“…'[V]iews’ do not really count;…it matters not what you think but how you think.”
The O.G. Thought Leader
On the centenary of his birth, the LA Times published a story on the insights of Peter Drucker. Every MBA graduate in the U.S. will recognize Drucker as the most original thought leader (if we are to debase his memory by using such a grossly inflated term) on business and commerce since perhaps Adam Smith. The LA Times story was titled, “Peter Drucker’s revolutionary teachings decades old but still fresh.”
This same remarkable thinker, who entered the second decade of his own professional career as the Nazis were coming to power, also wrote presciently on how corporations would look in the 21st century and beyond. Almost 20 years ago, for example, he wrote in the Economist about the coming of confederation-style corporate models just emerging now.
We can trust the validity of Drucker’s models and concepts at least in part because of their timelessness. The longevity of Drucker’s thought speaks to an almost unfathomable single-minded dedication to the mastery of his subject. And future generations will continue to return to Drucker’s well because his crystalline insights make us better business thinkers.
Neither Thought Nor Leadership
On a whim, I recently perused some thought leadership on thought leadership. I wanted to see what the best minds in marketing had to offer me on the sacred trust involved in developing new lines of business thought.
I found a few useful examples:
- How to Be Seen as a Thought Leader in Just 15 Minutes a Week
- The Secret to Becoming a Thought Leader in 15 Minutes or Less
- How to Become a Thought Leader in a Month or Less
- You Can Be A Thought Leader: The Secret To Being Inspiring
Refreshing, isn’t it, to know that you too can produce output indistinguishable from luminaries like Drucker in 15 minutes or less?!
Of these examples, my favorite is the first on the list. The title of this first article says what the other three only imply: that the producers of thought leadership marketing are not interested in actual thought leadership, but simply being seen as a thought leader.
As Mark Schaefer writes, when you create a piece of marketing content to entice your audience to engage, you have a choice between two objectives: that content can serve to entertain, or it can serve to establish authority. Most think that the latter is easier, but they have no idea the heavy lifting they’re signing up for.
How will a regular round-up of other people’s blogs really advance the discourse in your industry? How would a top-ten list do it? How would any 101-style article? Come to think of it, is real thought leadership ever tactical?
Most of the morass that marketers pass off as “thought leadership” leads nowhere and displays no thought. Such articles mostly consist of a word smoothie concocted by paying a college student to blend the text of the top five search results on any given subject. This is a well-established SEO technique one can find in any number of marketing blog posts that pass off this kind of information as…wait for it…thought leadership.
When people find content so insightful that it impels them to return to the hub again and again, often it’s because that content doesn’t just address technique (what to think), but true conceptual development and the questioning of underlying assumptions (how to think). Publishers who emphasize the former at the expense of the latter will fail to establish any meaningful authority.
Well-clicked vs “Sticky”
A viewer may find your content hub with the help of an enticing headline that ranks high in a search, but they will use your hub as a recurring resource only if you cultivate a reputation for usefulness.
Detailed is an SEO consultant to top enterprise organizations. They have developed a proprietary blog ranking algorithm based not on raw traffic or social likes but on mentions (backlinks plus certain twitter conversation, adjusted for meaningfulness). Their list of the top 50 marketing blogs (updated daily), gives a meaningful rank of those blogs that provide valuable thought leadership.
All of these content hubs publish frequently and make liberal use of “9 Steps,” “10 Ways,” and “Ultimate Guide” headlines. But at the same time, they all defend a claim to significant originality, and in many cases exclusive data.
Let’s take a look at the top few business/marketing properties on the list and how their thought leadership helps their audience build skills and the capacity for critical thinking.
Hubspot is an inbound marketing company that got its start by focusing on traffic-generating content. One would, therefore, expect them to place highly on a ranking like this. Routinely, any organization that wants to get their digital thought leadership content in order can frequently be heard saying, “Our company wants to be the Hubspot of X.”
Hubspot is actually a collection of four blogs on marketing, sales, customer service, and industry trends. They produce an entire series of self-published marketing research based on their own data. Sample topics include:
- What Will Customer Advocacy Look Like in 3 Years?
- Lessons Learned from Measuring International Customer Satisfaction
- Content Trends: Preferences Emerge Along Generational Fault Lines
Self-generated research is becoming ever more important to content marketing looking for exclusive information that their audience will want to link to. For more information on creating your own research, I recommend contacting my friend Michele Linn of Mantis Research.
Like Hubspot, Moz also has considerable equity in Search Engine Optimization. They were an early adopter of free utilities that their audience could use to improve their search performance. They also created a metric called Domain Authority, which digital marketers have widely adopted as a viable approximation for Google’s appraisal of their site quality.
Moz’s blogs are famous for the technical depth of their discussion. Their brand is recognized as a primary source of technical best practices in SEO marketing. Insights from their blogs are not easily available elsewhere.
