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Is Your Thought Leadership Content Missing the Point?

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I’ve never been comfortable with our industry’s obsession with thought leadership.

As an aspiration, it isn’t a bad thing. Thought leadership is about building authority and trust – quite useful when your job is to persuade people to buy your products. So, I get why content marketing briefs and strategies list thought leadership as a goal.

However, I suspect the people behind those strategies missed the point. I question the methods brands often use to pursue this goal, as well as how they prove they’ve achieved it.

Thought leadership is in the eye of the beholder

Who doesn’t want to be seen by their audience as worthy of trust and leading in thought? For example, the fact I’m still asked to write this column after more than (eek) 10 years still gives me a warm tingle inside.

It’s validation that my ideas aren’t entirely worthless, that I’m not just shouting at clouds, and that my advice and way of thinking may occasionally even be worth following.

But does that make me a thought leader? Don’t ask me.

Bill Gates is a thought leader. John Cleese is a thought leader. Ariana Huffington is a thought leader. But they didn’t set out to be thought leaders. People want to hear what they have to say because of what they achieved in their chosen fields. Thought leadership was bestowed upon them by an audience eager to learn how they did what they did, understand their thinking, and be inspired by their stories.

Whenever brands claim thought leadership or LinkedIn bios describe the account owner as a thought leader, it makes me want to reach through the screen and shake them by the shoulders, shouting, “You don’t get to say that! It’s not up to you!”

Only the audience gets to choose whose ideas are worth following. If you have to tell people you’re a thought leader, I bet you aren’t one. That’s not how it works.

If you have to tell people you’re a thought leader, you aren’t one, says @kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

When thought leadership is claimed as something you do – an activity or goal – instead of a natural byproduct of what you do – the value proposition becomes distorted.

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How have you earned the authority to lead?

Aristotle was a thought leader. Though he wasn’t the first to analyze the rhetorical techniques used by the greatest orators in Athens, his writings arguably provide the best framework to understand the art of persuasion.

I still find Aristotle’s three appeals (or pillars) of rhetoric useful when planning content: Logos appeals to reason. Pathos appeals to emotion. Ethos appeals to authority.

It’s that last one that’s relevant here.

Roughly translated from ancient Greek, ethos is akin to the “character” of a person or a culture, community, or group. While the latter sense of the word entered the English language, the former – the character or reputation of the individual – is what Aristotle highlighted.

In short, ethos is the thought leadership bit. How you represent yourself, your reputation, and your authority on a topic contributes to whether you persuade your audience to follow your advice. The greater your authority, the more weight your words will carry.

Or, rather, your perceived authority.

Is there a con game afoot?

If snake-oil salespeople can convince potential customers that they know more than them, then whether the product really works is a moot point. If those people buy into the salesperson, they’re more likely to buy the product. (Hey, influencer marketing has a dark side! Who knew?)

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room; you only need to convince other people you are. Ethos gives your claims, as Stephen Colbert once put it, that whiff of “truthiness.”

The parallels to marketing are obvious. We are in the persuasion industry. We want our target audience to believe our claims and trust our expertise. And that’s why pursuing thought leadership as a content goal or tactic makes me uneasy. It’s seeking power for power’s sake, to bolster trust in your claims. That kinda sorta suggests those claims might not be as trustworthy otherwise.

I doubt most marketers would view their thought leadership tactics so cynically. But our industry can go after a goal or KPI in such a single-minded way that tactics can become detached from what should always be the primary goal – providing value to the audience.

When brands approach thought leadership as a commodity, they’re inevitably tempted to rely heavily on shortcuts and templatized processes:

  • Listicles that recycle a few top-level tips and bits of information curated from a 10-minute scan through Google? Not thought leadership.
  • Infographics with facts and stats from a bunch of external reports and research articles? Not thought leadership.
  • White papers researched from published articles and papers from around the web without adding anything new? Not thought leadership.

Our industry publishes content like this every day, believing it to be thought leadership. It’s not. It’s reheated leftovers.

Too often, thought leadership #content is really just reheated leftovers, says @kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

That commoditized mindset also leads brands to outsource the creation of some – or all – of their thought leadership content. But can you really outsource ethos?

How are your leading thoughts sourced?

Imagine the headline keynote speaker at Content Marketing World walks onto the stage, accepts the applause, and then introduces someone to deliver the address for them. You’d feel cheated, right?

That’s why you should always be clear about your thought leadership content strategy. Will it showcase the genuine expertise in your organization or provide a platform where commissioned third parties do the thinking for you?

Sponsoring others’ expertise is a popular approach that often succeeds. And I’ve been involved with many such content projects and hubs that rely on external writers or creators. However, I’ve also turned down requests to write this kind of content in cases where the brand wanted to take all the credit.

Ghostwriting for CEOs and the like is fine – if the client tells me what they want to say. But it is not fine if the client wants to pass off my ideas and insights as belonging to the brand – or worse, run them under someone else’s byline. It’s a bit like a baker putting a store-bought cake in their shop window because they were too busy to create their own or lacked the skills to match its quality.

