By Kevin Cain published May 3, 2012

Is Your Content Supporting or Sinking Your Thought Leadership Efforts?

thought leadership, Content Marketing InstituteEvery year, students at Michigan’s Lake Superior State University release a list of overused words and phrases that they deem worthy of banishment from the English language. Among the offenders in 2011 were some tried-and-true favorites (ginormous and man cave to name a couple), as well as relative newcomers to our daily vernacular like occupy (as in Zuccotti Park) and the new normal, a darling of Wall Street since the financial crisis.

All in all it’s not a bad list, but it seems to me that our friends at LSSU missed an obvious target. I’m talking about 17 letters that can be combined to form what has become a ubiquitous and, frankly, increasingly cliché term: thought leadership.

Among content marketers, few words are so widely batted around or have generated greater buzz. As more and more people proclaim their content to be thought leadership, the term’s meaning has become diluted. These days, anyone with an opinion and a pulse can claim to be a thought leader, requiring little more than an internet connection to start publishing their so-called thought leadership.

No más!

It’s time to take a more critical look at thought leadership, and to define what it is and isn’t. Maybe we need the thought leadership equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval: a set of criteria to separate what’s often passed off as thought leadership from the real deal. The minimum requirements for earning that seal of approval would include ensuring that your content meets a few criteria:

It offers bold ideas that are new and noteworthy

To drive thought leadership, content either needs to put forth new ideas or provide fresh insights into old ones. Simply regurgitating what others have already written or said, while sometimes useful in its own right, isn’t a recipe for success. Don’t have anything new to say? Then sit tight until you do and remember that sometimes less is more. Producing one piece of thought leadership content that really says something innovative and bold is a much better strategy than publishing a dozen pieces that don’t say anything at all.

One of my favorite examples of a real thought leader who provides bold ideas is Bob Reynolds, the president and CEO of Putnam Investments. Mr. Reynolds does an admirable job, consistently producing insightful and provocative articles in his blog, “The Retirement Savings Challenge.”

It takes a stand and presents a clear point of view

Leaders shouldn’t sit on the fence, so make sure that your content offers a definitive point of view. Putting a stake in the ground can mean taking risks, but if all your content does is toe the line, it doesn’t qualify as thought leadership. This is often a particular challenge for big corporations. Concerned that they might alienate a part of their customer base, some corporations shy away from taking a stand. Unfortunately, doing so turns their content into factual reporting, rather than providing insightful thought leadership.

It reflects high-quality (preferably original) research

Sometimes content that’s floated around as thought leadership can come across like a high school term paper. You can help avoid that pitfall by making sure that you’re using the best sources and respected research. Use online tools like LexisNexis to direct you to high-quality news articles and industry reports, rather than turning to the likes of Wikipedia or Yahoo News (both are fine resources, but not ones that you should be citing in your thought leadership efforts). Ideally, your content will also reflect your own research (conducted in-house or commissioned through a third party), which will help guarantee that you really do have something unique to say.

It hinges on its credibility

Your thought leadership efforts will fall flat if your content isn’t credible. Help ensure that all of your work is accurate and logical by thoroughly fact-checking it. You can also raise the caliber of your content by collaborating with people who are well known and respected in your industry. One way to do this is by soliciting influencers or subject matter experts to write a foreword to your next white paper or provide quotes for your next report. If you don’t have access to anyone who fits the bill, you can build up your own credibility by looking for opportunities to contribute content to other places and building a name for yourself over time.

It’s also important to remember that no one is an expert in everything. Stick to creating content that falls into your sweet spot, rather than trying to pontificate on subject matter that’s beyond your realm of expertise. For example, in his blog for Putnam, Bob Reynolds can get very political. When he does, however, his posts are limited to news from Capital Hill that pertains to retirement savings issues, not U.S. foreign policy or gun control.

It looks to the future

The best thought leadership efforts don’t just look at present situations, but also help forecast the future. If your content offers informed predictions about how things will be at some point in the future, it’s going to stand out. See if there are ways that you can use current data to forecast future trends or make other predictions that your readers will find useful.

