Thought Leadership and Social Media: Don’t Believe the Hype

We’ve lived with social media for a good 10 years now. Despite the passing of a decade in which we’ve all become familiar with social media tools – figured out the ones we like, dropped the ones we don’t, and generally ceased being excited about them – the  hype shows no sign of abating.

The trend of “Social Media” as a search term on Google

That hype has not left thought leadership marketing untouched. Acccording to Google, there are over two million pages that feature both thought leadership and social media. Leafing through these pages, a popular theme emerges: How to achieve thought leadership using social media. We are instructed to:

  • Be a Resource for Media
  • Be Active on Social Media
  • Be Active on Twitter
  • Start a Blog
  • Blog With a Plan
  • Comment, comment, comment
  • Host a podcast
  • Network With Influencers
  • Participate in Google+ Hangouts
  • Use Social Media to Answer Questions, and so on, ad (nearly) infinitum, and ad (often) nauseum.

But the articles that make these recommendations are confusing channel with content. Sure, any of these activities might help you become known as a thought leader, but they are utterly worthless if you don’t have anything new or interesting to tweet, blog, podcast, network about, or comment upon  — prerequisites for thought leadership very few of these articles address.

In a piece that we published here in February, Russell Craig, Marketing Director at FTI Consulting said, “We want to showcase our people as leaders in the field, providing innovative, insightful thinking that’s expressed in our thought leadership.”  And, in order to get it to market, we use “infographics, social media, and search engine optimization – anything that can help improve the ranking of our thought leadership.”

You see? The content comes first; then, and only then, do you start thinking about the channels. Making the channel your primary concern is just . . . nonsensical.

As AlixPartners’ CMO Laura Breslaw noted in the same article, “A proliferation of publishing channels encourages greater content generation, which amplifies competition, making it increasingly difficult to stand out.” Marketing, Breslaw says, must keep the customers’ needs in mind when presenting thought leadership so that it provides them not only “high quality content, but the right user experience whether they’re coming to you through mobile, iPad, or desktop.”

So social media channels (plus SEO, website design, PowerPoint presentations, and tablets) are important ways to broadcast your message. But social media are, well, just more media. And they are worthless without good content to distribute through them.

This understanding is beginning to inform the practices of professional services companies. Research we conducted last year here, with the Association of Management Consulting Firms, showed that consulting firms have pushed the pause button on social media, spending less of their marketing budget on it than the year before (18% vs. 21%). Further, the companies that generate the most leads from their marketing spend more of their budget on content and less on social media than their less successful peers.

Even noted social media consultant Peter Shankman says here that if you have “about three seconds to get your message across to a new customer, you know what’s going to do it? Not Twitter followers. Not Facebook fans. Not Foursquare check-ins – NO. What’s going to do it is GOOD WRITING, END OF STORY.” (His caps).

So don’t believe the hype. The medium is not the message. The message is the message.


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