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Is Your Thought Leadership Content Missing the Point?

I’ve never been comfortable with our industry’s obsession with thought leadership.

As an aspiration, it isn’t a bad thing. Thought leadership is about building authority and trust – quite useful when your job is to persuade people to buy your products. So, I get why content marketing briefs and strategies list thought leadership as a goal.

However, I suspect the people behind those strategies missed the point. I question the methods brands often use to pursue this goal, as well as how they prove they’ve achieved it.

Thought leadership is in the eye of the beholder

Who doesn’t want to be seen by their audience as worthy of trust and leading in thought? For example, the fact I’m still asked to write this column after more than (eek) 10 years still gives me a warm tingle inside.

It’s validation that my ideas aren’t entirely worthless, that I’m not just shouting at clouds, and that my advice and way of thinking may occasionally even be worth following.

But does that make me a thought leader? Don’t ask me.

Bill Gates is a thought leader. John Cleese is a thought leader. Ariana Huffington is a thought leader. But they didn’t set out to be thought leaders. People want to hear what they have to say because of what they achieved in their chosen fields. Thought leadership was bestowed upon them by an audience eager to learn how they did what they did, understand their thinking, and be inspired by their stories.

Whenever brands claim thought leadership or LinkedIn bios describe the account owner as a thought leader, it makes me want to reach through the screen and shake them by the shoulders, shouting, “You don’t get to say that! It’s not up to you!”

Only the audience gets to choose whose ideas are worth following. If you have to tell people you’re a thought leader, I bet you aren’t one. That’s not how it works.

When thought leadership is claimed as something you do – an activity or goal – instead of a natural byproduct of what you do – the value proposition becomes distorted.

How have you earned the authority to lead?

Aristotle was a thought leader. Though he wasn’t the first to analyze the rhetorical techniques used by the greatest orators in Athens, his writings arguably provide the best framework to understand the art of persuasion.

I still find Aristotle’s three appeals (or pillars) of rhetoric useful when planning content: Logos appeals to reason. Pathos appeals to emotion. Ethos appeals to authority.

It’s that last one that’s relevant here.

Roughly translated from ancient Greek, ethos is akin to the “character” of a person or a culture, community, or group. While the latter sense of the word entered the English language, the former – the character or reputation of the individual – is what Aristotle highlighted.

In short, ethos is the thought leadership bit. How you represent yourself, your reputation, and your authority on a topic contributes to whether you persuade your audience to follow your advice. The greater your authority, the more weight your words will carry.

Or, rather, your perceived authority.

Is there a con game afoot?

If snake-oil salespeople can convince potential customers that they know more than them, then whether the product really works is a moot point. If those people buy into the salesperson, they’re more likely to buy the product. (Hey, influencer marketing has a dark side! Who knew?)

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room; you only need to convince other people you are. Ethos gives your claims, as Stephen Colbert once put it, that whiff of “truthiness.”

The parallels to marketing are obvious. We are in the persuasion industry. We want our target audience to believe our claims and trust our expertise. And that’s why pursuing thought leadership as a content goal or tactic makes me uneasy. It’s seeking power for power’s sake, to bolster trust in your claims. That kinda sorta suggests those claims might not be as trustworthy otherwise.

I doubt most marketers would view their thought leadership tactics so cynically. But our industry can go after a goal or KPI in such a single-minded way that tactics can become detached from what should always be the primary goal – providing value to the audience.

When brands approach thought leadership as a commodity, they’re inevitably tempted to rely heavily on shortcuts and templatized processes:

  • Listicles that recycle a few top-level tips and bits of information curated from a 10-minute scan through Google? Not thought leadership.
  • Infographics with facts and stats from a bunch of external reports and research articles? Not thought leadership.
  • White papers researched from published articles and papers from around the web without adding anything new? Not thought leadership.

Our industry publishes content like this every day, believing it to be thought leadership. It’s not. It’s reheated leftovers.

That commoditized mindset also leads brands to outsource the creation of some – or all – of their thought leadership content. But can you really outsource ethos?

How are your leading thoughts sourced?

Imagine the headline keynote speaker at Content Marketing World walks onto the stage, accepts the applause, and then introduces someone to deliver the address for them. You’d feel cheated, right?

That’s why you should always be clear about your thought leadership content strategy. Will it showcase the genuine expertise in your organization or provide a platform where commissioned third parties do the thinking for you?

Sponsoring others’ expertise is a popular approach that often succeeds. And I’ve been involved with many such content projects and hubs that rely on external writers or creators. However, I’ve also turned down requests to write this kind of content in cases where the brand wanted to take all the credit.

Ghostwriting for CEOs and the like is fine – if the client tells me what they want to say. But it is not fine if the client wants to pass off my ideas and insights as belonging to the brand – or worse, run them under someone else’s byline. It’s a bit like a baker putting a store-bought cake in their shop window because they were too busy to create their own or lacked the skills to match its quality.

Thought leadership content needs thought leaders to produce it. Unfortunately, while the agencies and external writers you might contract with are experts in their field (content creation), it’s unlikely that they will be leading experts in your field.

Finding a strong writer who is also an expert on a niche or highly technical industry topic – and who is available to write regularly for your brand – can be like hunting the proverbial unicorn.

If you are lucky enough to find a unicorn, be prepared to pay extra. You’re not just paying for their skill with words but also their years of experience, specialized insight, and perhaps even their intellectual property.

That’s what your content needs for the audience to recognize it as truly thought-leading.

If you can’t find (or afford) a unicorn, don’t panic. With the right approach, you can create your own – and I don’t mean by taping a paper cone to a horse.

Building a thought leadership unicorn

By now, it should be obvious that I strongly believe thought leadership should come from within the business. Here’s why:

Ten years ago, I was in charge of content and social media marketing for a cloud-hosting business. While I understood the general concepts and some of the technical details involved in cloud computing, I was far from an expert.

Our customers, on the other hand, were software developers, sysadmins, and CIOs – highly technical, typically distrustful of marketing, and certainly more knowledgeable about their industry than I would ever be.

This presented a problem: How could I offer genuine thought leadership on the topics that mattered most to these customers? Why should they trust a technical white paper written by the least technical person in the building?

I was surrounded by internal subject matter experts, but they weren’t writers – nor were they paid to be. Therefore, I needed to find ways to identify, extract, polish, and showcase the talent and insights sitting just a few desks away.

Our solution was to adopt a collaborative process that made content creation an organization-wide activity. It enabled us to give voice to the cleverest people in our business without placing the burden of content creation on their shoulders.

The monthly staff meeting included a call for ideas from everyone in every department. We followed up on the best ideas with a chat or short interview, where I gathered as much detail, context, and perspective from the subject matter expert as possible.

I might have chosen the words and crafted them into stories, but the data, insights, and advice were all theirs. The bylines were theirs, too, with the brand benefiting from the kudos of having these highly talented experts on the payroll.

Yes, thought leadership is hard, which is why it’s tempting to find shortcuts, hacks, and outsourced talent to do all the original thinking and research for you.

Stop doing thought leadership. Genuine thought leadership comes from within, not without. It draws attention to what you do, not what you say. Above all, thought leadership is earned, not churned.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute