For the duration of my career to date, I’ve been working, broadly, in technology marketing.
After an attempted foray into journalism, I started out by managing marketing communications at a political technology startup (Ecanvasser; now doing well internationally). After moving to Israel, in 2015, I helped manage technology accounts at a PR company before, once again, managing marketing communications at a tech startup (this time in the IoT space).
A little over three years ago, I left that position to go out on my own: setting up DSR Ghostwriting which I later rebranded as Rosehill Marcom to reflect a widened focused on marketing communications (MarCom) and not exclusively on executive ghostwriting. I’ve been providing a mixture of marketing communications and writing services to tech startups, founders, and marketing agencies ever since.
Thought leadership is the most journalistic form of marketing writing
Over the course of my time working in tech marketing, I’ve gradually found myself being pulled in the direction of a field known as ‘thought leadership.’
As is commonplace, I began ‘doing’ thought leadership before I knew that it had its own distinct name. And the more I did of it, the more I enjoyed it. It felt like the most natural evolution of the writing skills that I had begun to hone in student and then freelance journalism.
A tech CEO needed what he termed an ‘op ed‘ to appear in top-tier technology media. It had to be good, written to journalistic standards, and conform to a widely used style guide. And it had to get across a distinctive position about the industry’s future backed by statistics that an editor would pore over. As the ‘writer’ on the team/ company, this project inevitably landed on my desk. This, I later learned, is the bread and butter of work in thought leadership marketing. Over time, it became the staple of my business.
Increasingly, I found myself doing more work of this nature. And after a mentoring chat with noted thought leadership marketer Bob Buday, I realized that in order to truly offer thought leadership marketing services to my clients, I needed to get involved in the planning of and not merely the execution phase.
As time progressed, I began developing a portfolio of work doing this type of writing and slowly developing a reputation as a thought leadership writer. Thought leadership has remained the core of my professional focus ever since. So I’ve had time to ponder what it is — and think about how its skeptics can be answered.
But what is thought leadership? Isn’t it just a fancy name for content marketing?
Something that became abundantly clear, when I first began receiving inbound leads for thought leadership work, was that many startup founders seemed to think that “thought leadership” was synonymous with “content marketing” — or their latest draft for a blog post which basically consisted of one-page marketing collateral regurgitated in long-form.
True thought leadership, by contrast, is deliberative, authoritative, and impactful — not sloppy copy that can be hemmed out in twenty minutes in front of a Google Doc and splashed up on a blog (note: I’m not suggesting that this is what content marketing should be either).
While I’ve never been in the position to turn down work for no good reason I have become an ardent believe in the power of inbound marketing. It’s not just what I help clients with, it’s something I really believe in.
If I could reduce inbound marketing down to one reductive formula it would be something like this: put out, in the world, what you really believe in. Tweak it a little for discoverability and other marketing considerations like your target audience and their known preferences. Try to craft content that forms a funnel so that those who discover your content successively are slowly encouraged to buy from you. And then wait for the power of attraction to work in your favor.
With that in mind — specifically to bring in more thought leadership leads who ‘got it’ — I wrote a blog post for Entrepreneur last year outlining The 4 Key Differences Between Thought Leadership and Content Marketing. I pegged those differences to be:
- Thought leadership is frequently a peer-to-peer marketing activity whereas content marketing is typically written from the perspective of a business talking ‘to’ its potential customers
- Good content marketing trades valuable information for potential business. Thought leadership often trades worthwhile insights in exchange for credibility in the marketplace.
- Relative to content marketing, thought leadership sits higher in the traditional sales and marketing funnel. Thought leadership is often about finding ways to get on the radar of a potential large customer by having something really insightful to say about a topic and saying it in the right place. Content marketing, by contrast, makes no secret that it’s ultimate goal is to move in for the sale.
- Content marketing is normally delivered through owned/on-site marketing channels (like the company blog). To be seen as truly credible, thought leadership is often published through external /non-managed channels.
And if I could add one more point, flowing from the last:
- Because its route to a readership is often through other people’s channels (also known as offsite media), thought leadership often has to confirm to higher, more journalistic standards — and so the old term ‘brand journalism’ is often quite apt. This can mean, for instance, that all facts have to be carefully referenced and sourced. Often, thought leadership involves commissioning original research and so requires collaboration between communications resources and internal or external research specialists.
Thought leadership is a distinct activity to content marketing. Large organizations — as far as I’ve been able to see, almost all of the Fortune 100 — employ different people and teams to handle thought leadership and content marketing. Yet the nuances that divide thought leadership and content marketing are often lossed on potential thought leadership authoring organizations because people like me (ironically) do a lousy job at explaining what makes thought leadership tick, and what its unique qualities are.
The problem with saying: ‘I’m a recognized thought leader’
Another thing it took me a while to appreciate: the level of skepticism, in the market, around thought leadership.
To put it baldly, many people think that thought leadership is hot air
To put it baldly, many people think that thought leadership is bullshit. To put it more delicately, they think it’s hot air.
There are a few reasons for this, many of which have been unearthed by LinkedIn and Edelman in their successive reports into thought leadership’s reception in the marketplace:
- There’s a lot of really bad thought leadership being put out there. Remember that true thought leadership is about sharing really great ideas with your industry. How often do you have those lightbulb moments? If you’re like me, not all that frequently. If you’re like me, you probably can’t produce those on cue. When companies approach me saying that they want to publish one thought leadership piece per week for a business quarter, I’m immediately skeptical. The reason? Pretty simple. It’s highly unlikely that any organization has this much original insight to share, especially if they’re a small startup. This is a pretty reliable cue that the business thinks that thought leadership is just a more glamorous term for content marketing. It’s not. Thought leadership’s fundamental quality is about sharing thinking that’s original (see: ‘leadership’), high-quality, and objectively interesting to others in the industry. Like content marketing, it should be value-laden. But unlike content marketing, it needs to be sufficiently so to be able to carry across different channels. If all you’re doing is stuffing keywords into self-promotional long-form content, you’re not offering thought leadership. You’re just doing content marketing badly. True thought leadership isn’t the kind of thing that can be created en masse. It requires careful planning and distribution. But, at least relative to content marketing, it often ends up standing the test of time.
- Self-proclaimed thought leaders make the whole enterprise of thought leadership seem kind of ridiculous. To be a bone fide thought leader, your peers have to think that you and what you typically have to say are at the forefront of the industry discourse. True thought leaders aren’t self-proclaimed. They are crowned. Social proof is mandatory. Which is why when thought leadership becomes a widely disabused buzzword, it justifiably attracts skepticism.
Is thought leadership bullshit? No.
Rather it’s more accurate to say that:
- Much content marketing, and poor content marketing at that, is passed off as ‘thought leadership’
- Many organizations creating thought leadership, and branding their collateral as such, don’t really understand the difference. Which leads to only more of the above.
Neither of these facts mean that thought leadership itself is inherently invaluable. It is. And companies that really know what they’re doing can use it to yield real value.
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Daniel Rosehill is a technology writer and marketing communications (MarCom) professional based in Jerusalem. Originally from Cork, in Ireland, Daniel’s diverse set of interests include Linux and open source technology; backups and disaster recovery (and naturally, digital prepping); and language-learning and travelling.