I detest the term “thought leadership.”
It’s a pet peeve, but thought leadership isn’t something that you somehow “do.” Tim Marklein nails it when he makes the case that this is something that has to be earned. It’s not to be – or shouldn’t be – lumped into the same sentence with demand generation.
I don’t think so. Marketers should understand the difference between strong thought leadership and gussied up demand-gen. All too often, though, the two concepts get lumped together as if thought leadership were solely an appendage of the overall sales and marketing strategy. That’s a mistake.
My background isn’t in content marketing. For most of my career, I worked as a business and technology reporter and editor where at one point, I was involved in editing the op-ed submissions page. So, whenever I see companies trying to use thought leadership vehicles – whether in the form of opinion pieces or in conference presentations, etc. –to promote their products or technologies, my immediate instinct is to paint my face like Mel Gibson in “Braveheart,” grab a bullhorn and scream “No!”
If you’re trying to drum up prospects for your new widget, that’s the purview of demand-gen tools and techniques. It’s fine to go about building a “message house” where companies align product messaging with core business objectives, competitive dynamics and the larger company vision. eBooks, webinars, email marketing and product-focused blogs can – and should – be part of a strategy to guide prospects through the conversion funnel.
But if you intend to establish your executives as industry thought leaders, they need to speak to industry issues well beyond your product features and benefits. There’s a world of difference between building and serving an audience, versus selling to your marketing database. Robert Rose has a good piece here explaining this in detail. Suffice it to say that we’re talking apples and oranges. When it comes to thought leadership, you should aspire to building an audience that is bigger and broader than your prospect list. An audience trusts you to share honest, frank advice and opinions about issues du jour that matter to them. Instead, you’re hitting them with a self-serving sales or marketing message? That’s going to undercut your creditability.
During my time as an op-ed editor, it was easy to separate incisive essays from ham-handed product pitches. Your audience will spot the difference as well. They’ll see through your “pitch” and stop reading (or leave the keynote, or stop showing up when you invite them). If this is how you approach thought leadership, then you’re focused too much on yourselves and not enough about what your audience wants and needs.
Put the Thought Back into Thought Leadership
Readers are always going to be interested in commentators who have their fingers on the pulse of the market – particularly when it comes to the technology business where change is a constant theme. Customers want insights that help them better understand their markets.
The formula for success is straightforward: build audience by sharing valuable insights and expertise (via interviews, articles, speeches, etc.) about issues of import. Look within your ranks to find experts with something to say. Entrust your executives to weigh in with intelligent and frank commentary about important topics of the day – which will pay off in the coin of greater audience relevance and brand recognition, and perhaps even media interest from reporters whose attention you’ve piqued.
Consider the results in this 2020 LinkedIn/Edelman study of decision makers which, among other things, found:
- 48% spent at least an hour each engaging with thought leadership content
- 89% described thought leadership as responsible for enhancing their perceptions of an organization
- 49% said thought leadership influenced their buying decisions
So, when the exercise goes wrong, I must assume that someone in authority issued an edict that all content needs to be “on message” (sell, sell, sell) rather than doing right by the audience (inform, engage, inspire). Exactly the wrong move. Readers aren’t stupid and they know when someone’s trying to sell to them. You’re not just going to waste a lot of time and effort; you will lose the attention and trust of your audience.