Marketing Content Strategy

Diluting Expertise: Does Pursuing Thought Leadership Make Us All the Same?

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Growing up, my parents tried to teach me and my three siblings to be good leaders. They taught us to speak our minds but with respect, to be curious about anything and everything, to define goals and pursue them methodically. I imagine they dreamed of some future world where we each held seats in the UN or served non-profits or spearheaded thought leadership that might change the world for the better.

Sadly, they didn’t account for adolescence.

For a span of about sixteen years, my parents’ dreams of mature world leaders came up against the harsh reality of raging hormones and high-school dramas. Instead of the UN, they got Lord of the Flies, where each of us pursued our own ends and tried as hard as possible to speak louder than the rest. There was no common mindset or goals—after all, what teenager likes to be told what to think?

On the days our arguments hit a fever pitch or dragged on particularly long, my mother used to break in and end the conversation with an executive decision. “There are just too many cooks in the kitchen,” she would say.

Thankfully, most brands today operate with a good deal more decorum than a family of teenagers. But I think in many ways the proverbial wisdom of my mother (and I’m sure many other long-suffering parents) still holds: At what point are there “too many cooks in the kitchen”? What happens when every brand thinks they know best?

This is the interesting place that thought leadership has landed in today. On the one hand, the very idea of thought leadership should be somewhat exclusionary: There’s only so much room for brand “leaders” in a given space after all. But we talk about this type of content in a blasé way, as if it’s merely an orientation from piece to piece that we can adopt, that this type of leadership can be easily picked up and put down as it suits our content strategy.

It seems that marketers are still working out exactly what it means to be thought leaders, with some brands actually succeeding while others play along—leaving content marketers to examine which is the case for their own brands.

The Essentials of Thought Leadership

For all of the voices shouting into the thought leadership space and all of the different ways that this type of content manifests, there are a handful of reliable trends that have emerged.

The first, not surprisingly, is that it works. The Economist Group found that 33 percent of executives read thought leadership content daily, with just under 20 percent reporting that they’ve dramatically stepped up their consumption in the past year. As for effect, a staggering 76 percent of executives reported that this type of content influenced buying decisions, while 83 percent reported that this type of material influenced the types of business partnerships they pursue.

The second is that thought leadership should, in some way, challenge the status quo. A Forbes Insights/Deloitte study found that most executives turn to business insights and leadership content to either stay ahead of the curve or to learn how to improve on an activity or process involved in their work. If your content only encourages or enables people to continue doing business as usual, then it likely isn’t leadership oriented.

And . . . that’s it.

Beyond efficacy and challenge of how industry operates, the manner and forms that thought leadership content takes vary wildly, even across brands that are earning the most interest and respect. But this doesn’t mean that your brand has to be left entirely to its own devices in terms of defining the type of leader you want to present as.

The Three Types of Thought Leadership

As content strategy currently stands today, whether you’re working on an enterprise-level company or developing a personal brand, most thought-leadership material and approaches seem to boil down to one of three archetypes. Which model your brand uses can change from piece to piece, but for the most part, focusing in one area seems to net the best wins for marketers by helping to ensure your brand’s position centers on a clear, well-communicated point in a branding space that has become extremely saturated with thought-leadership content.

What type of leadership brand are you?

The Educator

Educator thought leaders are perhaps the most common in the content space today. Educator brands produce content by tapping into internal or external reserves of expertise and then translating that expertise into actionable information for readers. The key here is that not all educational content is leadership. An article that explains how to set up a Google Analytics account, for instance, is useful, actionable, and educational content that can improve a reader’s trust in your brand. But this information is available widely from a number of other sources—it doesn’t challenge the status quo.

For better examples of educator thought leadership, I like to look at Litmus. Litmus is a mid-size email marketing company that offers a diverse range of tools, materials, and templates for their users to learn how to email market really well. But their content falls into leadership rather than simple education for two reasons.

Image of the Litmus blog homepage

First, it focuses on conveying specialized, technical knowledge that is outside the expertise of most email marketers. With an emphasis on changing design sensibilities, living code, and up-to-date best practices, Litmus’ content is unique to discover within the content marketing world rather than inside the pages of dense documentation.

