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Is Your Thought Leadership Content Missing the Point?



Is Your Thought Leadership Content Missing the Point?

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.


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.


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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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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6 martech contract gotchas you need to be aware of



6 martech contract gotchas you need to be aware of

Having worked at several organizations and dealt with many more vendors, I’ve seen my share of client-vendor relationships and their associated “gotchas.” 

Contracts are complex for a reason. That’s why martech practitioners are wise to lean on lawyers and buyers during the procurement process. They typically notice terms that could undoubtedly catch business stakeholders off guard.

Remember, all relationships end. It is important to look for thorny issues that can wreak havoc on future plans.

I’ve seen and heard of my share of contract gotchas. Here are some generalizations to look out for.

1. Data

So, you have a great data vendor. You use them to buy contacts and information as well as to enrich what data you’ve already got. 

When you decide to churn from the vendor, does your contract allow you to keep and use the data you’ve pulled into your CRM or other systems after the relationship ends? 

You had better check.


2. Funds

There are many reasons why you would want to give funds in advance to a vendor. Perhaps it pays for search ads or allows your representatives to send gifts to prospective and current customers. 

When you change vendors, will they return unused funds? That may not be a big deal for small sums of money. 

Further, while annoying, processing fees aren’t unheard of. But what happens when a lot of cash is left in the system? 

You had better make sure that you can get that back.

3. Service-level agreements (SLAs)

Your business is important, and your projects are a big deal. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get a prompt response to a question or action when something wrong happens. 

That’s where SLAs come in. 

It’s how your vendor tells you they will respond to questions and issues. A higher price point typically will get a client a better SLA that requires the vendor to respond and act more quickly — and more of the time to boot (i.e., 24/7 service vs. standard business hours). 

Make sure that an SLA meets your expectations. 


Further, remember that most of the time, you get what you pay for. So, if you want a better SLA, you may have to pay for it.

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4. Poaching

Clients and vendors alike are always looking for quality people to employ. Sometimes they find them on the other side of the client-vendor relationship. 

Are you OK with them poaching one of your team members? 


If not, this should be discussed and put into writing during the contract negotiation phase, a renewal, or at any time if it is that important.

 I have dealt with organizations that are against anti-poaching clauses to the point that a requirement to have one is a dealbreaker. Sometimes senior leadership or board members are adamant about an individual’s freedom to work where they please — even if one of their organization’s employees departs to work for a customer or vendor. 

5. Freebies

It is not unheard of for vendors to offer their customers freebies. Perhaps they offer a smaller line item to help justify a price increase during a renewal. 

Maybe the company is developing a new product and offers it in its nascent/immature/young stage to customers as a deal sweetener or a way to collect feedback and develop champions for it. 

Will that freemium offer carry over during the next renewal? Your account executive or customer success manager may say it will and even spell that out in an email. 

Then, time goes by. People on both sides of the relationship change or forget details. Company policies change. That said, the wording in a contract or master service agreement won’t change. 

Make sure the terms of freebies or other good deals are put into legally sound writing.

Read next: 24 questions to ask ABM vendors before signing the contract


6. Pricing factors

There are many ways vendors can price out their offerings. For instance, a data broker could charge by the contact engaged by a customer. But what exactly does that mean? 

If a customer buys a contact’s information, that makes sense as counting as one contact. 

What happens if the customer, later on, wants to enrich that contact with updated information? Does that count as a second contact credit used? 

Reasonable minds could justify the affirmative and negative to this question. So, evaluating a pricing factor or how it is measured upfront is vital to determine if that makes sense to your organization. 

Don’t let contract gotchas catch you off-guard 

The above are just a few examples of martech contract gotchas martech practitioners encounter. There is no universal way to address them. Each organization will want to address them differently. The key is to watch for them and work with your colleagues to determine what’s best in that specific situation. Just don’t get caught off-guard.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Steve Petersen is a marketing technology manager at Zuora. He spent nearly 8.5 years at Western Governors University, holding many martech related roles with the last being marketing technology manager. Prior to WGU, he worked as a strategist at the Washington, DC digital shop The Brick Factory, where he worked closely with trade associations, non-profits, major brands, and advocacy campaigns. Petersen holds a Master of Information Management from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Brigham Young University. He’s also a Certified ScrumMaster. Petersen lives in the Salt Lake City, UT area.

Petersen represents his own views, not those of his current or former employers.

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