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Zen and the Art of Thought Leadership

Everyone knows why professional services firms and B2B organizations put time, money, and effort into producing and publishing thought leadership content. Thought leadership works. It attracts business, leads to sales, and brings in revenue. According to a 2015 Bloom Group and Rattleback survey of consulting firm executives and their clients, 96% said thought leadership was a “significant” factor in choosing a consulting firm.

There is, as always, a caveat. The content has to be good. While 93% of clients in the survey said good thought leadership raised their opinion of a firm, 94% said poor content lowered it.

No one wants that.

Good thought leadership content is defined in a July 2016 report by The Economist Group as “information, analysis, and insight that helps its audience understand its world and plan for the future.” According to the Economist Group’s survey of 1600 producers and executive consumers of thought leadership, bad content is “superficial,” “sales driven,” and “biased.”

The paradox is that (as noted) all thought leadership is sales driven. If it doesn’t generate sales one way or another, why do it?

The way to resolve this contradiction is through Kyudo, “the way of the bow.”

Kyudo is the Japanese practice of archery as a form of Zen meditation. Kyudo masters (by all accounts) are astoundingly accurate. But, as explained in the book Zen and the Art of Archery, which introduced Western readers to Kyudo, accuracy is not the point. In fact, even aiming at the target is a mistake: “The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed."

Actually, it's more than a mistake: “Thinking about hitting the target is heresy. Do not aim at it.”

Okay. Maybe that’s a little too high falutin’ and esoteric for you. We’re talking about content marketing here, not Zen Buddhism. So how about Field & Stream. What could be more down-to-earth and all-American than Field & Stream?

According to archery coach Terry Wunderle, who won one world and four national archery championships, "Aiming is way overrated.

Just as hitting the target (according to Wunderle and his Zen counterparts) is best accomplished not by focusing on the bullseye but by executing the shot correctly (Kyudo masters talk about keeping the head clear, being one with the bow and string, controlling the breath), thought leadership content is best when it focuses on providing new information, illuminated by unbiased analysis, and helps “its audience understand the world and plan for the future.” That doesn’t mean (as my colleague Tim Parker has written) pushing some proprietary methodology. It doesn’t mean bragging about your preeminence in your field (as my colleague Laurianne McLaughlin has written), or, as my colleague Bob Buday noted, rushing to churn out article after blog after tweet to saturate and dominate your market. (In fact, 60% of the respondents to the Economist Group’s survey said they felt “overwhelmed or confused by the sheer amount of content they encountered,” causing them to be “increasingly selective” about what they spent their time on.)

This all means focusing less on selling your firm’s products or services (the target), and spending more time doing the work to produce thought leadership worthy of the name.

If you do that, grasshopper, you’ll hit your target, and the clients, sales, and revenue will follow.