Thought Leadership: Newbies and Imbeciles

It's just not that hard to make yourself and your thought leadership — whether a blog, a white paper, an infographic, an online calculator, anything — stand out from the crowd. Start with a story, yes, and then focus on making your thought leadership three things: Intriguing, In-depth, and Independent.

Also: don’t be an Idiot.

By John R. Brandt

A while back, I published an article about how most thought leadership is godawful boring. A lot of people read it, and some even wrote to say: "You're right! We should tell a compelling story in every piece of thought leadership! Thank you!”

A few of those did start telling great stories in their thought leadership, making their clients (and their bottom lines) much, much happier.

Everybody else, well … they kept doing the same-old, same-old. It was boring, sure, but it was easier than actually trying.

That’s still a godawful way to treat your clients. And your career.

It's just not that hard to make yourself and your thought leadership — whether a blog, a white paper, an infographic, an online calculator, anything — stand out from the crowd. Start with a story, yes, and then focus on making your thought leadership three things:

Intriguing: For the love of God, please come up with a new angle or perspective — one that hasn't been covered to death already in your clients’ RSS feeds or media habits. The worst thought leadership latches onto a current topic in a given industry or among a group of executives, and then says: "Hey, this is really important. Do something about it!"

Here's the problem: Everybody in that industry or group already knows that it’s important, and is already doing something about it. Your company making a fuss over it makes you look like a bunch of newbies or imbeciles. Take an extra hour — or day — and think through those common issues. Look for the white space hidden in the fog of existing thought leadership to find the uncommon take on the topic, something interesting, weird, unexpected, odd, or crazy that nobody is yet talking about.

Focus on that, and you’ll grab their attention.

In-depth: The next-worst thought leadership (not as bad as “Duh” thought leadership, described above, but still terrible) is similarly redundant, but in a different way. It might feature an interesting or wild idea, but then craps out by vomiting up the same stale analyses, bromides, and recommendations. These will either A) make your clients laugh at your stupidity or B) make then want to self-harm with a stapler or pencil. Whichever they choose, their next steps will be to delete your pitiful thought leadership, and then to forget that they ever heard your name, or saw your company’s logo.

Don't let this happen to your company and career.

Instead, work with your subject matter experts (SMEs, in consulting lingo) to think through the long-term impact of your original interesting or wild idea. Noodle not only on how this New Thing might affect the future of your clients, but also the futures of their customers — and maybe even society itself. Will the New Thing change the nature of markets or business models in your target industry? Will it change the career paths of the executives you hope to reach? In doing this, remember that good thought leadership is just like good journalistic reporting or good detective work: You need to follow the money. Tell readers and users how the New Thing will help them to make more money, or to lose tons of it, and they’ll read to the last word.

Independent:  The blizzard (or sewer, depending on quality) of content marketing that executives waded through over the last decade has done one good thing: It forced them to become savvier consumers of information. That’s good news (for the execs) and bad news for most thought leadership. Why? Because the first questions these leaders ask when they see your thought leadership is: "What is the agenda behind this? What is [your company] trying to get me to do?” This makes it imperative that your thought leadership be independent, objective, and designed to inform and educate clients — not sell them. Don’t try to close a deal; instead, open a conversation — one that doesn’t end with an abrupt “No!” when the exec realizes you're just pitching something, without knowing anything about her, or offering any value in exchange for his time.[1]

Stop selling, and start engaging in dialogue. You might be surprised how much you learn.

The upshot: Before you send out that next piece of thought leadership, ask yourself if it's intriguing, in-depth, and independent. If it is, congratulations: I can guarantee that it’s not godawful boring, and that good conversations — and better sales — will follow.

If it isn't intriguing, in-depth, and independent, do your clients (and yourself) a favor: Tear it up and start over. Only a few of them will read it anyway, and the ones who do will think you and your company are idiots.

Which would be godawful, especially for you.

[1] Not coincidentally, this is one of three reasons every MPI-branded piece of thought leadership — whether distributed by us or our clients — is both independent and sourced to journalistic standards. The other reasons are: 2. MPI was founded by two cranky ex-journalists who care deeply about independent research and reporting. 3. Neither of us ever much liked being told what to do, so we had to start our own company in 2003. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


© The MPI Group 2017


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