So NOT Thought Leadership

Feb 25, 2015

When is a white paper not a white paper? When it’s a brochure (and for the record, there’s nothing wrong with brochures … it’s all about your audience and intent).

But if you are marketing lead, you know the drill. There’s the germ of a big idea in there write large in a snappy title, perhaps but not too many paragraphs later, readers are stepping in sales-y sentences like: “[our firm] has proven ways to solve [said challenge].” If they choose to keep reading, soon they’re into the promotional tar pit where the “white paper” expounds on the wondrous solutions offered by sponsoring company.

You snagged your audience with the promise of provocative themes on a topic that interests them, but instead you’ve given them an unhealthy dose of brochureware.  Goodbye, world of ideas. There goes a little bit of trust, too.

The point:  there is an ocean of difference between selling ideas and selling solutions.  Expressions of thought leadership — white papers among them belong early in the traditional marketing funnel, increasing awareness and creating engagement, not pushing to meet this quarter’s sales quota.

Thought leadership — strategic content in general — should be about market education and dialog with others (like prospects and clients!). After that, such conversations naturally evolve into opportunities to demonstrate capabilities and to explore solutions that your firm can ably provide.

Of course, many marketers do know the difference between thought leadership and brochureware. But then they sometimes meet resistance from partners and senior managers who don’t get it: who persist in conflating the two communications streams.

So here’s a trick that might help the next time you’re asked to publish a paper that smells like sales. Pose the rhetorical question of whether the Harvard Business Review would ever consider publishing it, and cite HBR editorial criteria to explain why not.

It comes down to this. On the one hand, there’s strategic content to help promote your firm’s best thinking. On the other, there’s content that helps to sell your capabilities and solutions. Cousins? Yes. Identical twins? No way.