5 Things We'd Like to See in Thought Leadership in 2015

By Bob Buday

“Progress is impossible without change,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

So with the goal of seeing change that will lead to bigger management ideas and better ways for executives to learn from them, here are five changes we’d like to see in thought leadership in 2015.


1. More realism and less hype about the path to thought leadership. 

Reading many of today’s blustery blogs on thought leadership marketing, you might get the impression that A) It’s easy to become an expert on any topic, B) It’s easy to become widely recognized for that expertise, and C) A + B = instant riches.

Well, uh, no. It’s not easy to become an expert. It’s not easy to become recognized. And as for the riches, today thought leadership is just the latest get-rich-quick scheme. My colleague Tim Parker essentially said as much in recent posts (here and here).

Even if your firm has developed substantial expertise and is good at letting the world know about it, to claim those instant riches it still must be able to deliver that expertise consistently and well. Otherwise, most of your customers will regard your Harvard Business Review article or bestselling book as so much fantasy fiction.

Focusing thought leadership solely on developing and marketing your expertise will not help you deliver it, and certainly not in scale. That requires the handiwork of people who can turn high-level concepts into rigorous methodologies, and then other professionals who can train your consultants, lawyers, accountants, programmers (or whomever generates revenue for your firm) on how to master them.  

Way too many professional firms spend way too little on the supply side of thought leadership. Without creating robust supply, creating robust demand is only a temporary victory. I’ve written about this in the past, including this article four years ago.


2. Publishers no longer regarding online as the electronic version of print.

In March 2014, a group of digitally savvy New York Times staffers issued a report to the powers that be at the 163-year-old institution, urging them to abandon their print-bound ways. (Several publications, such as BuzzFeed, leaked the document, here.)  One of the group’s complaints concerned management keeping a lid on op-ed submissions. “We receive dozens of Op-Ed submissions every day from top thinkers and leaders, and we publish only a fraction of them. Some of this is quality control. But in many cases, we are simply following the constraints of print.”

This is somewhat astonishing. Given how starved of advertising and paid readership publications are in an online world, we’re surprised that The New York Times and many more haven’t followed the lead of Forbes, Harvard Business Review and other publications in opening up their online commentary pages more broadly to outside contributors. Building a stable of the smartest people in your domain, then actively marketing their articles through social media, is bound to increase your online traffic, as it has done at Forbes.com (where more than 1,400 outsider contributors have helped triple its monthly visitors since 2010 to 33 million).

If you’re a marketing trade publication, wouldn’t you want Seth Godin’s marketing wisdom on your site? (Godin, the author of 18 bestselling books, says he has more than 400,000 readers of his own blog, here.) If you can convince the Godins of your domain to write for you, you rarely have to pay them. Writing a column in your publication is how they market their expertise. (You just need to make sure their posts aren’t simply promotions for their services.) We were asked to write about this topic early in 2014 in a newsletter read by magazine industry types called MIN. You can read that article here. Publishers are missing a good opportunity by continuing to keep online opinion space to a minimum.

We’re not talking about making more room for so-called native advertising, although we’re not against that. It too may have a place in your online pages -- as long as you clearly mark it as such and don’t deceive readers into thinking your editorial space can be purchased. (See Wish No. 4.)

What we are saying is that it’s a good idea to work to attract the best minds in your industry to your online pages, and then give them support (such as editing help). As The New York Times’ internal critics wrote in their report: “Imagine if the Arts section had daily Op-Eds from leading figures in dance, theater, movies, and architecture . . .  Or if the Science section became the leading arena for ideas from scientists and philosophers.”

Wouldn’t it be good if business publications could do the same in their niche?


3. Easier-to-find expert columns in business media sites (e.g., on Bloomberg Businessweek, WSJ, Fortune, etc.).

Imagine walking into a top restaurant, not finding on the menu an entrée a friend recommended and having the waiter explain that getting it requires you to go into the kitchen and ask the chef to make it. Beyond dumb, of course. But many business publications offer up an equivalent online experience to people trying to find the thought leaders who write for their pages.

These online publications hide their gurus in the kitchen.

I dare you to find the external experts who write online columns for top-tier business media publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Fortune. Can you get to business analytics guru Tom Davenport’s regular column in WSJ.com quickly and easily? Here’s a tip: At the horizontal menu, click on “Tech,” then click on “CIO Journal,” then scroll far down and see “Guest Voices” in the middle column, and then click on the headline “The Confusing Landscape of Cognitive Computing.” How silly of us! Of course we should have looked for Tom’s column there!