(If you would like to read more about thought leadership efforts, check out this post from my company blog.)

So tell me, do your thought leadership efforts pass the test, or are we making a ginormous mistake by not retiring this overused phrase?

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Human mind image via Shutterstock

Author: Kevin Cain

Kevin Cain is a content and communications strategist based in Sydney, Australia, and has more than a decade or experience working in the financial services and consulting industries and helping expansion-stage software companies develop their content strategies. To learn more, follow him on Twitter @kevinrcain or check out his blog on language, content, communication and strategy.

Other posts by Kevin Cain

  • G Holliman

    Great argument Kevin. So many ‘thought leadership’ pieces I see fail to challenge the reader to look at issues in a  different light. regurgitating sales messages does not constitute a compelling insight into an issue or argument,

    I would venture to suggest that most brands indulging in this behaviour are not ‘leaders’ at all – simply ‘followers’. 

    • Kevin

      I think thought lemmings are way more common than thought leaders. It’s just so much easier and still gives you at least some of the same benefits, since you’re able to hitch a ride on someone else’s original idea. Thanks for your comments!

  • Carl Friesen

    I’d agree that thought leadership is an over-used term, but the real problem is that like someone with an expanding waistline, it needs to go on a diet. It needs a tighter definition. As Kevin says, it involves “leadership.” Because some of their leading-edge ideas will be proven wrong, it takes courage and the ability to recognize and acknowledge mistakes. It also implies “followers” — not in a Twitter sense, but in the sense of other people who pick up the ideas, work with them, test them and perhaps change them. 

    In many cases, someone proclaimed a “thought-leader” is really more of a subject-matter expert, and this may actually be more useful to clients/customers. I find that in the business world, many clients don’t want thought leadership. They want ideas that are tried, tested and proven to work. Some people are early adopters, but many business leaders want someone else to try the beta first. So, any claims to thought leadership need to be tempered with the reassurance that the ideas proposed have been tested in the real world. Therefore, a subject-matter expert who is “up” on the latest ideas and has a realistic view of whether they really work, is more valuable in helping organizations reach their goals.

    • Kevin

      Thanks for reading and posting a comment, Carl. I agree, there are many more subject matter experts out there than thought leaders. Those are very valuable people, but it takes real leadership and a different way of thinking to be a thought leader.

  • Stephanie Tilton

    Terrific post, Kevin. I agree that too many companies claim thought leadership when all they’re doing is regurgitating what’s already been said. I like the checklist of criteria you offer. That said, I think the root of the issue is that too few companies dedicate serious effort and resources to developing their thought leadership before creating their content. Conducting primary research is a good pillar, and one echoed by Chris Koch (formerly of ITSMA and now with SAP). In an interview with me last year, he also shared other concrete steps companies need to take to gain real traction with thought leadership: 

    • Kevin

      Thanks for the feedback and for sharing that link, Stephanie. I think you’re right, there is a lack of resources dedicated to developing thought leadership. That said, until we start collectively raising the bar of what passes for thought leadership, getting them to make the investment in primary research is going to be a tough sell.

  • S Combs

    Nice work, Kevin. This helps clear the clutter surrounding the term. Seems to me that waaaayyy back in the olden days … y’know 1995 … Thought Leadership was called ‘Vision’. 

    We should all be beating this message like a drum.

  • stephanie_copypanthers

    Great article Kevin! We all know that of the above are compelling reasons, but the single most important reason is your visitors!

    • kevincain

      Thanks for the comments. Everyone should definitely be asking themselves, what is thought leadership. A stronger standard is definitely in order!

  • Craig Badings

    Kevin yes, yes and no. No – let’s not get rid of the term thought leadership. In its true form it is in its own right a business discipline and a very powerful brand differentiator. I call it content marketing on steroids.

    Yes and yes in that it is being diluted by self-professed ‘thought leaders’ applying the term liberally to any piece of content they push out. And yes for your attempt at defining a filter for what should be defined as thought leadership.