But secondly, and more importantly, interacting with Litmus’ content effectively and fundamentally changes the way that the reader interacts with their work. By using one of their templates, installing one of their email browser tools, or following a step-by-step walk-through of a best practice, readers are all but forced to change their practices by interacting with the content.

This line between simply educating and actually agitating changed action is one of the many blurry lines that marketers should compare themselves against when it comes to thought leadership. But when you find brands that are doing it effectively, it will be apparent as soon as you start diving into the meat of their work. Educator orientations work great for brands that provide a specialized service and have a load of in-house expertise to draw from.

The Authority

Authority thought leaders are often what we think of when asked to consider this type of content. Rather than diving into the tactical minutia, authority brands establish their leadership by producing research, directly challenging business-as-usual ideas, and defining the space in which conversations about their field happen.

Authority brands tend to thrive with forward-looking content, like studies or research extrapolated into prediction. Their content hubs are often a mix of in-house insights and interaction with other research or predictions coming out in their space. Some brands very obviously align well with this stance: Take for instance market research giant Forrester. With vast resources at their disposal for insight and conversation, Forrester’s blog provides detailed research about the future of various industries or well-thought-out responses to movements that we see happening in the news headlines daily.

Image of the Forrester blog homepage

One of the other things that indentifies authority brands is how they accept failure and define the conversations around them. Author and business consultant Amy Edmonson defines this idea at the workplace level as psychological safety: the practice by a leader of creating spaces in which failure that leads to learning is not only accepted, but encouraged.

One of my favorite examples of this practice on the brand level was released recently by SpaceX when they shared their now viral video, “How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster.” In this video, SpaceX was able to sum up years of literal rocket science by playfully walking viewers through all of their test failures over the years. But in doing so, the brand not only got to show off all of the hard work they do in R&D, they also quietly conveyed their status as a front-runner by not fearing failing publicly. Weaker brands try to cover up or spin failure out of the public eye. Authoritative brands learn from their mistakes, then position that learning as unique insight that no other brand has because they’ve never failed in exactly the same way.

The Motivator

The last type is one that I find to be a bit more contentious in terms of definition, but it has to be addressed if for no other reason than for the sheer volume of this type of leadership.

Motivator leadership is one of the easiest types for smaller brands to latch onto, and it circumvents much of the harder work of thought leadership by challenging individual status quo rather than industry status quo. It aims to change conversations by tackling the thoughts and habits of workers, rather than the technicalities or challenges of the work itself. Often, we see this type of content from individuals who have achieved some form of technical success in the marketplace, but then translate those successes into lifestyle content, instead of industry content.

Examples of motivators likely appear in your LinkedIn feed every day. Figures like Gary Vaynerchuk or Neil Patel are great examples of this in the content marketing space, though every industry has their own iterations. Watching a new Vaynerchuk video or reading through Neil Patel’s blog most often doesn’t provide insight into process improvements or bleeding-edge research. It doesn’t necessarily incite action. It often simply encourages the reader or challenges any personal obstacle that they might be creating for themselves.

But motivators dominate large portions of our ongoing conversations. They fill news feeds and speak at our conferences. They pump out books and sell products. To say they don’t have some kind of leadership position would do a disservice to their clear impact. To say these figures aren’t “experts” in their own right would do a disservice to the hard work they do, even if they don’t share much about it specifically. But if educator content is excellent at hitting middle-management and specialists, and if authority content is the bread and butter of executives, then motivator content positions itself at the more entry-level end of the scale for thought leadership.

Defining the Future

As marketers get a better handle on this style of content, I’m sure we’ll see the rise and fall of new orientations for thought leaders. As for today, the resources available to your specific brand may encourage a hybrid of any of the orientations above, or more likely they may reveal a clear avenue for your brand to consider taking. The beauty of the thought side of content strategy is that it’s defined by the brands that take up the space.

Whether or not your brand is a leader ultimately comes down to how much of that space you are able to occupy, and whether people care to change their actions or thinking based on what you have to say when you do. And this will always be up to your brand to define.

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Featured image attribution: Davide Ragusa

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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