Fortune does no better. It, too, hides its experts’ columns in the kitchen. Try finding them on the site, here. Give up? (Hint: Look for the words “Fortune Insider Network” on the pulldown menu.) And Fortune has several good contributors, although not nearly enough.

The same is true for Bloomberg Businessweek. Go to that site here, and find the thought leaders. Getting frustrated? They’re in the “Companies & Industries” tab, and then under “Sections” at the bottom in “Blog: The Management Blog.” But you knew that, right? You didn’t? When you find this section, you’ll see several outside experts including Northwestern University marketing professor Alexander Chernov and Hal Sirkin of the Boston Consulting Group.  Still haven’t found them? Here’s a shortcut.

Many industry publications are no different. Marketing industry leader Advertising Age forces you to scroll more than halfway down a long home page before you find its “Opinion” section – and even then, only a handful of columns appear (showing no authors’ names). Click on “More Opinion Articles” (which is in a very small font), and you finally see a wealth of outsider contributors.

To be sure, some viewers find such opinion writers through search engines. Others have them brought to their inboxes through Google Alerts. But viewers should be able to easily find these writers’ names – or at least the department in which they reside -- on the home page menu.

Why do so many publications hide their outside experts? Perhaps editors are afraid these experts might make their own staffers appear less impressive. And why pay for on-staff expertise when you can get bigger names to opine for free? But that would be publishing suicide. Industry publications, especially, must cover the news of the industry. That’s their reason for being, and outside experts can’t and won’t do that.  

Some of the most highly read articles on magazine and newspaper websites today are by columnists, on and off staff. As The Times’ digital staff urged, the top brass of the paper should be trying to create many more expert columnists throughout its sections.

And so should every other online business publication. Then, they should make them easy to find.


4. More emphasis on earned editorial rather than native advertising (and better native advertising).

“Native advertising,” “branded content,” “online advertorials" – they’re all the same thing: A firm pays to have an article resemble editorial content. The practice has gone on for decades – long before the Web. In fact, the word advertorial goes back nearly 70 years, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. But now it’s hotter than ever. In 2013, nearly three-quarters of U.S. online publishers provided native advertising, according to Digital Content Next (formerly the Online Publishers Association). 

As mentioned before, we’re not against it. But we do believe that it’s not as valuable as earned editorial – editorial that appears because it deserves to, not because it’s been paid for.  A publication with too high a percentage of native advertising, or advertorial, eventually will lose credibility and thus readers. Strong editorial standards win over high-quality readers, and high-quality readers win advertisers.

Even a majority (although slight) of more than 2,000 marketers are skeptical of the value of native advertising, according this 2014 Copyblogger survey of marketers, here. Readers, too, are largely distrustful. A June 2014 survey by Chartbeat (here) of 542 U.S. Internet users found 54% didn’t trust sponsored content.

To us, that means B2B firms that do rely on native advertising have to try harder – much harder – to get readers to put stock in their content. How? Here are three ways:

  • Let customers tell their stories, using real case studies. I’d much rather hear from an SAP or Salesforce.com customer about how the software helped its business than be told by the vendors. Smart readers are sensitized to the sound of a sales pitch, no matter how well disguised.
  • Use interactive tools that let online readers customize research results so they can see how the findings apply to their industry, comparably sized companies, and so on. Many publications don’t have the money to invest in such graphics. But the people paying for the advertising do, and they should spend it on ways to tell their stories that are beyond the reach of most editorial budgets.
  • Create videos to illustrate the case studies of the type mentioned above – customers talking about how some consulting process, legal advice, software product or other B2B offering improved their business.

Ideally, an aspiring thought leader’s content should be strong enough to run as guest blogs or commentaries. Native advertising needs to work much harder to gain credibility.


5. No more definitions of thought leadership.

Those of us who have been in thought leadership marketing even before there was a term for it are amused by the numerous Johnny-Come-Latelies trying to stake their territories as if they’ve discovered uncharted land. The first device they use is defining thought leadership.

Pul-eeze. Here’s a list of definitions someone compiled in 2012. No doubt, more have emerged since.

I believe our own definition of thought leadership will stand the test of time: “The eminence an individual or organization achieves by developing, delivering and marketing superior expertise that solves a significant problem.”

So let’s stop defining what thought leadership is and is not (which provides no value), and start developing, delivering and marketing more of it (which may).

With progress on those five fronts, thought leaders, aspiring thought leaders and their marketers are likely to have a happier, more productive and satisfying time in the New Year.

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