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Thought Leadership Requires A Little Thought

thought leadership son

Buckle up–I’m on a bit of a rant here, in three parts.

First, thought leadership. That thing you’re calling “thought leadership” shows very little thought or leadership. Sticking a camera in the face of your expert so he or she (the “hes” far outnumber the “shes,” but that’s a rant for another day) can share his vast wisdom for three minutes, and then sticking that wisdom on your Web site (more on that in a minute) may win points internally, but it does very little for the rest of us. And by “us” I mean the very people with whom you are trying to connect.

Thought leadership is not about being the smartest guy in the room, and it’s not about feeding the egos of internal constituents.

The smart-guy video (or blog post) has limited impact because it lacks context. It is not part of a larger community of thought. It says, “Look at how smart we are,” and conveys the old-school position of centralized authority. It runs counter to the ethos of a social, networked community where your value is measured not just by what you know, but by who you know and by how you bring all of those dimensions to collaborate.

Real thought leadership requires a generosity of spirit and a concerted effort to convey editorial integrity. So stop trying to be a thought leader; start being a thought partner. Get that right, and your thought leadership will become obvious.

I see how things got confused. For the past several years, brands have been told they should act like publishers–and, indeed, the tools are all there to do so. The “let’s show off our smarties” approach is the simplest answer. The problem is that this approach uses the tools of publishing without any publishing framework. (For those of you old enough to remember, think about all of those terrible brochures and flyers that came out of the first generation of desktop publishing.) A publishing framework is focused on readers’ needs–and that means you need to know who they are and how you fit into their lives–and is connected to (or, at the least, aware of) the larger knowledge context.

And while we’re at it, please change the name of that section on your Web site called “Thought Leadership” or “Our Thinking.” That label gives away the game. It’s about you. It does not help me actually find what I’m trying to learn about. Even worse, a label like that allows you to turn the section into a dumping ground for a random collection of stuff. Thought leadership requires a little thought: You need to explicitly decide what story you are trying to communicate with your knowledge, and to whom. Then you need to be disciplined about sticking to it. That’s what publishers do.

Which brings me to parts two and three of my rant: Your Web site. Your “Our Thinking” section is where your thinking goes to die. Why? A) Because of the aforementioned labeling problem and what it communicates. (Who really cares about what you’re thinking except you and your bosses?) B) Because you have no consistent audience–and little capacity to build or manage one. C) Because your Web metrics are lying to you. And D) because you’ve been horribly misled about your Web site’s place in the world.

I get it. We told you that you can be–should be–a publisher. We told you that you can connect to the people you care about directly. We told you that you didn’t need intermediaries. All true.

But. . .

But it takes more than a catch-all section on your Web site to make that connection. If you’re serious about the role of content in positioning your brand, then you need to create a credible platform for that content.

And. . .

And good publishers bring a bunch of things to the table–a trusted editorial environment, a qualified audience, and a newfound flexibility in how they work with brands.

About that newfound flexibility: Thanks to the very same disruption that has you up at night, publishers are exploring new ways to work with content from brands–native advertising is just starting to take shape, co-creation and co-branding are emerging ways to raise the quality and credibility of your content, and it sure would be interesting to find creative ways to tap into publishers’ audiences. (To explore these new kinds of relationships with publishers, you may need to forgo your usual media-buying channels; agencies, are you listening?)

However you do it, I strongly encourage you to venture beyond the walls of your own Web site. It will force you to up your content game: to think hard about your audience, to create a valid editorial context for the work, to move beyond making pronouncements.

It will force you to start listening and collaborating. You might even become a thought leader.

Photo Credit: Thought Leadership/shutterstock

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