Three strikes against “thought leadership”

Whenever I hear, “We want this white paper to develop some thought leadership,” I cringe.

As a marketing executive, I’ve sponsored white papers that helped sell millions of dollars worth of software.

As an independent copywriter, I’ve worked on more white papers than just about anybody.

And believe me, “thought leadership” is NOT a worthy goal for your next white paper.

Here are three good reasons why.

Umpire calling two strikes against thought leadership for white papers

Strike 1: You can’t measure thought leadership

What is it, exactly? How do you get it? And how can you tell whether your white paper helped you get more of it?

In the old days, marketers were measured by how good the company logo looked, or how cool the TV ads were. It was all subjective and image-driven.

Today, it’s a numbers game. Marketers are held to account for the ROI on every campaign.

White papers are no different. Nor should they be.

Most marketers need to account for the number of leads generated, the number of prospects nurtured or the total value of sales booked with the help of a white paper.

Often they even count the number of times their content was commented on, linked to, re-Tweeted or Liked.

But how do you account for “thought leadership”?

The truth is, you can’t. You can’t tell how much you’ve got, or if any campaign helped you get more.

“Thought leadership” is entirely subjective, anecdotal and unmeasurable… like smoke blowing in the wind.

Strike 2: You can’t declare yourself a leader

After all, what is a leader?

To me, that’s the CEO of a company, the head of state for a nation, or the most successful, most respected, most innovative company in its market.

Leaders aren’t shy and retiring; they’re out there leading parades, giving speeches and kissing babies.

If your company is already a leader in your industry, everybody knows it.

If not, you can’t just hire a writer to create a white paper and “develop some thought leadership.” It’s just not going to happen.

Strike 3: It’s all about the vendor, not the buyer

The worst thing about thought leadership is that it takes a totally back-asswards perspective.

It’s all about a claim being made by a vendor. It smacks of chest-beating, also known as “we-we-ism.”

(In fact, you can calculate the we-we factor on any webpage with this handy calculator from the e-commerce consulting firm Future Now.)

When you’re talking about yourself—and making claims about how great you are—you’re not providing anything useful, helpful or valuable to a prospect.

And that’s the third strike against “thought leadership.” It’s an old-fashioned idea dressed up in a modern buzzword. It’s not about creating any value for the customer.

Chase something better than “thought leadership”

These three strikes against “thought leadership” show what a contrived and empty notion it really is. It may sound important, but it’s actually very flimsy.

Don’t fall for the myth of “thought leadership.”

Don’t use it as a goal for any white paper, ever.

Instead, I urge you to pick something more useful and more achievable.

Whatever happened to positioning your firm as a trusted advisor? Or even an “expert in your field”?

How about providing useful information that will help a prospect understand an issue, solve a problem or make a decision?

If you do all that, your “thought leadership” will take care of itself… and so will your measurable results.

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