How researchers get heard

Eight Myths of Thought Leadership

There are more than eight, of course. But these are the ones I encounter most often:

Thought leadership is about getting your audiences to think differently. It’s much more about getting you in the habit of thinking differently — about the intersection of your expertise and the world, what your arguments and POV really are, whether they hold water, how you’ll revise them in response to criticism and how you are going to listen as deeply to your audiences as you want them to listen to you. The habit of producing thought leadership content benefits you in all these ways — benefits that, not coincidentally, make people much more likely to trust your expertise.

Thought leadership should be pegged to your research and designed to promote it. Ugh. If it’s any good, it’s “pegged” to a) a beneficial future state you see and b) how the solutions, insights and paradigms from your expertise will help people get to that future state as fast as possible. If your new research supports that pathway, fantastic. Otherwise: Are you really holding your expertise back from the rest of us until you have a new paper?

OK, then thought leadership should be pegged to a big event. That’s everyone else’s promotion strategy. If your thought leadership is well ahead of the market — as it should be — you need at least a year to build a constituency for it. Stop trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

Thought leadership is about reaching new audiences and building your network. Sure, sometimes it works that way. But if it does nothing else, your thought leadership should solidifying and thickening your current network around your applied expertise. Your first task: Create content that galvanizes those already in your tent to share that content with others outside. Thought leadership content makes your network stronger. A strong network is a durable superpower.

Thought leadership success is about landing that one big piece. That’s just overclass envy and survivorship bias. Thought leadership is much more about a steady drip over years, building incrementally into recognition, access, conversations and trust. Thought leadership makes content a good habit.

Well, but thought leadership content is all about where it appears and who sees or hears it there. No, it’s much more about whether it’s seen or heard at all by the people who will, as Seth Godin says, go tell the others. A piece of thought leadership sent to an attentive email list of 1,000 or 5,000 committed LinkedIn followers can be much more valuable to reaching your goals than an essay (almost wrote “op-ed”) in The New York Times. It depends.

In an era of declining news media, thought leadership is over. The decline of news media is an opportunity for thought leadership, not a threat. Thought leadership continues to grow — in audio chat, Twitter, LinkedIn, IG, YouTube and especially (of course) email. Thought leadership is emerging into a new golden age of owned channels and conversation with sophisticated audiences, shedding its reliance on earned placement. To make the transition, researchers and research-based organizations will need to create new mechanisms for fostering and incubating movement content. They’ll also need to accept that they’re creating memes for sharing as much as they’re creating arguments to repeat.

It’s hard to measure thought leadership’s contribution to business goals. Actually, it’s easy. As one of my clients puts it: “I can walk into any important room now and there’s someone who says spontaneously: I can’t wait for your new content! Everyone here should be on your list.” If you’re hitting that metric, you’re winning, no matter what the numbers say.