are continual for all parties; for instance, SMEs are not off the hook once the story theme is set; they must be very much part of the ongoing discussion as the writer produces successive drafts.

The bottom line? Ghostwriters are absolutely integral not only to the regular production of thought leadership content but to its ideation in the first place. They’re not necessarily freelance; many of the best I know are in-house.

So please don’t imagine a ghostwriter as some kind of ghoul who steals your executive’s voice and personality.

Or who runs off and develops her own narrative, with little regard for what your authors have to say. A top-tier ghostwriter is more like an invisible partner who listens really well, pressure-tests your authors’ ideas, structures the story, injects business savvy – and makes absolutely sure that their voice is heard.

Just ask some of the experienced marketers who recognize that value. So now do you believe in ghostwriters?!