Thought leadership dos and don’ts

We read a lot of thought leadership. Much leaves something to be desired. Developing a quality piece that clears a certain bar takes time and effort; it’s not a simple, check-the-box exercise. There are, however, a few basic dos and don’ts that every content creator should adhere to. In our experience, the pieces that follow these guidelines are the ones that stand out from the pack.


    • Date your content. Everything we write falls into the context of when it was written. If your audience doesn’t know what that context was, why bother reading the piece? For example, last week I was reading a piece that claimed that most experts agree a recession is some ways off. I immediately scrolled to the top and was relieved to see the piece was dated March 2018, as forecasters are increasingly watching out for a downturn. Without this date, I was prepared to stop reading. A piece of content that’s a year and a half old or even many years old could still have relevant insight today, but the context is critical—particularly for understanding references and examples.
    • List authors. Where are readers to assume a piece of content comes from if there’s no author? Who are they to reach out to if they think someone in your company has good ideas and want to contract your help? Bylines build credibility and authority and show that a company has a breadth of subject-matter experts, not just a content team churning out articles.
    • Include examples. Real-world examples make your advice real for your readers and, more importantly, illustrate that what you claim actually works. Examples that demonstrate impact or results are especially valuable.
    • Analyze what others are saying on the topic. You want to make sure you add something new to the conversation that readers can’t find elsewhere—either through a fresh take, client examples, or counterintuitive findings and recommendations. Performing an audit of existing thought leadership—especially what competitors are publishing—can help identify trends and find opportunities to cut through the clutter.


    • Reference your services. Any piece that explicitly tries to sell services isn’t thought leadership. It’s advertising. And it’s kind of icky. Thought leadership is about the exchange of ideas, not sales; save the overt promotions for other types of content.
    • Spend excess time setting the scene. The temptation to dwell on the current landscape—particularly the ways technology is changing everything—is strong for many authors. It makes sense—they know this stuff well. They work and serve clients in this reality every day. But it’s also relatively easy to write that story, and chances are, their audience already knows what’s going on. The bulk of the piece should identify the specific challenges this context poses and, especially, how readers can overcome these challenges.
    • Provide a laundry list of prescriptions. Despite the suggestion above, a piece that drags on with one recommendation after another is overwhelming and too vague to be helpful. Readers need specific advice that they can follow. They can’t possibly do 12 things to brace themselves for the potential impending recession, and they’ll probably stop reading after the first few because the piece lacks focus. Limit your advice to just the handful of most important things your audience should do, help them prioritize, and include as many details about the actions they should take as possible.

The process of developing good thought leadership is more nuanced than a list of dos and don’ts suggests—the best pieces involve a good amount of problem solving and iteration. But these basic rules can help make sure the final product clears the bar.

Annie Mullowney

As a senior editor, Annie focuses primarily on developmental editing and drafting, helping clients sharpen their stories and tell them in a compelling way.

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