The Truth About Thought Leadership
Aristotle said art imitates life. Oscar Wilde said the opposite is true.
Aristotle has thousands of years of clout backing his argument. Oscar has modern insight on his side. They both debate the nitty-gritty philosophical details around how fact influences fiction—and vice versa.
It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong because these are opinions. The point is, both figures published persuasive ideas. Their thinking sparked dialogue among their peers for generations, touching people they never would have dreamed of with their fresh takes. Aristotle and Oscar might be considered thought leaders, even though they made two opposing claims.
Here’s the thing about thought leadership: It hasn’t changed much since the days of Aristotle and Oscar. Today, we’re flooded with news, data, fact and fiction. Audiences don’t have the time or know-how to sift through it all, much less distill it down. We need experts to do that for us.
So today’s readers often seek to be informed by people they trust: journalists, thought leaders and content creators. And while these writers serve different functions, sometimes lines get blurred by readers and writers alike.
And that’s understandable—each style of writing does share significant similarities. As consumers, we read what’s been written, we talk about it and maybe even change how we behave. In this way, our life imitates their art.
So let’s unpack what that means in the thought-leadership space, which can often toe the lines of true journalism and content marketing.
What thought leadership IS:
In modern marketing terms, true thought leadership should speak to an audience that’s already somewhat educated in and familiar with their industry. It leverages the quality of the author’s thinking to start a dialogue with its readership. If an article attempts to educate its audience in a top-down manner, it falls more into the realm of content marketing and should be treated as such.
While intellectual, good thought leadership is also creative. Each piece can carry a unique tone and voice depending on its author. But more importantly, it should bring an original perspective to the table that cuts through the white noise of other educational articles: a groundbreaking insight, prediction or suggestion, for example.
At the end of the day, thought leadership is subjective, as much as it may try not to be. Sure, the best insights are grounded in research, referencing facts and data to state a case. But to be an original and exciting piece of thought leadership, a column should also present a unique perspective to consider.
What it is NOT:
This means thought leadership is not journalism. Make no mistake: Thought leadership is a promotional device. Each person’s perspective is based on what they’ve seen and would like to see. Two thought leaders could draw opposite insights from the same subject if they have different educations, experiences and motivations. In a perfect world, true journalism will report unbiased facts from which a thought leader can glean insights and inspiration.
Thought leadership is also not exactly content marketing. While both are intended to influence readership, content marketing is typically educational, speaking only to the intended consumer and informing them on best practices of the moment. Content marketing is lower in the sales funnel, usually living on-site within a brand’s website or blog. It often features a more immediate CTA to facilitate a shorter sales process.
In contrast, thought leadership is more nuanced in its persuasion because it contributes something to an industry, whether that’s progress or simply discourse—and it often influences people the author isn’t directly trying to sell to. A piece might live in an off-site publication, placed by the thought leader themselves or by a PR professional, but keep in mind that earned media placement carries more weight and third-party credibility, which creates a halo effect for the thought leader’s other marketing tactics. Thought leadership makes a first impression on many people—traveling through the grapevine and establishing credibility at the top of the sales funnel, particularly for high-ticket products or services whose sales processes are more drawn out over time.
Finally, thought leadership is not prescriptive. Let’s say you’re doing industry research and some other author claims to be an expert in their field. While it may appear to be true, it’s important to read their insights through a critical and holistic lens. Try to identify which category a piece falls into and decide for yourself whether the information has educational or insightful value. It also helps to read other perspectives from experts within the same field on the same topic so you can compare the quality of their thinking. It’s our ability to critique and draw logical conclusions that makes the consumer—and writer—so powerful.
There’s a time and place for thought leadership, and it’s in increasingly high demand. Before consumers seek out educational content, they often want and need a bridge between a laundry list of facts and their implications on real life. That’s where thought leadership can build credibility for brands as the first touchpoint between businesses. At DS+CO, our marketing specialists can help you begin that relationship of trust by sharing your insights with the world—even if you’re not a seasoned writer. Tell us what inspires you, and together we’ll create artful thought leadership that others will want to imitate. After all, don’t they say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?