Can Thought Leadership Get Too Far Ahead of the Curve?

Is Bitcoin, the proprietary digital currency now accepted by eBay, Overstock.com, Wordpress, and other digital businesses (as well as by money launderers the world over) a good subject for a thought leadership article?

One might think so.

Type “Bitcoin” into Google and you get 41 million hits lickety-split. Enter “Bitcoin value” and you get 62.4 million. (This may tell you something about what people are really interested in.)

And Bitcoin is certainly controversial, a fine place for thought leadership to begin. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon thinks Bitcoins are a “terrible store of value,” while Marc Andreesen’s venture capital firm has just invested $50 million in Bitcoin-related start-ups. VC Ben Horowitz and Reuters blogger Felix Salmon have made a very public bet over Bitcoin’s future. (Horowitz thinks it’s hot; Salmon is less sanguine.) Meanwhile, a 2012 report by the European Central Bank reveals its attitude in the study’s title: “Virtual Currency Schemes.”

Buzz, controversy, a trend already affecting some businesses and likely to affect more – wouldn’t thought leadership on this issue compel attention? Might it not be wise to get in on the ground floor right now?

Maybe. But maybe not.

Newsworthiness does not an audience guarantee. And exploring a topic is only useful (another hallmark of good thought leadership) if the insights brought to the table can be consumed. 

I learned this the hard way, back when the Big Dig was being dug and I was editor of Boston Magazine.

The Big Dig (more formally the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project) was supposed to replace Boston’s clogged Central Artery (opened in 1959 to accommodate 75,000 cars a day) with a road that could handle the 190,000 cars projected to need it by 2000. Ground was broken in 1991. It was the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, budgeted in 1982 at $2.6 billion, targeted for completion in 1998. (It welcomed its first car in 2007 and the Boston Globe reported in 2012 that its final cost was over $24 billion.)

In 1987 Boston Magazine ran a cover story saying that whenever the new Central Artery opened (and it was obvious even then that it wasn’t going to be 1998), it would arrive obsolete (just as bad a parking lot as the old road), unable to handle 1987’s traffic load, let alone 1998’s and beyond.

I thought it was a great story. It addressed a fact of Boston life everybody was going to have to deal with. And it made a pretty powerful prediction (that proved accurate), based on the analysis of prominent traffic engineers and experts.

And yet, with all that going for it, the issue died on the newsstand. Nobody cared.

Why? Perhaps because the Big Dig had many more years to go (about 20, as it turned out), the first shovelful of dirt had not yet been excavated, and readers simply weren’t thinking about it. The fact that it wouldn’t serve its intended purpose was not useful information. 

The story was solid; it was just too early, too far ahead of the curve. If it had appeared when the lawsuits began to hit the courts, and people began to go to jail, perhaps the issue would have sold a lot better. Perhaps it would have provided ammunition for peoples’ growing outrage as they sat suffering in traffic.

Today, lots of people think Bitcoin is a harbinger of an inevitable move toward a native digital currency. But today the Bitcoin, like gold, is more commodity than currency. And even if it becomes more like currency, what is business to do with that information now? How would a business prepare itself today for a Bitcoin tomorrow? What advantage would investments in an infrastructure capable of processing Bitcoin transactions confer, even if one knew how a Bitcoin financial ecosystem would function or be regulated? Where’s the ROI?

It’s important for thought leadership content directors and editors to ask not simply if a proposed article is addressing something new; they also have to ask if it will be useful.

Right now, if I were pitched a Bitcoin or digital currency article, I’d say, “Too soon.”

I could be wrong. I was wrong in 1987. But knowing to ask the question is as just as (if not more) important than knowing the answer.

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