Thought leadership seems like the dream. It’s earned media placed in respected national publications -- a chance for the entire business-magazine-reading world to learn how successful your company is.
Well, sort of. There’s one common misconception about thought leadership we witness again and again: the idea that it is just a secret way to boast about your company in print. This is not only wrong but it hurts your chances at scoring both publication and an engaged readership. Here’s why.
Face it: you’re biased.
Obviously your company is the greatest in the world. You believe in it with all your heart, and you know what? You should.
But take a long, hard look in the mirror and see yourself from an outsider’s perspective. When you hear a stranger boasting about their accomplishments, do you think, “Huh, they probably are as amazing as they say they are?” or do you sense they’re just a little too partisan?
It’s great to believe passionately in your company, and you absolutely should stand by what you’ve created. But humans (and readers, and editors) are judgmental creatures, wary of hubris. And that judgment isn’t necessarily wrong. Scientists have speculated that overconfidence is a trait left over from the distant past that no longer serves us -- like our cravings for high-calorie food -- and it can have disastrous consequences in a modern society, leading us to events like the 2008 global market collapse (an extreme example, of course). The way to win people’s confidence is to be modest.
You’ll turn off readers (and maybe investors).
There are a lot of reasons to create thought leadership, but let’s be honest: the dream is that readers and potential investors will be so impressed by your insights and expertise they click the link in your bio to find out exactly what you’re selling. It's the perfect client-and-investor-trap -- they feel like they've discovered your company because they're really smart and perceptive, instead of being marketed at.
But an article that reads like self-promotion isn’t going to reap any of that organic click-through. Rather, it’s going to be just another tab in a potential customer’s browser that gets quickly shut down in annoyance. (Remember, some surveys estimate that as many as 82 percent of Americans ignore online ads -- and if your article feels like an ad, it may be fated to be one of that sad number.) Or worse, your potential investor starts to read and thinks, “Hmm, this company sounded interesting at first, but there’s actually not much meat here in the article because of all the boasting. Next!”
Show, don’t tell.
Great thought leadership works because it acts as a natural showcase for your industry expertise, your hard-earned experience, and all those opinions you have about what’s working in your field -- and what’s not. At the end of the day, the real expert is you, and people are interested in reading what you have to say. Seriously. Dr. Robert Cialdani, who’s spent his lifetime researching the “science of influence,” identifies “authority” as one of the six traits most likely to persuade people. In other words, your job grants you authority, and that authority grants you an audience.
That’s the “show” part. In a perfect thought leadership piece, your thoughts and opinions show off your expertise and your company’s part in it effortlessly, without you having to throw in any sentences along the lines of, “You know what a great answer to this problem is? This great company that I just happen to run.”
“Tell” is the part you want to avoid. Just like in great literature, readers want to feel as though they’ve naturally come to the conclusion on their own, borne along by the strengths of the sentence and the argument. They don’t want to be told what to think, whether that’s a novelist telling them that the main character is feeling sad right about now, or a thought leader insisting that his or her company is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Show, don’t tell. It works for both fiction and good business.
Editors can smell self-promotion a mile away.
In order to reach all those amazing future clients and investors, your article needs to get published, whether in a national magazine, a specialized industry pub, or elsewhere. And most of these publications have very strict gatekeepers: the editor. Yes, editors are hungry for compelling narratives told by experts in their field, but they have no interest in publishing an article that feels like free marketing for the author -- why would they? Their own reputations are on the line here, after all.
Even the sneakiest self-promotion can really turn an editor off. Editors, especially at big business publications, are on the lookout for certain self-glorifying strategies -- for example, they know to Google the author's company and see if their business model is the "solution" the article is promoting. They are equally allergic to name-dropping your own company in the article.
At the end of the day, self-promotion in this case just isn’t worth it. The bad news is you’ll have to save your boasting for happy hour (or dinner with your nicest relatives). The good news is that when you strip away self-promotion, you get to the really interesting part.