Why Thought Leadership is Nearing its End

Right now, the roar surrounding thought leadership is deafening. Here’s some of what’s making my ears hurt.

I receive a Google Alert for every article published that mentions thought leadership. (I set up the alert because I’m in TL the game and it behooves me to track what’s going on.)  My alerts have gone from one per day in October 2013 (28 for the month) to three per day in October 2014 (90 for the month). There have been more than a dozen articles about thought leadership on Forbes.com in the last month. PR firms now all claim to do it. My random survey of 10 of the 100 largest PR firms found that every one of them says they can produce TL content for their clients. And Google Trends shows a relentless increase in the popularity of “thought leadership” as a search term.

Me, I think that as far as thought leadership is concerned, we’ve reached what our friends at Gartner call the “peak of inflated expectations,” and are headed rapidly toward the “trough of disillusionment.”


Gartner’s Hype Cycle

And I think we’re going to hit the bottom of the trough very quickly. Why?  Three reasons:

  1. Most companies don’t need it
  2. Most pundits aren’t doing it
  3. It won’t work and people soon will tire of it

First, let’s just establish what thought leadership content is; it is material that positions a firm or a person as a prominent expert in a given field. Well . . .

1. Most companies don’t need it.

This is a topic that I will elaborate upon in another post, but, in brief, the only companies that actually need TL (rather than just content) are B2B firms that offer a purely advisory service, or a substantial advisory service in conjunction with a complex product or service offering. No one else needs TL. For example, if you produce corporate videos, your clients don’t need to know (nor do they care) how much you know about cutting edge video production, the theory of video communication, or best practices for producing corporate videos. All they care about is how good your videos are, and they will want to see them, not read about them. For such a company to produce thought leadership content about what they do is a waste of their time and money.

Many companies need more content than ever before to be found when buyers search for services online, but that content needn’t be thought leadership.

2. Most pundits aren’t doing it

If I follow the trail from one of those recent Forbes articles back to the PR firm its author works for, I find that there’s no TL content there, and little on the sites of the clients it mentions – most of which (not coincidentally) don’t fall into the category of firms that would benefit from it anyway. This PR firm rebranded itself from a digital marketing agency to a thought leadership agency last year (as evidenced by the history of its sites on the internet way-back machine), but it’s not really doing anything differently.

In fact, following the trails of many of the last week’s TL Google Alerts back to their original sources, it’s clear that TL is a term that’s applied liberally now to a lot of things people have been producing for a long time: conference content, research reports, technical product data and so on. Some of this might be thought leadership, but it clearly doesn’t have to be in order to be called that. Everything is TL today, whether it is or not.  

3. It won’t work and people soon will tire of hearing about it

To recap: People are producing TL who won’t benefit from it because it doesn’t compliment their offerings. Marketing agencies are rebadging what they’ve always done as TL, so that’s fairly meaningless. Both of these trends will lead many companies to conclude that the TL initiatives they are spending time and money on aren’t making a difference.

After that, three things will happen:

  1. The companies that don’t need TL will go back to doing what they did before, perhaps with more content, but without the TL spin.
  2. TL marketing advisors, consultants and agencies will quietly drop the TL from their titles and marketing copy. TL experts will disappear as fast as social media consultants have over the past few years. These TL experts will rebrand themselves again as omni-channel integration advisors, employee advocate experts, or whatever else is hot, new, and next.
  3. TL will get a bad name, at least among those for whom it didn’t work. In fact, that’s already happening. Here are quotes from a couple of articles that my Google Alert dredged up this week:
  • “Thought leadership is one of those buzzwords that have almost worn out their welcome.” This author advocates relying on the PR we know and love with just a little TL spin.
  • “‘Becoming a thought leader in your field.’ This idea is poison.” This one recommends returning to cold calling.

The trough of disillusionment is fast approaching. Once we’re there, those of us who were doing TL before it became omnipresent and de rigueur will be left to ply our not-so-easy craft in peace, working with those companies (as Gartner would put it) already on the “plateau of productivity” and welcoming the few enlightened newcomers that make it through to the “slope of enlightenment.”

That’s a day I look forward to.


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