How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Making Op-Eds (Slightly) Easier

It usually takes a ton of investment (time, energy, patience) to get an op-ed published, and it’s a rare researcher who isn’t frustrated by the experience. Just to get going, you must:

  • develop the idea;
  • figure out a news hook if there isn’t an obvious one;
  • figure out where you want to have it published (and can, realistically, have it published);
  • find the contact information for the opinion editor at that outlet; and
  • figure out whether they want the entire piece as a submission or just a pitch.

All before you start working on the damn thing.

Then you have to write the manuscript or pitch it. If the outlet wants a pitch, it has to be snappy. Snappy means three short paragraphs: #1 makes the case for the problem and your argument/solution; #2 outlines what your piece will say and how long it will be; #3 gives enough salient information in a third paragraph to convince the editor you’re an expert and they won’t be embarrassed publishing you. The pitch is a test to see if you can be concise. Many researchers fail it spectacularly.

If your target outlet doesn’t accept pitches, take a deep sigh of momentary relief — and then realize you have to write the piece as your submission. If the target does take pitches and accepts yours, now you have to write the piece. As you’ll find out if you don’t already know: Writing the piece doesn’t guarantee they’ll accept it or even respond to you, even if they responded to your pitch. If the editor does accept it, you’ll almost certainly have some rounds of editing (if there’s no editing, that’s a sign you’re working with a content farm). If they don’t accept it, you have to think of another outlet and start the process all over again.

That’s a lot of opportunity cost. Why not just post a Twitter thread and be done with it?

Go ahead, if your social followers constitute a more strategic network for your purposes than the outlet’s distribution network, and you can guarantee your network effects will be more amplifying than the outlet’s.

Go ahead, if self-publishing and the comments you generate aggregate into a critical mass more impressive to a funder or partner than a well-crafted argument published by a third party that funder or partner respect.

There’s a reason the bias against preprints lingers.

Here’s a set of options that might make the op-ed process more productive:

  1. Blog or thread your idea first. If you commit to at least monthly blogging of short, opportunistic opinion and analysis (see Jayson Lusk for a great example), you’re in rhythm to respond to an opinion opportunity quickly. You’re generating content, but you’re not working hard on a piece and a pitch and then feeling deflated because content you worked super hard on isn’t getting traction. You can push blog posts and threads out on social and email and use them as a basis for pitches to editors as well as to reporters. (Notice I didn’t use the word “write” in there. Do it via video if your audiences tend that way.)
  2. Go to Forbes. Yes, it’s a content farm — and that’s why Forbes authors get hundreds of thousands of views to their posts there. If you want to market an idea or ideas, it’s hard to argue against publishing there six to 12 times a year (and you will be asked by Forbes’ editors to post that frequently, although in my experience they don’t edit extensively). If you’re tired of being told “no” by op-ed pages awash in COVID content, use an outlet like Forbes to pick yourself and test your content in the marketplace.
  3. Go solo. Adding another person to your content’s byline can be strategic — it can strengthen an alliance for your organization, for instance. But it also often adds at least one additional round and layer of approval and possibly more. Opinion content is best when fresh. Adding production time subtracts your relevance.
  4. Broaden your pitch set. Expand beyond the usual suspects, especially internationally. Do research on which outlets internationally have published opinion on your topic in the last 18 months. See if they accept opinion pitches.

Also: two things on pitches.

  1. Outline the piece before drafting anything— even the pitch. Get down all your major points to see if they constitute an airtight argument — and how many words you can spend on each point. If you don’t outline first, you will pay for it in the rewrite stage. If you get that far.
  2. If the news hook isn’t red hot, blogging or threading first helps enormously. The blog/thread gives you a sandbox to create a ready-made outline of your argument. The post or thread gives you something you can take to an editor as the outline of the piece and ask: I’d like to broaden this out for your readers in 800 words — would you be interested? (And, of course, editors increasingly follow threads, so they might reach out to you.)

Finally: If you’re running an organization, you need a thought leadership stack — a set of thought leadership activities and formats that map to your different audiences, where they are in their journey of engagement and conversion with you, and where they like to consume content. If you’re just pitching op-eds and tweeting, that’s not much of a stack for gaining and converting audiences. Externally published opinion pieces are an arrow in the quiver, not the whole war.