Looking at some of their recent backlinks, audience members are linking to the following topics and discussions:
- New Data: The Correlations Between Social Sharing and Inbound Links
- The Ultimate Guide to SEO Meta Tags
- How to Optimize Your Conversion Funnel, from ToFu to BoFu
3. Convince and Convert
Note: The Convince and Convert blog is actually #4 on the Detailed list at the time of this writing, but the mentions from the #3 blog seemed to be generated from advertising. The algorithm works generally well but is not perfect.
Jay Baer is the author of a number of books and resources designed to increase brand engagement through improved experiences. His blog Convince and Convert has a reputation among digital marketers as a primary source for increasing the efficacy of one’s digital presence.
Jay’s aim through his books and coaching is to help marketers think in a more nuanced way about the customer experience, with topics like:
- Why Customer Experience is the Ultimate Marketing Tool
- The Ultimate Guide to Customer Experience
- You’ve Got 24 Hours to Respond to Customers on Social Media
The depth and detail visible in these content hubs represent the level of the thought leadership competition you face. When you sign on to produce thought leadership, and you expect said materials to bring you mentions and return visits, you sign onto the duty of advancing your audience’s skill and critical thinking capabilities.
Anyone pointing you towards the banal recapitulation of existing blog posts is taking your money.
Many Best Practices Have The Life of a Mayfly
When I was a professional social media advertiser (the fastest-changing form of digital advertising), I would come up with specialized targeting and bidding strategies in order to garner returns that beat the industry, only to have that differential disappear as the algorithm got smarter.
As with many other fields, being a practice leader in digital marketing is an unforgiving hampster wheel to keep up with.
That’s why a “thought leader” is someone different than just a best-practice guru. As Leigh Buchanan, Editor at Large for Inc. Magazine put it, a thought leader is “Someone who stands above subject-matter expertise and is an authority in his or her field.” This implies that true authority comes not just from practice but is also able to see above the day-to-day marketing gamesmanship. It is something at once encompassing and above subject-matter mastery.
Real thought leaders, those who have spent an entire career forming an industry vision from which insights pour forth, should be venerated for this reason. Sangram Vajre, Cofounder and CMO of Terminus, says,
“Thought leader” is a term other people use when referring to truly visionary people…[It] is an attribution, a compliment that is earned and given to you, not something you type in a bio that’s self-ascribed.
Good luck aspiring to that in just 15 minutes per day.
Everyone Has Something To Teach. Or Should.
Whenever I met with a new content marketing client who told me that they wanted to invest in Thought Leadership, my first question was always, “Tell me what you have to teach the industry?”
The most common and dispiriting answer I received was, “You’re the marketer, that’s your department.”
Here we may come to the chief difference between thought leadership (something produced by lifetime experts with the goal of advancing their industries) and thought leadership marketing (something effortlessly regurgitated by paid agencies).
The latter we can easily recognize from the attributes captured in a survey by the British marketing company Longitude:
- Reports are too long
- The conclusions are too predictable
- The writing is too dry or bland
- There’s too much of it
- It’s too commercial or ‘sales-y’
These are the hallmarks of content agencies that charge by the word to deliver thinly-disguised sales pitches. The Longitude analysis goes on to say,
Rather than single-mindedly pushing their own messages, content producers must be prepared to contribute to their industry’s conversations more broadly. This is what establishes an organisation as a valuable voice – a thought leader.
But it is equally important not to churn out content simply to join the conversation. Unless an organisation has something to say – a clear, preferably brand-new point of view with a strong conclusion and actionable insights – there is no point saying it. To do so only makes it harder to engage your audience when you actually do have something new to say.
On the flip side, Michael Brenner argues that some organizations, conscious of the noise generated by banal thought leadership marketing, actually become too reticent. They stay out of the conversation too long because they don’t believe their voice and point-of-view are differentiated enough.
So how do you know when you truly have something to contribute? How do you contribute a valuable voice to the marketplace without coming off like Ivanka Trump trying to hamhandedly horn in on a conversation between IMF Chairwoman Christine Lagarde, Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau and Theresa May?
Well, it depends on how in touch you are with the big questions that your customers and industry members are asking, and how well you can answer them.
Every professional usually has something to teach. It may be a while before we can call that “thought leadership” with the reverence afforded to Peter Drucker, but everyone starts somewhere.
I might humbly suggest that you start by going about it with the right goals in mind. If you want to establish yourself as an authority, make sure that desire is not solely based on influencing your sales. Give some honest thought as to whether you might be able to suggest better practices to your industry.
Most everyone who has fielded sales calls has felt the sensation of wanting to scream at their prospects, “You’re asking the wrong questions! That’s not how this works!” If you’ve been in an industry for a while, think about how you would help these customers become better professionals, and ask the right questions. Don’t go to your agency expecting that they will provide you with all your passion and insights…do the hard work of broad thinking.
Everyone has something to teach. Or should.
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