How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Avoid Other People’s Platforms

All marketing and communication tells stories — if not to its audiences, then certainly to its clients about its successes and failures.

The question isn’t whether you’ll tell a story to your clients (or to yourself), but what kind of story. One backed by data? One with an anecdote, but directly connected to a strategic personal or organizational outcome (such as exciting a donor)? Or a tale without evidence, full of little more than indefensible assumptions and wishful thinking?

Which brings us to other people’s platforms.

You have four types of platforms where you can publish content to reach non-experts about your research, ideas or expertise:

  1. Professional publishers (from The New York Times all the way down to local news and opinion outlets);
  2. Social media;
  3. Owned platforms (by your organization or yourself, such as your blog or website); and
  4. Other people’s platforms — the owned platforms of partners or organizations with audiences you think you want to reach.

Many researchers love publishing on other people’s platforms, and default to doing so with undisguised relief after their idea for a piece of thought leadership content gets rejected by a single professional publisher.

This practice is…”shortsighted” would be a nice way of saying it. Here’s why:

You think partner organization X will be able to get your content in front of X’s audience, which seems prestigious or desirable.

Of course, you don’t know any of this. It’s a story.

You don’t know how X will present or promote your content. You don’t know how long it will live on X’s channel, or how findable it will be.

You also don’t know who X’s audiences really are, how much they actually engage with X’s content, or how likely it will be that they’ll engage with your content. That information will be hard to come by, and you won’t know which questions to ask to get it.

In fact, your content has an excellent probability of not being seen by anyone. That’s because X is not a publisher — in the business of publishing content regularly by authors not affiliated with X and getting that content efficiently to their audiences. If they’re like most non-profits, they’re pretty bad at reaching the audience you want.

By publishing on other people’s platforms, you also cut yourself off from two of the biggest strategic values of publishing for non-specialists: 1) the brand name of the professional publisher you could have landed had you only been patient and pitched the idea around, and 2) the experience of writing for a professional publication’s editor.

Even more importantly: the story of success you can tell about publishing this content is now barely worth telling at all.

With professional publishers, while you usually aren’t allowed access to any of their data about engagement, you still have the validation of being published by a brand, pro name. That’s still important for many funders and partners. As the old saying goes: It’s not about publishing by The New York Times, it’s about being able to say you were published by The New York Times.

With social media, you have clear engagement metrics and baselines, however rudimentary, misleading and bot-driven.

With your own platforms, you should have rich analytics of engagement and conversion.

You have none of these benefits with other people’s platforms.

Other people’s platforms might be a good training ground for researchers who are just learning how to create content beyond their specialty — a kind of next step after writing for an internal blog. It depends on how good the platform’s editors are, and how committed they are to non-specialist audiences.

Most of the time, though, you’re not going to learn nearly as much about creating compelling content for non-specialists for other people’s platforms as you are in pitching and creating for professional media.

Publishing good content is hard. And it should be. Quality and ability to monetize audience are the only arguments for discrete publications to exist today. It’s why Medium sucks so much.

Takeaway: Other people’s platforms are just a lazy safety valve that remove you from a critical feedback mechanism of quality. In general, they’re a way of kidding yourself that you’re accomplishing something.

Resist the temptation: keep pushing to publish that pitch in a professional publication with an appropriate audience, or to build audiences on your owned channels through great content. If you want to deepen partnerships with other researchers or organizations, create pitches with them for externally published opinion content