Is it worth pursuing thought leadership?
Written by every1 content strategist, Chris Worthington.I have to admit, I’m not the biggest fan of marketing jargon. I don’t aim for low hanging fruit, I don’t think about blue skies and if anyone tries to touch base with me I actively recoil in horror.
One term has emerged that I really don’t like — Thought Leadership a term so steeped in misunderstanding that it seems to have become a source of confusion and head scratching for clients and marketers alike.So, I thought I’d look more closely at what it is and try to work out if it’s just another useless turn of phrase for marketers to talk about, or if it actually has some use.
What is it?According to the internet, a ‘thought leader’ is a person or organisation that is seen as being the top in their field. The people who innovate, develop new ideas and then prove, consistently, that their ideas provide valuable and repeatable results.
These are industry-leading sites, and people who are seen as being important in a field.That makes sense to me.
The problem is when people say that they want to be a thought leader with no idea of what that means or how to achieve it.The issue seems to be that, in many marketing circles and in the eyes of clients seeking results thought leadership has become the alternative to demanding content that ‘goes viral’. This was another buzz word, based on the idea of massive reach and engagement. The assumption seemed to be that this was something that could be done on a whim.
However, becoming a viral sensation is much like becoming a thought leader. It isn’t something you necessarily have any real control over, and is an unrealistic expectation to have. Having a clearer understanding of what you can achieve, and setting realistic expectations is much better for a campaign than trying to chase an unattainable goal.
How do I achieve thought leadership?The simple fact of the matter is that not everyone can be a thought leader. In such a crowded space as the internet, with everyone shouting over each other, it is next to impossible.You can write extensively on a subject, and still not be seen as a thought leader. Why? Because without insight or a unique perspective (preferably backed up by data) you’re spending a lot of time simply repeating the same points that other people have.
Think about it this way. Google launch a new algorithm update. You want to research it. You know exactly which SEO sites will be writing about the topic – Moz, Search Engine Land etc. They will be who SEOs turn to as the leaders in the field.Then you take the research they’ve done and rework it. You create a listicle or an infographic or some other piece of content that says the exact same thing.
You haven’t offered anything new; you haven’t showcased your own expertise or provided a unique spin on a topic. Essentially, you’ve spent hours creating something to piggyback on a niche trend that could have been summed up through a retweet with ‘What they said’ tacked on.Now, if you got to a topic first, or found a niche or angle within a subject, that’s a different story. Perhaps you uncover some fantastic new insight or find a new way to do something that becomes incredibly effective. Sharing that information, educating people on a new approach and being the pioneers of that way of doing something; that’s the start of thought leadership. It’s a slow process. Nobody becomes an authority overnight and it takes a level of consistency and quality to be well regarded in any field.
So, what should I focus my attention on?The issue seems to frequently be that there is a desire to be seen as a thought leader without knowing which particular thought you want to lead. In businesses with multiple areas of expertise, this can be a massive problem. How do you prioritise which area of the business you want to be thought leaders in?
Building a reputation takes time, effort and resources. How do you build yourself up as an authority in a specific area without it being to the detriment of other aspects of your business?Thought leadership often requires a very specific or narrow focus, which for many businesses just isn’t feasible. There’s a lot of effort involved, especially for something that might not see results in the right areas.
You need to assess your strengths. As a business, you might focus on a number of different specialisms. When you really focus, is there something that you far and away excel in over everything else? Something you could talk about confidently and passionately about?That should be the focus of your thought leadership efforts.
Who does thought leadership benefit?This is where we get a bit controversial, and look at whether or not being a thought leader is actually worth it.
You need to think about the effort you put into being a thought leader.This is my single biggest issue with the concept. And I think this statement sums up the flaw in thought leadership pretty well.
“Thought leadership is for your peers. Not your customers”Here lies the problem. Say you are a thought leader and people in your industry flock to your website, waiting for the next titbit of information about how they should do something.
Do the people you work for necessarily care? Are your competitors going to work with you or turn to you for direct advice? Are clients overly bothered about the methods used or do they just want to see results? Yes, your competitors might love the ideas you put forward, but the people you deal with on a day to day basis as clients are frequently less likely to be as interested or impressed.Thought leadership can give you a better reputation amongst your peers, but it’s important to work out if the time and effort spent doing this will actually be useful to your business.
What’s the alternative to thought leadership?The alternative to thought leadership is to simply be informative. There’s an assumption that this requires a constant stream of content and marketing output to work.
Recent research by Buzzsumo highlights the changes in the way people not only look for content, but also highlights the trends you should be aware of.For example, they recommend that people should only share content when they have something important to say. This makes sense in terms of creating something that carries more weight and avoids getting lost in the content shuffle.
Instead of a constant stream of content, look for the niche issues and topics. Look for the things you can comment on in an engaging, interesting or fun way. Try to get ahead of the curve and look at trends that are emerging and have a view on them. This doesn’t need to be a knee-jerk reaction, or hot-take article, but a considered response, looking at a topic from multiple angles.You might not be reinventing the wheel or being as thought provoking as you’d ideally like to be, but you’re still answering questions, you’re still providing solutions and you’re still highlighting skill.
It’s better to be consistent and deliver strong content, than it is to chase the idea of being a thought leader, much the same as it is to aim for consistency instead of being a viral sensation.