This blog started as a homework assignment for our team: In exchange for shutting down over the holiday break and giving some extra PTO days to everyone, we asked the team to write “thought leadership” articles that we could use to help promote our people and thus our agency, as we find this to be some of the best marketing fodder we can muster. We figured it was a win-win, as it ‘forces’ people to do something they generally know they should be doing anyway while providing marketing material that helps justify the cost to shut down the shop and give away the extra time off. The natural collective next question from the team, “Sounds great, but what do you mean by a ‘thought leadership’ article?
It’s a fair question.
I don’t want book reports.
One of my directives was that this article should not be a ‘book report.’ By that, I mean that this should not be some high level summary of something lots of people have already written or weighed in on. Though leadership is about having your own ideas, perspectives, insights, opinions, or otherwise taking some sort of stand and declaring your ideas and opinions about something. If everyone already agrees with your thoughts, it’s not really thought leadership. You’re really just jumping on a bandwagon at that point. And unless you have thousands of followers online, chances are, no one really cares.
Leadership in and of itself usually involves a degree of friction. In the purest sense of the word, you’re showing/mentoring/guiding/helping others do something they don’t already know how to do—or maybe getting an otherwise divergent group going in the same direction. Whatever it is you’re doing, you’re sticking your head out in some capacity and going against the grain. That’s friction. ‘Thought leadership’ is just the mental version of that. It’s about having an idea/insight/opinion/philosophy/strategy that goes against the grain or offers a unique take on something before everyone else piles on. If you’re just agreeing with others or regurgitating what they said, that’s not really thought leadership. If there is no friction—no counter point that someone else might take to your view—then it’s probably not true thought leadership.
Thought leadership demonstrates your expertise
Experts tend to be thought leaders. They have the experience and knowledge to understand lots of perspectives—more so than most people. And they have the confidence and conviction to stand by their position, even in the presence dissent or opposition. That’s what makes them leaders. Taoti hires experts because our clients hire us because of our experts. So it’s pretty common business sense that having experts on the team is good for business. And what better way to promote ourselves than to promote our experts and show the world just how good they are? The more expert they’re viewed as, the better our agency is as perceived as a whole. Hence the homework assignment of having our people write thought leadership articles that we can post and promote. But for it to work, these articles need to be legit thought leadership and not just an overview of something, a puff piece that agrees with easy-to-agree-with topics, or another version of something that lots of other people have written about. Thought leadership pieces should take a stand and face their friction head on!
Friction as the ‘hook.’
Let’s talk marketability. With any blog or online content, getting people to spend what little precious time they have to read your stuff is key. And for that, the title is everything. The title should take a stand or put forth the friction that the article will go on to defend and explain. For example:
- Boring: “The difference between WordPress and Drupal.” This article has been written a million times. Yawn.
- Better: “Why non-profits should choose WordPress over Drupal.” Now you’ve taken a stand. If you’re a non-profit comms director considering a new website, I probably have your attention. Though you may be (rightfully) skeptical that it’s that simple and that it’s such a clear choice. (Your skepticism is what will lure you into reading the piece.)*
- Better yet: “Why member-based non-profits would benefit from WordPress over Drupal.” Now you’ve added a qualifier that speaks to your audience. Non everyone would agree with this statement of course, but that’s your friction. Presumably you’ll make your case in the article.
- Best: “Why you’d be an idiot to build your member-based website in Drupal!” You’ve just taken it to another level and added provocation and some irreverence to your head line that is just begging people to want to see what you have to say. Of course, taking a stance will alienated or offend some readers (though they’ll likely still read your piece just to see how you could be so wrong.) If you don’t want to take a specific stance but still want a good hook, maybe use something like, “How to screw up your website by picking the wrong CMS.” Again, anyone in the market for a CMS will likely at least want to take a look at your article.
*I’m not suggesting for a moment that WordPress is better than Drupal (or vice versa.) It’s apples and oranges, and the right choice is the result of a lot of considerations. Just trying to make a point about headlines here.
There is of course no single ‘right way’ to write a thought leadership piece. And you could throw all sorts of valid exceptions against my points above. The bottom line is that to be a thought leader, you need to have your own, original ideas—even if they cut against the grain—and the conviction to stand by them while trying to convince others to see things your way. Original content with unique perspectives and ideas will always trump summaries of other peoples’ thoughts.
Back to the homework assignment for Taotians: team, it doesn’t matter what you write about. Just try to write something original, compelling, and interesting. Have an opinion. Take a stance. Show off your expertise and try to convince others of your point of view. And have some fun with it!
PS: I didn’t get into all the other benefits of writing thought leadership pieces: like the fact that penning these sorts of articles stretches your mind, helps you formulate your own thoughts, makes you look good to your company, builds your personal brand, and overall increases your stock. Homework assignment aside, you should make a habit of penning thought leadership articles. It’s some of the best professional development you can do!