Thought leadership content needs thought leaders to produce it. Unfortunately, while the agencies and external writers you might contract with are experts in their field (content creation), it’s unlikely that they will be leading experts in your field.

Thought leadership #content needs thought leaders, not content creators, to produce it, says @kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Finding a strong writer who is also an expert on a niche or highly technical industry topic – and who is available to write regularly for your brand – can be like hunting the proverbial unicorn.

If you are lucky enough to find a unicorn, be prepared to pay extra. You’re not just paying for their skill with words but also their years of experience, specialized insight, and perhaps even their intellectual property.

That’s what your content needs for the audience to recognize it as truly thought-leading.

If you can’t find (or afford) a unicorn, don’t panic. With the right approach, you can create your own – and I don’t mean by taping a paper cone to a horse.

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Building a thought leadership unicorn

By now, it should be obvious that I strongly believe thought leadership should come from within the business. Here’s why:

Ten years ago, I was in charge of content and social media marketing for a cloud-hosting business. While I understood the general concepts and some of the technical details involved in cloud computing, I was far from an expert.

Our customers, on the other hand, were software developers, sysadmins, and CIOs – highly technical, typically distrustful of marketing, and certainly more knowledgeable about their industry than I would ever be.

This presented a problem: How could I offer genuine thought leadership on the topics that mattered most to these customers? Why should they trust a technical white paper written by the least technical person in the building?

I was surrounded by internal subject matter experts, but they weren’t writers – nor were they paid to be. Therefore, I needed to find ways to identify, extract, polish, and showcase the talent and insights sitting just a few desks away.

Our solution was to adopt a collaborative process that made content creation an organization-wide activity. It enabled us to give voice to the cleverest people in our business without placing the burden of content creation on their shoulders.

Give voice to the cleverest people in your business without placing the burden of #ContentCreation on their shoulders, says @kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The monthly staff meeting included a call for ideas from everyone in every department. We followed up on the best ideas with a chat or short interview, where I gathered as much detail, context, and perspective from the subject matter expert as possible.

I might have chosen the words and crafted them into stories, but the data, insights, and advice were all theirs. The bylines were theirs, too, with the brand benefiting from the kudos of having these highly talented experts on the payroll.

Yes, thought leadership is hard, which is why it’s tempting to find shortcuts, hacks, and outsourced talent to do all the original thinking and research for you.

Stop doing thought leadership. Genuine thought leadership comes from within, not without. It draws attention to what you do, not what you say. Above all, thought leadership is earned, not churned.

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Get more advice for content leaders in the Chief Content Officer digital magazine. Subscribe today to get it in your inbox every quarter.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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The Future of Content Success Is Social

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

Here’s a challenge: search “SEO RFP” on Google. Click on the results, and tell me how similar they are.

We did the same thing every other SEO does: We asked, “What words are thematically relevant?” Which themes have my competitors missed?” How can I put them in?” AND “How can I do everything just slightly better than they can?”

Then they do the same, and it becomes a cycle of beating mediocre content with slightly less mediocre content.

When I looked at our high-ranking content, I felt uncomfortable. Yes, it ranked, but it wasn’t overly helpful compared to everything else that ranked.

Ranking isn’t the job to be done; it is just a proxy.

Why would a high-ranking keyword make me feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that the whole freaking job to be done? Not for me. The job to be done is to help educate people, and ranking is a byproduct of doing that well.

I looked at our own content, and I put myself in the seat of a searcher, not an SEO; I looked at the top four rankings and decided that our content felt easy, almost ChatGPT-ish. It was predictable, it was repeatable, and it lacked hot takes and spicy punches.

So, I removed 80% of the content and replaced it with the 38 questions I would ask if I was hiring an SEO. I’m a 25-year SME, and I know what I would be looking for in these turbulent times. I wanted to write the questions that didn’t exist on anything ranking in the top ten. This was a risk, why? Because, semantically, I was going against what Google was likely expecting to see on this topic. This is when Mike King told me about information gain. Google will give you a boost in ranking signals if you bring it new info. Maybe breaking out of the sea of sameness + some social signals could be a key factor in improving rankings on top of doing the traditional SEO work.

What’s worth more?

Ten visits to my SEO RFP post from people to my content via a private procurement WhatsApp group or LinkedIn group?

One hundred people to the same content from search?

I had to make a call, and I was willing to lose rankings (that were getting low traffic but highly valued traffic) to write something that when people read it, they thought enough about it to share it in emails, groups, etc.

SME as the unlock to standout content?

I literally just asked myself, “Wil, what would you ask yourself if you were hiring an SEO company? Then I riffed for 6—8 hours and had tons of chats with ChatGPT. I was asking ChatGPT to get me thinking differently. Things like, “what would create the most value?” I never constrained myself to “what is the search volume,” I started with the riffs.

