What exactly is thought leadership?

In the constant battle between cheap SEO-spoofing articles and quality, original copy, the term thought leadership has made its way to the top of the words-based marketing heap. But what precisely does thought leadership mean, if it is not simply another term for content marketing or search engine fodder?

Thought Leadership, if done properly, is a mix between what the English newspapers call ‘comment’ and their American counterparts call ‘op-ed’, with a spot of clever (and timely) marketing. As the press slashes journalists and budget, so the need for erudite and topical content from those outside of the media increases.

Quality over quantity

The words ‘topical’ and ‘erudite’ are doing some heavy lifting there, and for good reason. I have worked for 25 years as a professional journalist, author and editor. This means that I also receive a good number of emails from inexperienced marketers, offering their client’s opinion on anything from sandwiches to sandpaper.

These missives are often accompanied by the phraseology all journalists and editors dread. “I saw you wrote that thing about X, well here is a thing about Y that I think is relevant”. Believe me when I say that is never relevant. Nor is it very good. Thought leadership is not amateur hour content marketing. It has to provide value and it must draw on existing talent and philosophy within an organisation.

This is where a grasp of your client’s strengths and the news agenda, coupled with a bulging contacts book comes in handy. And this is why journalists and former-journalists are best-placed to deal with thought leadership. They know what a story looks like, how to jump on the news agenda and just where your client’s opinions will gain most traction. They also know when to be realistic and when to say no. After all, your client’s views on guinea pig outfits may be fascinating for Rodent Roundup, but not so good for the Financial Times.

Leading means influencing

The main value that many clients will see in thought leadership are the ‘column inches’, comparing print or online coverage with what they may have paid for an advert of the same size. But this doubly undersells the value of thought leadership. Firstly, an article in an influential title will always have at least four-times the value of even the very best ad of an equivalent scale. Secondly, the piece of thought leadership is not always simply aimed squarely at the readers. This is where the term starts to reveal its true meaning and value.

As someone who has written and ghost-written a good deal of thought leadership for clients, I can tell you that the copy and its sentiments are often aimed at a far smaller group than the readership of a magazine or newspaper. I have, for example, been commissioned to write pieces that are a sign to industry, but also ones that are a flag waved at a government department, or even an individual minister. These can be highly-effective and, when handled correctly, can lead to meetings, policy change or even an injection of funds.

This is where thought leadership really does its job of establishing the client as a voice to listen to and showing what that listening can achieve. It makes others want to come along for the ride as peers. That is far more powerful than advertorial or advertising can ever be for your client.

So, can I do thought leadership?

As always, the question of whether a tool such as thought leadership can work for you and your client depends on your abilities and their willingness. It can be a time-consuming, collaborative process. You need to capture the voice and the expertise that they offer, but you also need the confidence and contacts to place an article or other content in the places it needs to be seen. There is no use your client lending his time and thoughts to a blog or a journal just because you can get it placed there. You need to undertake considered targeting that realistic and rewards the time and money invested.

This brings me back to the earlier point about thought leadership not being a cheap content marketing fix. You can’t be a thought leader with poor spelling, little evidence of an argument and simplistic thinking. This, necessarily, makes it an often relatively costly process in financial terms. Although this cost still pales in comparison to an ad campaign or a marketing spend on a single issue. In short, your clients need to be asking how they can afford not to, rather than wondering if they can invest the money and time.

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