How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Is the Best Piece of Thought Leadership I’ve Seen This Year Actually Any Good?

​The piece: Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond’s “The $15 Minimum Wage Doesn’t Just Improve Lives. It Saves Them” in The New York Times Magazine last week.

It’s “the best” for these reasons:

  • It concentrates on one argument and hits it out of the park. Boosting income to a $15 minimum wage, Desmond says, has comprehensive and profound benefits for the lives of workers and their families. As Desmond puts it memorably: “A living wage is a antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect.”
  • The argument is evidence-driven, not rhetorical. Desmond links to nine separate peer-reviewed studies covering a range of those benefits — from decreases in low birth-weight babies and smoking rates to increases in executive function and exercise for those receiving the wage boosts.
  • But the rhetoric is tremendous. The writing is clean, driving, relentless.
  • Desmond also illustrates his case with two convincing, reported stories. The first, of a man working himself to exhaustion, 80 hours a week, who benefits from a hike in the minimum wage. The second, a food service worker who similarly benefits from an hourly wage increase — until she was told the raise was an accounting error and her employer reclaimed the overage, sending her into a downward spiral of health issues and a return to bad habits.
  • Desmond already has authority on the topic of work and poverty. He won a MacArthur Award at age 35 and is arguably the foremost authority on the intersection of housing policy, race and poverty in the United States. He did this not primarily through peer-reviewed publications but through his writing for The New Yorker and his books Evicted and The Racial Order .
  • The piece is published in a prestige outlet. The New York Times Magazine, still a Sunday reading tradition for many in the U.S. policymaking, philanthropic and decision making audiences.

“The $15 Minimum Wage” tips the debate and solidifies Desmond as a central thought leader on the issue.

You would think.

“You would think” because: We still don’t know if the piece is any good.

By which I mean: Effective. Impactful for the purposes Desmond intends. (Presumably, to crystallize the argument and generate a groundswell of support for a universal $15 minimum wage.)

Those KPIs may never be written, especially since Desmond is an academic, not part of a research-driven organization that will track sentiment, audience acquisition or brand-lift metrics off the piece.

That’s not an argument for not writing the piece. I hope that’s obvious.

But its increasingly uncommon that a single piece of thought leadership can flip a debate or catalyze a movement. Or boost any of the above KPIs.

Talk to any marketer or communicator who looks at their owned channel numbers a week after a big press hit.

In an era when there is no shared culture, the dynamic of our time isn’t flash.

It’s drip.

It’s repetition, campaigns, long-tail, attacking-from-every-angle, marketing thinking.

Not one-off thinking. That’s thinking like a communicator or a journalist.

If funders are pressing your research-driven organization for impact metrics, turning out a great thought leadership piece such as “The $15 Minimum Wage” is just the first step.

There is an undeniable high in being published in The Times.

A year later, it still makes for a great line in an annual report. And a lot of questions about what came next.