If I was going to lose my rankings, I had to socially promote it so people knew it existed. That was an unlock, too, if you go this route. It’s work, you are now going to rely on spikes from social, so having a reason to update it and put it back in social is very important.

Most of my “followers” aren’t looking for SEO services as they are digital marketers themselves. So I didn’t expect this post to take off HUGLEY, but given the content, I was shocked at how well it did and how much engagement it got from real actual people.

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

Writing a book is a gargantuan task, and reaching the finish line is a feat equal to summiting a mountain.

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Being position-less secures a marketer’s position for a lifetime

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Optimove Positionless Marketer Optimove

On March 20, 2024, the Position-less Marketer was introduced on MarTech.org and my keynote address at Optimove’s user conference.

Since that initial announcement, we have introduced the term “Position-less Marketer” to hundreds of leading marketing executives and learned that readers and the audience interpreted it in several ways. This article will document a few of those interpretations and clarify what “position-less” means regarding marketing prowess.

As a reminder, data analytics and AI, integrated marketing platforms, automation and more make the Position-less Marketer possible. Plus, new generative AI tools like ChatGPT, Canna-GPT, Github, Copilot and DALL-E offer human access to powerful new capabilities that generate computer code, images, songs and videos, respectively, with human guidance.

Position-less Marketer does not mean a marketer without a role; quite the opposite

Speaking with a senior-level marketer at a global retailer, their first interpretation may be a marketer without a role/position. This was a first-glance definition from more than 60% of the marketers who first heard the term. But on hearing the story and relating it to “be position-less” in other professions, including music and sports, most understood it as a multidimensional marketer — or, as we noted, realizing your multipotentiality. 

One executive said, phrasing position-less in a way that clarified it for me was “unlocking your multidimensionality.” She said, “I like this phrase immensely.” In reality, the word we used was “multipotentiality,” and the fact that she landed on multidimensionality is correct. As we noted, you can do more than one thing.

The other 40% of marketing executives did think of the “Position-less Marketer” as a marketing professional who is not confined or defined by traditional marketing roles or boundaries. In that sense, they are not focused only on branding or digital marketing; instead, they are versatile and agile enough to adjust to the new conditions created by the tools that new technology has to offer. As a result, the Position-less Marketer should be comfortable working across channels, platforms and strategies, integrating different approaches to achieve marketing goals effectively.

Navigating the spectrum: Balancing specialization and Position-less Marketing

Some of the most in-depth feedback came from data analytic experts from consulting firms and Chief Marketing Officers who took a more holistic view.

Most discussions of the “Position-less Marketer” concept began with a nuanced perspective on the dichotomy between entrepreneurial companies and large enterprises.

They noted that entrepreneurial companies are agile and innovative, but lack scalability and efficiency. Conversely, large enterprises excel at execution but struggle with innovation due to rigid processes.

Drawing parallels, many related this to marketing functionality, with specialists excelling in their domain, but needing a more holistic perspective and Position-less Marketers having a broader understanding but needing deep expertise.

Some argued that neither extreme is ideal and emphasized the importance of balancing specialization and generalization based on the company’s growth stage and competitive landscape.

They highlight the need for leaders to protect processes while fostering innovation, citing Steve Jobs’ approach of creating separate teams to drive innovation within Apple. They stress the significance of breaking down silos and encouraging collaboration across functions, even if it means challenging existing paradigms.

Ultimately, these experts recommended adopting a Position-less Marketing approach as a competitive advantage in today’s landscape, where tight specialization is common. They suggest that by connecting dots across different functions, companies can offer unique value to customers. However, they caution against viewing generalization as an absolute solution, emphasizing the importance of context and competitive positioning.

These marketing leaders advocate for a balanced marketing approach that leverages specialization and generalization to drive innovation and competitive advantage while acknowledging the need to adapt strategies based on industry dynamics and competitive positioning.

Be position-less, but not too position-less — realize your multipotentiality

This supports what was noted in the March 20th article: to be position-less, but not too position-less. When we realize our multipotentiality and multidimensionality, we excel as humans. AI becomes an augmentation.

But just because you can individually execute on all cylinders in marketing and perform data analytics, writing, graphics and more from your desktop does not mean you should.

Learn when being position-less is best for the organization and when it isn’t. Just because you can write copy with ChatGPT does not mean you will write with the same skill and finesse as a professional copywriter. So be position-less, but not too position-less.

Position-less vs. being pigeonholed

At the same time, if you are a manager, do not pigeonhole people. Let them spread their wings using today’s latest AI tools for human augmentation.

For managers, finding the right balance between guiding marketing pros to be position-less and, at other times, holding their position as specialists and bringing in specialists from different marketing disciplines will take a lot of work. We are at the beginning of this new era. However, working toward the right balance is a step forward in a new world where humans and AI work hand-in-hand to optimize marketing teams.

We are at a pivot point for the marketing profession. Those who can be position-less and managers who can optimize teams with flawless position-less execution will secure their position for a lifetime.

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