If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone express the goal of becoming a “thought leader” in their industry—well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I could definitely treat the whole office to coffee and donuts.
A 2014 survey of B2B content marketers by LinkedIn’s Technology Marketing group found thought leadership to be the second most common goal of content marketing after lead generation. And it’s not just a goal: It’s a label we slap on our content with alarmingly little self-reflection. B2B marketers’ collective love affair with thought leadership knows no bounds.
Well, this content marketer has fallen off the love train. Tempted as I am to rant (this article’s working title was, briefly, “Why I Hate Thought Leadership”), I’ll content myself with sowing a few seeds of doubt. For B2B marketers, producing thought leadership seems to be the default content strategy. But should it be? And how can you know if what you are publishing is truly thought leadership?
Image attribution: Juil Yoon
One of the major issues with thought leadership as a strategy is how broadly we apply the term. The OED calls thought leadership “innovative or pioneering thinking,” a definition that clearly predates its application in the business world, or else we’d never have the hubris to call “The Ultimate Guide to SEO” and the like thought leadership. Potentially useful? Sure. Innovative or pioneering? Don’t make me laugh.
One-size-fits-all definitions of thought leadership (a simple Google search will give you as many as you care to read) would have you consider pretty much any B2B content to be thought leadership. It’s much more useful to define thought leadership narrowly by looking at the most salient characteristics of examples that are incontrovertibly thought leadership—think Mary Meeker’s annual Internet trends report, or the best of McKinsey Quarterly, or HBR cover stories.
It ought to go without saying, but if you want content to enhance your brand as a thought leader, said content should be your own. Say what you will about curation as a content strategy; this is not the time. Similarly, relying on influencers in this regard puts the resulting content in a gray area. There are plenty of good reasons to work with influencers, not least their organic reach, but unless you take pains to demonstrate that any output is genuinely collaborative, your influencer will soak up far more credit than your brand.
Beyond being your own content, real thought leadership brings something genuinely new into the world. This article is not thought leadership. I hope it’s interesting, thought-provoking, and informative. It’s the outcome of several years’ consideration of content marketing in general and thought leadership content specifically. But I am far from the first person to put this point of view into writing. (David Brooks of the New York Times memorably skewered the concept in a satirical 2013 opinion column, and he wasn’t the first either. David, I humbly follow in your footsteps.)
Strong examples of thought leadership content face a higher burden of proof than your everyday content. Fact-checking and properly sourcing your content should be a given no matter what (how can we aspire to brand journalism if we don’t hold ourselves to similar standards?), but because real thought leadership lacks antecedents, it requires more rigorous research and analysis to support it. Unsurprisingly, it will usually require original research or at least a thorough investigation of the existing literature. Consider it the difference between a magazine article and a paper in an academic journal: Both require research, investigation, and analysis, but of considerably different kinds.
Image attribution: Erik Lucatero
Only a small fraction of what currently gets labeled thought leadership really fits the criteria above. Instead, we use the term as a catch-all—which is problematic because it allows us to skip the necessary critical reasoning that makes for a strong content marketing strategy.
To be a thought leader is not a goal in itself, nice as it sounds. It is a means to an end, and without defining that end goal and the role of content in delivering that goal, how can you know what shape your content should take? Strong strategy thrives on specificity.
There are many, many types of content that bring enormous value to their intended audience and benefit the brand behind it by say, building a knowledgeable market, increasing brand awareness, generating leads, or nurturing prospects and clients. Not all of them, or even most of them, are explicitly thought leadership.
Image attribution: Riccardo Annandale
Assuming you’ve given it the necessary consideration and determined that thought leadership is indeed a valuable content type for your brand—that your audience craves in-depth research and analysis that they can’t get anywhere else, and that it serves your goals as an organization to deliver it to them—what now?
The organizations that consistently put out high-quality thought leadership content are those that treat it as a product in its own right as much as, if not more than, a marketing tactic. For research firms like Forrester, Gartner, or Ipsos and publications like business journals, it literally is the product. As such, it necessitates a different approach from other forms of content marketing—and recognition that doing it right is deeply resource intensive.
To produce quality thought leadership content at a regular cadence, content marketers not only need the usual content production resources, they need a strategic shift within the organization at large to treat thought leadership as a product in and of itself. This means either a dedicated research team—no small investment—or executive buy-in and proper incentives for internal resources to dedicate a portion of their time to the production of thought leadership content—less expensive in theory but much harder to execute.
And, just like a new product, marquee thought leadership content needs a go-to-market strategy, including PR and distribution. Placing your report behind a gate and waiting for the leads to roll in is a waste of all the effort that went before it.
Furthermore, thought leadership is a moving target. What’s true of product development is true of thought leadership: If you create something groundbreaking, you will be copied, and then you’re no longer a leader but one of many. Maintaining leadership status requires sustained effort, because what’s leadership one year is old news the next.
Consider dedicating independent budget items and human resources to produce, promote, and sustain quality thought leadership content, thereby allowing the rest of the content team to focus on the immediate needs of the audience and on more evergreen and less resource-intensive types of content.
Image attribution: Brooke Lark
It’s true: There are absolutely times when a thought leadership-driven content strategy is the way to go. What I hope to challenge is our uncritical acceptance of thought leadership as a goal. In some cases, it’s necessary, but insufficient: Why is thought leadership beneficial to our brand? How does thought leadership content advance our marketing goals? In other cases, it’s not necessary at all, for instance when the audience’s needs are better met through editorial or educational content, or when the marketing team can’t secure the proper resources.
So should you abandon thought leadership content altogether? Not necessarily—but you should think critically about the role it plays in your content strategy. Are you really producing thought leadership? Should it be the centerpiece of your content strategy, or a supporting player? And is it serving your audience’s needs, or just your ego?
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Featured image attribution: Khara Woods