Thought Leadership, and Other Outdated Concepts

Do you really think you can lead thought?

“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. That way, prospects and existing customers will really want to work with us.”


Where does thought leadership come from?

It starts with The Event.

Maybe you’ve undergone a digital 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. You figure 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 a big chunk to bite off.
  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?
  3. In the era of social media, it’s almost silly to think you can lead thought. It’s so easy to see how mercurial and fickle thought can be. 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. That is the true value of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Mind you, many marketing experts lump blogs, podcasts, case studies and all other sorts of marketing communication into the category of “thought leadership.” 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.


Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”

3 thoughts on “Thought Leadership, and Other Outdated Concepts

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

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