When is thought leadership NOT thought leadership?

It seems like everybody wants to be a thought leader these days. But when is thought leadership just… window dressing? Let’s get to the bottom of this.

Everyone wants to be a thought leader

According to Forbes, thought leadership is “grossly indulgent slang for plain ol’ expertise”. Ouch.

Is that fair? Maybe. Marketers (content marketers in particular) do like shiny new jargon – and it’s not like expertise is ever a bad thing to demonstrate.

But here’s the sticking point – content is all too often framed as thought leadership, when it’s anything but. For us, thought leadership means stuff that’s original and compelling, and rests on the cutting edge of a discussion.

Or the head of Radix’s copy team, Matt Godfrey, wryly put it:

“If you haven’t put any thought into it, it’s not a thought. And if it’s not on the vanguard, on the tip of the point of the spear, it’s not leadership – it’s just waffle.”

No thought… and precious little leadership

But when does thought leadership become, well, not thought leadership? And when is a ‘hot take’ just a thinly veiled cry of ‘me too, me too’?

Look close enough, and you’ll see this fluff everywhere. The same arguments, the same stories, the same opinions. It’s essentially content marketing churnalism.

And your audience thinks so, too.

In 2016, Grist surveyed over 200 senior executives from FTSE 350 companies for a “definitive” look at the subject of thought leadership. It’s a good read, and a rare insight into why certain content does and doesn’t work, and what an executive audience looks for in a thought leader.

Here’s a choice cut from the survey: when asked what they dislike most about existing content online, executives cited content as:

  1. Too generic – not directly relevant to me (63%)
  2. Lacking original insight or ideas (58%)
  3. Promoting the adviser rather than addressing my problems (53%)

Our creative director, David McGuire, thinks the problem’s in the term itself:

“For a lot of marketers, ‘thought leadership’ has become a catch-all phrase for self-indulgent content that doesn’t fit anywhere else. It’s like the usual rules of value and customer-centricity don’t apply – when in reality, they’re more relevant than ever.”

The search engine echo chamber

But faux-leadership content doesn’t just stem from brands wanting to get in on a conversation without having anything meaningful to say. There’s a technical incentive too. SEO.

If a content marketer is under pressure to match a competitor blow-for-blog on a certain Google keyphrase, then of course there’s a temptation to regurgitate content and ideas. And while the resulting content may still have merit to those unaware of other sources, it is anything but ‘thought leadership’.

If it’s not new and exciting, then you’re just adding to the noise.

How to do thought leadership well

But let’s not dump thought leadership in the bin just yet. Because when it’s done well, it really can add value, shed new light, and guide an industry in a whole new direction.

So, what does good thought leadership look like?

Typically, consulting firms such as Cognizant and Accenture do a strong job delivering original perspectives on the latest market trends. Whether it’s deep diving into the latest developments in healthcare AI, or exposing the hidden value of risk in banking – they tend to offer something fresh and relevant to their readers and clients.

(Heck, Cognizant won an award in 2017 for ticking all these boxes with their financial services campaign: ‘Blockchain: Thought Leadership Driving Action and Results’. That blog netted them over 150,000 views alone.)

There are lessons we can learn from firms like these. Do your research. Monitor your competitors, but don’t ape their content. And know your audience inside out.

The point is, good B2B thought leadership is not easier than other content. It takes effort, discipline, resources, and time; there are no short cuts.

But are the results worth the investment? Absolutely.

Ben P

Ben is a versatile writer who came to Radix with years of experience as a marketing copywriter and, before that, as an entertainment journalist. With a keen ability to ask the right questions at the right time, Ben is adept at digging into complex topics and finding high-value hooks that help make high-impact content.

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