So, you hate the term “thought leadership.” Here’s what it should mean

We at Leff are well aware of the debate over—and the frequent hostility toward—the term thought leadership. (We’ve also noticed that critics rarely propose a better way to describe what thought leadership is or should be.)

Much of the discord seems to stem from misuse of the term. Some consultants, accountants, and other B2B communicators knowingly post recycled ideas and content devoid of insight to their “insights” and thought leadership web pages. Others genuinely think what they’re doing is thought leadership, even though their efforts don’t clear the bar.

All around there seems to be some degree of misunderstanding about what thought leadership is and where it falls within the realm of content marketing.

Thought leadership’s place on the content marketing continuum

When I explain to new clients and employees what our firm does, I often describe the content we produce in terms of a continuum: a straight-up brochure is on the far left, and pure editorial independence is on the right. The lions’ share of what we produce falls in the (shaded) middle.

As you move from left to right along the continuum, you trade self-promotion for credibility, and you reap more of the benefits of thought leadership.

What belongs under the thought leadership umbrella?

Thought leadership is generous. It is publishing study results to offer useful context for an industry or segment, sharing insights for the sake of being helpful, and showing true understanding of your readers’ struggles. All of these attributes will help build trust-based relationships with your audience.

Thought leadership is not self-serving. Too many pieces intended as thought leadership do provide value but are sullied with thinly veiled sales pitches—others end with an actual sales pitch. That pitch most often takes the form of a blurb about a company’s capabilities and a prompt to call for more information, which at least partially defeats the purpose of building trust with your audience.

Still other companies muddy their content waters by housing true thought leadership (on the far-right side of the spectrum) alongside sell sheets and case studies that veer into commercial territory (on the left). Of course, in this situation readers don’t know which they’re going to get when they click on a headline. And those who are looking for answers rather than sales pitches will eventually stop clicking.

Why push for thought leadership

More often than not, we attempt to explain the merits of thought leadership and nudge our clients a bit further to the right on the content marketing continuum. Why? Because credibility is everything. Particularly for firms that sell knowledge and services, their value proposition lies in their people. Positioning their experts as thought leaders and trusted resources for information is a proven strategy for success—and many business leaders around the world agree.

This recent study by Edelman and LinkedIn, among others, shows that a solid majority of B2B decision makers agree that thought leadership can enhance brand reputation, lead to business development opportunities, and establish credibility in competitive markets.

However, the LinkedIn study also suggests that subpar content masquerading as thought leadership can damage trust, reputation, and opportunity. There are multiple ways to make this mistake. But in my experience by far the most common is failing to understand that real thought leadership provides an audience with significant value while seeking nothing in return.

So the next time you read—or write—an article, report, or white paper, ask yourself: where does this fall on the content marketing continuum, and does it need a push?

Alia Samhat

Alia is a partner at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and content development. She spends her time working with writers, marketers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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