Thought Leadership, and Other Outdated Concepts

This post was written by John White on Tue, 04 Aug 2009 05:05:19 +0000
Posted Under: managing writing project,marketing as conversation,marketing manager,social media,white papers

Wooden Duck“We want to position ourselves as a thought leader,” your boss decides. “We need a white paper that will help set us apart from our competitors so that prospects and existing customers will really want to work with us.”

It starts with The Event. Maybe you’ve undergone an internal transformation, and you now have a secret sauce that will help you leave your rivals in the dust. Perhaps you’ve survived a hostile takeover bid that has left you stronger. Or you’ve just received approval for your patent on a better mousetrap.

You have the noble goal of writing up The Event and putting the story into people’s hands so that they’ll admire you, seek to emulate you and want to buy your products.

Good luck.

Thought Leadership Hubris

It’s a bit cheeky, saying that you’re going to lead thought. It reminds me of resolving to get somebody to fall in love with you. In fact, that’s what it is, and that’s why there are several obstacles to your thought leadership effort:

  1. I’ve worked on thought-leadership white paper projects. They’re devastating. They are more taxing than The Event. Everybody has a different perspective on the project and it will almost surely take you longer and cost you more than you bargain for. It’s too big a bite.
  2. In your own experience, have you ever read anything and suddenly noticed that your thought was now being led in a different direction? What makes you think your paper – or entire content campaign – will have this effect on anybody else? Probably the biggest popular force leading thought these days is Apple Inc., and they’re doing it with the impact of their products on consumers, not with their content.
  3. In the era of social media, it’s almost silly to think you can lead thought, because thought is more mercurial and fickle than ever. People want to follow, but they don’t want their thought led. If your content does result in new customers, how are you going to greet them: “Thank you for letting us lead your thought,” or “Thank you for following us”?
  4. As a marketing manager, your goal is to start conversations. What kind of conversation are you trying to have if you attempt to lead people’s thought?

Don’t Lead Thought; Develop a Following

Smart marketing managers will look at this differently: Instead of trying to lead thought, they devote the energy to building a following.

This is an important nuance because you can’t measure how much thought you’re leading, but you can measure the development of your following. This is the true value for business of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Mind you, people like David Meerman Scott lump blogs, podcasts, case studies and all other sorts of marketing communication into the category of “thought leadership,” and maybe they are able to lead thought with campaigns like that. But most of us are just struggling to get our content ducks in a row, and “thought leadership” is shooting for the moon to us.

The Moral: You can lead eyes to your story, but you can’t lead thought.

Reader Comments

I always suspected that the term “thought leadership” was a tad pretentious, even contemptuous.

In these days of p2p sharing it seems that “thought seeders” is a more appropriate term.

Social proof is becoming a powerful distributive function and not something the marketing department can lock up in a web site or brochure.

Written By Mark McClure on February 6th, 2010 @ 22:42

Maybe these folks should just be honest and say, “Look at the arrows in our back. They’re why we think the market will move in this other direction.”

Still, it’s hard to dismiss out of hand the fervor of the exec who says, “Nobody else is doing the stuff we’re doing. We’ve got to tell this story somehow and show that we’re in the vanguard.” That’s usually when the term “thought leadership” first comes up.

Written By John White on February 8th, 2010 @ 7:09