Talk to anyone who creates content online – brand or individual – and many of them will tell you that their goal is to become a thought leader in their industry. Someone influential. Someone others look to for guidance, advice, and understanding about what’s happening “out there”.
The problem is that most “thought leadership” is actually pretty terrible.
And that’s not just me being cranky; the data backs me up. In a study that LinkedIn did with Edelman this year, only 18% of business decision makers said that they thought leadership content they consumed could be characterized as “excellent or very good”. That’s a pretty vast area of everything from mediocre to outright bad.
The upshot is that far too much “thought leadership” is thin on both thought and leadership while we drown in piles of whitepapers and ebooks that are nothing more than thinly-veiled brochures for products. It’s the stuff from THAT guy/girl that reads more like an infomercial than anything useful.
And worse yet, when you check out most “how to be a thought leader” advice, they give guidance like:
- Write a book
- Build an influential network
- Speak at events
- Create great content
But those things are the results of being a strong thought leader, not the formula for becoming one.
So what makes for good thought leadership? The stuff that actually establishes a person or a brand as a resource for insightful thinking and ideas? The best content I read, watch, or listen to has five key characteristics:
Perhaps this is Captain Obvious territory, but not everyone can be a thought leader in every topic. You have to have the authority to speak credibly about that topic based on a depth and commitment to the subject matter.
Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers famously coined the idea of putting in 10,000 hours of practice in something to be an expert. But I don’t think every thought leader has to be expert-level; some of the most provocative thinkers are new, fresh, and taking on old topics with new zeal and clever ideas.
Instead, I look at it as the difference between someone who has “know that” knowledge vs. “know how” knowledge.
Lots of people in business, for example, know THAT branding is important. But the credible experts who can lead the thinking around branding know HOW that gets done, or HOW new ideas, concepts, and strategies are going to create branding that actually achieves business goals. I know THAT a good time for running a mile is somewhere around 5 minutes, but I sure as heck don’t have any know HOW about accomplishing that enough to tell anyone else how to do it.
In the world of thought leadership, there’s a lot of shallow “know that” content, but not nearly as much of the “know how”. But the know-how is where credibility comes from.
In a super crowded content marketplace, one of the most important things you can do is stand out. Not with gimmicks – those have fleeting impact – but with staking a claim to become the authority in a topic or set of topics that are uniquely yours.
Great whitespace lives at the intersection of what you know well and can speak about credibly, what your audience needs and wants to learn and – the trickiest bit – where there is a dearth of really good content.
Popular topics are crowded and noisy. Irrelevant topics get no engagement. What you want to find is that magic combination of interesting, relevant and unique so your content has a distinct flavor and angle. In book publishing, we call that the “hook”.
Finding it is part art and part science; I like to layer on lenses to help me find adjacent topics that are related to something I know is meaningful in the market. For example, I write a lot about imposter syndrome, which isn’t a new or fresh topic, but my specific lens is how social and digital media make it worse and more prevalent (a context lens). Some people write about entrepreneurship in Africa (a geography lens) or gender equality in advertising (an industry lens).
Lean on your analytics, listening, and keyword tools to help you find the subtopics, adjacent topics, or the frequently asked questions around popular subjects to help you find your whitespace. And think about lenses to help you take a generic topic and turn it into a distinctive one.
Remember that stat about how much thought leadership is “meh” at best?
So much of it lacks any shred of personality. And even if we’re talking about business stuff, personality is part of what helps with the distinction and uniqueness of our content. It scares the heck out of most businesses because personality is polarizing, which introduces risk. “But what if someone doesn’t like us??”
But reflect on Nike’s campaign around Colin Kapernick for a moment. More than a year after it launched, it has polarized the brand in pretty astonishing ways…and yet sales are up. Still.
Not everyone needs to take such a blatantly controversial stance, but we DO need a bit of heart and soul in our content and in our presence overall. Some of the most remarkable leaders of my industry right now are people like Scott Galloway and Cindy Gallop. And they’re unapologetic about not being for everyone.
The trick is that you don’t HAVE to be for everyone. Go read about Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans concept. Find your core. The base of people who just “click” with you. They’re your growth engine to help find others who are also likely to dig what you do. If you want to lead in thought, you’ve got to start by leading. And that means standing out on the front lines to put something distinctive into the world, something that’s brimming with color, with spark, and with an attempt to be interesting.
The cardinal sin of most thought leadership content is that it defines value and relevance in the eyes of the creator, and not the audience.
Marketers are notorious for this; we think that because our goal is to sell some software, content about the software and our demand generation goals is “relevant”. But it’s only relevant to us, or to people who are right in the precise moment where they need that information.
True relevance has a lot more to do with empathy, and a willingness to ask yourself a few key questions:
How can my expertise be most helpful to people who don’t yet have it?
What is my audience challenged with right now that I can make easier?
What questions can I ask to help the community have valuable discussions?
Can I help someone feel seen, heard, validated or otherwise acknowledged?
Getting at the heart of this is the most low-tech thing of all: paying attention. Listening. Being willing to hear more than you talk. Asking questions out of genuine curiosity, and soaking in the answers. Figuring out what’s important to someone right now requires stepping out of your own frame of reference, and being willing to give more than you get.
A great exercise to try for yourself and get better at this is an empathy map.
The most important trait of killer thought leadership is the simplest…and also the hardest.
You have to keep showing up. Consistently.
Maybe that doesn’t have to be every day, but it has to be regularly enough that if your audience comes to actually look forward to and depend on your content, you’re delivering for them. Let’s use me as an example of what NOT to do.
From about 2008 to 2011, I was 150% committed to creating good content, and putting it out consistently. I got good enough at it that I built a heck of a following online, and a substantial subscriber base on my blog that eventually helped me land a book deal.
Then in the wake of a failed business venture and some health issues, I all but quit. I stepped back from speaking, writing, publishing, and investing in the audience I’d grown. See what happened?
Ouch, right? It’s 2019 and I’m still working on getting back to the consistency I had before. That’s how much it matters.
Building influence, authority and thought leadership is not a “just add water” (or content) proposition. It’s a long, slow burn over time that gradually builds. You can’t fake it. You can’t shortcut it. You have to invest in it. Nurture it. And keep showing up, over and over again, learning and iterating and adapting and showing up some more.
What are you doing this for?
As you come away thinking about your thought leadership endeavors, perhaps the thing that should give you the most pause is why in the heck you’re doing this in the first place.
Being a thought leader is a promise. A commitment to something bigger than you, to helping steward ideas and push thinking and create dialogue. It’s not just about building “platform” or reach and getting speaking gigs or book deals.
Because when the chips are down, when the traffic and attention slows down, you have to know what’s going to keep you in the game for the long haul. What’s going to inspire you to keep showing up.
Talk is cheap, and so is content these days. If you’re going to stand out in a sea of mediocrity, it’s not enough to just make stuff. You have to be willing to meet both sides of the bargain: sharp thought, and strong leadership. Together, they’re a pretty powerful combo.
But they’re not for the faint of heart.
What are you in it for?