10 Biggest Thought Leadership Blunders

Anyone who invests in thought leadership wants a good return on their investment, whether in leads generated, engagements closed or reputation enhanced. But there are many ways companies can make sure they don’t get a good payback. Here are the 10 worst ones we commonly see, from strategic misjudgments about portfolios to tactical ones such as how to write copy.

  1. Carpet bomb the landscape:  Produce shallow collateral on every topic. That might show breadth, but clients almost always buy services from companies that have depth in the area they are worrying about. So by the time they are ready to buy, they will already be talking with a competitor who has deep expertise on the topic you have a three-page white paper for.
  2. Keep it academic: Produce thought leadership on a topic for which the firm neither has nor plans to provide services. Thought leadership is a waste of money without an attendant delivery capability. And if it’s good, it will likely create business for someone else.
  3. Don’t say anything new: Busy executives haven’t time to read stuff they know already. As one told us recently, “Material that doesn’t tell me anything new isn’t neutral, it actually hurts you. Because it positions you as a me-too.”
  4. One and done: Articulate a point of view on a topic and consider it covered for the next few years. But today’s thought leadership is next year’s common knowledge and if you don’t stay ahead, you will also pretty quickly look like a me-too.
  5. Rely on advertising and PR: Successful promotion of thought leadership is quite different from that for a product or service. There are roles for advertising and PR, but they have to complement something more important; putting great content in places executives will find it and can easily share it with their friends and colleagues.
  6. Hide thought leadership behind a firewall: Companies do this of course so that they can track who downloads it, often so that they can follow up with sales calls. This guarantees a drop in readership of at least 90%. And irritates at least 90% of the people who get the calls.
  7. Describe a problem without a solution: E.g., “Digital business will disrupt your industry.” An executive with budget authority knows about the problem already. If you’re not telling him how to fix it, you aren’t any help.
  8. Omit examples and data: As a senior editor at CFO magazine once said to me, “Without real examples, it’s all just hot air.” And examples are much more powerful if they are original. Citing Apple or Amazon as paragons of excellence will make people’s eyes glaze over.
  9. Write in a convoluted, academic, and/or hyperbolic style: Managers are interested in quickly understanding an issue and how to address it. If your point of view is incomprehensible or even just hard going, they will abandon it.
  10. Commit #9 to obscure #3: A tactic that’s as transparent as it is annoying, and bound to attract the derision of anyone with serious buying power.

All of these are avoidable. Many of them involve hard work to avert, but if you want a thought leadership program that resonates in the marketplace, this is a list worth checking your current efforts against.

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