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Why Most Thought Leadership Misses the Mark

If you’re not sharing original insights, then you’re probably not writing thought leadership.


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Daniel Rosehill

3 years ago | 6 min read

When many organizations think about rolling out a thought leadership strategy for their business, and get round to planning out the nuts and bolts of implementation, they tend to subsume the activity into their overall content marketing efforts.

After all, if you have a writer on staff, or work with a trusted freelancer, why wouldn’t the same strategy and tactics work across both formats? And what’s the difference anyway? Doing this would be mistake number one.

Thought Leadership Needs to be Different

Whether delivered from a podium or a page, good thought leadership needs to distinguish itself from content marketing

The unfortunate reality is that content marketing’s rise to stardom as the central cog that makes inbound marketing spin has both risked eclipsing thought leadership entirely, and created a lot of confusion about what purebred thought leadership looks and reads like.

Many labor under the misunderstanding that thought leadership and content marketing are one and the same — which simply isn’t true.

Others think that thought leadership is a vacuous buzzword trotted out by self-important executives who love seeing their bylines in newspapers and their introductions read off at industry conferences. Mostly, this isn’t the case either.

The truth about thought leadership is that it is a valuable and distinct activity from content marketing — although the two are closely allied and can be used, in tandem, to good effect.

Equally, however, much thought leadership fails to live up to the title that it bears — which only provides further ammunition to those who wish to conflate the two. Or who proclaim that everything written or communicated can now all be shoveled under the nebulous heading of “content” (my feelings about that are probably clear).

In this article, I’d like to quickly outline what thought leadership is.

Secondly, I’d like to provide some guidance as to what authors need to do to make sure their thought leadership does more than just contribute more white noise to the internet and world often drowning in it.

Thought Leadership Is About Quality Thinking — Not Creating Buzz

Thought leadership’s primary attribute is that it leverages the quality of an organization’s thinking in order to open the door to new business opportunities. It tends to feature prominently in long-cycle B2B sales processes.

In this competitive environment, major buyers are aware of who the major vendors vying for business in their space are, and roughly what they do.

But when the stakes are large (think: sometimes eight-figure large), and when decision-makers are looking at developing long term partnerships with key vendors, competence, an acceptable price point, and a strong value proposition aren’t enough to seal the deal — even all together.

Instead, vendors often look for an added ‘X factor’ to help differentiate between prospective suppliers. And the X factor which thought leadership seeks to address and cement is an organization’s strategic vision.

Communicating a strategic vision involves explaining things beyond what a company does, who comprises its leadership team, their backgrounds, and what products it sells.

Those are basic metrics that are almost certainly part of any buying department’s due diligence process. Beyond these variables, prospective buyers will want to get a sense of the kind of stuff that makes up the company’s DNA. What industry trends are on its radar? What are its projections? Where does it see its role in this evolution and what does it think of the potential disruptions of the day? Finally, how deep is its thinking (this is often described as ‘caliber’ of thought)?

Answering these questions is the stuff that true thought leadership is made of.

Thought Leadership vs. Content Marketing

Content marketing has a valuable place in the marketing mix. But it’s not a substitute for true thought leadership

In light of the above, some differences between thought leadership and content marketing might already be obvious.

For one, most fundamentally because it would be striking the wrong tone, thought leadership isn’t typically about going on the hard sell.

Instead, a much more nuanced approach is required — one which pays close attention to positioning, messaging, and strategy.

Secondly, thought leadership, in a sense, involves leveraging a unique peer to peer channel of communication.

Authors aren’t talking down to customers to whom they hope to sell in the sense that content marketers might do to their would-be customers (many would dispute this, but, pragmatically, this is often the case).

Rather, they are talking laterally to industry partners — often those at the same level of the organizational chart and in very comparable companies.

Ultimately, yes, they hope to sell to them — all forms of marketing lead to cash registers, or at least are supposed to.

But, to better align with the protocol and proclivities of buying audiences at large organizations, the process often needs to be a little more oblique.

Kickstarting a relationship is often the more credible and tactful first objective.

Thought leadership boldly builds reputation, furthers personal brands, and uses expertise and authority to realize business objectives. More subtly, it sells.

But if it lacks nuance, carries the wrong tone, or just doesn’t offer any insights, then it risks being simply content marketing directed at the wrong audience.

Thought Leadership’s Two Requisite Ingredients

Successful thought leadership needs to have two successful ingredients to make it a success.

And there’s a hint: the answer to what these are is in the name.

1. Original thinking

When Edelman and LinkedIn polled decision-makers about what they thought of the thought leadership they were reading, very mixed feelings arose.

A minority of readers rated what they consumed as excellent and only 29% of those surveyed said that they received valuable insights more than half the time.

This is indicative of a rush to produce ineffective thought leadership.

The key variables being leveraged when thought leadership is undertaken are the quality of the thinking, the insights conveyed, and how original they are.

By comparison, in content marketing, authors leverage the sharing of free information with prospects in order to (hopefully) realize favorable business outcomes.

Thought leadership bereft of insights is as ineffective as content marketing without content.

Those reading thought leadership are often senior-level executives. When they receive bad thought leadership — and, by inference, have their time wasted — the effect for authoring parties isn’t negative. It’s damaging. Statistics bear that out.

2. Leading thinking

A recurrent theme from Edelman and LinkedIn’s surveying of thought leadership readers is that too much writing being disseminated under the thought leadership banner consists of mere white noise.

If thought leadership does contain insights, it might contain insights that just about everybody in the industry is sharing. This too should be avoided.

A prescient example comes from much of the commentary about the business impact of the current pandemic.

While many of the observations are worthy and logical — it’s going to prove a catalyst for remote working because now many of us have to! — many of them already appear trite.

Several of them, like the foregoing, have now been repeated in just about every permutation and spin imaginable on thousands of company blogs. Much of the commentary is eminently forgettable. Differences in industry aside, many of the pieces are barely distinguishable from the next.

If these observations were not obvious and hadn’t been widely discussed, they might be considered thought leadership.

But that would also require the authoring party to have some particular expertise to leverage in offering the commentary, to be among the first on the scene to offer it, and to do so in a way that resonated with the right target audience.

If that target audience were CTOs looking for secure connectivity options, for example, the article, speech, or white paper would have to include the required technical depth, ideally contain research to back up the findings, be relatively non-promotional in tone, and be framed as a contribution to a two-way dialogue to which they could respond and contribute.

In other words: not content marketing and not more of the same. Rather: clear original thinking that contains a good measure of originality.

Despite the surfeit of information, writing, and noise inundating our screens, Kindles, and televisions, true thought leadership remains a relatively scarce commodity in marketing.

Those authoring it would be well-advised to resist the desire to hem it out as quickly as possible. And to focus instead on answering two questions: does it share original thinking and is it leading? If these can be answered in the affirmative then there’s a good chance that what you’re authoring is thought leadership and not content marketing.


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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill is a freelance writer specializing in helping clients in the technology sector to plan and execute thought leadership campaigns.


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