Thought Leadership: The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly

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Done right, thought leadership is the single most differentiating content marketing asset an organization can produce. And while thought leadership does serve brand equity goals (e.g., building credibility, trust and loyalty), its results are far more tangible: A study by Demand Gen Report and Demandbase found 84% of buyers surveyed agreed that a winning vendor’s content had a significant impact on their buying decision. Some 62% pointed to the provision of higher-quality content as one of their top five reasons for choosing the winning vendor.

The problem is “done right” and “higher-quality” are phrases that often do not apply to much of what is passed for as thought leadership these days. As Lisa Gately, a principal analysis at Forrester recently put it, most thought leadership isn’t thoughtful or leading. 63% of tech buyers in a recent Forrester survey, for example, say vendor content focuses more on style than substance, and two-thirds say the content is biased toward the vendor. Their disappointments are ones we’ve probably all experienced after encountering thought leadership at one point or another. 

Why is that? The easiest answer is organizations give-in to the temptation to create thought leadership for self-serving purposes (i.e., overtly promotional material that fits hand-in-glove with what they are selling), but it’s more than that. As writer and content strategist Katie Parrott aptly noted, the biggest mistake brands make is thinking that thought leadership is a type of content, rather than an approach to content. 

Gatley defines true thought leadership as “an intentional exercise of knowledge, skills, and expertise to increase awareness, elevate perception, and drive preference related to key issues that an audience cares about.” Accepting this definition makes thought leadership the hardest type of content to produce because it needs to be deeply rooted in unique perspective or expertise — while still authentically tying your brand. That’s a tall order for many marketing departments which now resemble content mills churning out how-to posts, ebooks and webinars at a faster and faster clip.

The way forward? First, recognize that thought leadership is rare — don’t expect 30% or more of your organization’s content output to be classified as such. It’s just not realistic. Next, look for new inputs. Parrott suggests five sources of thought leadership content; counter-narrative opinions, personal narrative, network connections, industry analysis and data storytelling. While some of these elements may depend on the stature and makeup of your business, they are worth exploring.

Lastly, don’t rely on higher management or various subject matter experts from your organization to create thought leadership. Most simply don’t have the time, or in some cases, the writing skills. This is where a strategic content partner can come in handy. The right partner can work with you to find your specific points of potential thought leadership. They can challenge your subject matter experts and help clarify their thinking while maintaining an outside perspective and high writing standard. They can conduct in-depth research on your behalf (e.g., what kind of stances are your competitors taking? How are they delivering their thought leadership content?), or help use SEO tools to identify relevant topics that your audience really cares about. 

By that same token, you can’t just throw an agency brief over the chasm and expect compelling content that perfectly represents your perspective and brand to be thrown back over. It takes hard work by everyone involved, inside and outside your organization, to develop the kind of thought leadership that will put you on the map.  

However, if you can get your content marketing engine firing using one or more of tips mentioned here, you will see results. And those results can be more than just “likes” or higher search rankings. Again from the study initially referenced in this post, when buyers were asked to select their top reasons for choosing the winning vendor over other vendors they considered, 59% said that the winning vendor demonstrated a stronger knowledge of the solution area and business landscape.

So show your audience who you are, what you believe, and how you want to make your industry better. You will be immediately rewarded with their engagement, but ultimately with their business.

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