The Right and Wrong Way to Write Useful Thought Leadership Content
People don't want to read about how great you are, they want to read about how they can become great.
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For six months last year, I ran a thought leadership column for Mashable.
Called DBA, short for "Doing Business As," the series featured non-paid, contributed pieces from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that were pitched to me by PR agencies and, in some cases, ghostwritten by them as well.
The aim of the series was for authors to honestly discuss business challenges they'd faced and offer actionable insights, which our readers would find useful for launching, running, or working at their own startups. But that level of honest editorial wasn't always achieved.
Instead, about three-quarters of the submissions I received read more like brand positioning documents or press releases than actual editorial content. There was a lot of back-patting, chest-puffing and bromide about disruption and innovation, which led to a lot of editing down by me for everybody's sake. (You're welcome.)
In other words, these were the kind of pieces that are far more gratifying to write than read. They were created to satisfy the brand rather than the audience. Here's where they tended to go astray, and what PR agencies need to be mindful of when submitting executive thought-leadership articles:
Wrong: Audience myopia.
We can all understand why a startup or agency would be tempted to trumpet its accolades on a major media site. Earned media is rare, while paid media is expensive and not always effective. Free thought leadership, on the other hand, is a microphone to reach new audiences and turn them into users. As appealing as this sounds, it can be dangerous.
Bragging clashes with the very purpose of thought leadership: To draw from your authority and experiences to educate others. It's doubtful that you're helping your readers be better entrepreneurs by ballyhooing your latest funding round.
Right: Write for an audience.
Thought leadership, like all good editorial, needs to be created with the readers' needs in mind, not the author's. Some of the better authors I edited analyzed trends or dilemmas without shoving their own company into their prose just for the sake of touting it. If you're tempted to talk about your company, ask yourself: "If I was the reader, what would I gain from hearing this?"
Your company is probably doing a lot of things right. But are you the only CRM startup? Definitely not, so don't warp your audience's perspective by only referring to how you manage a remote team or hire executives. I read far too many essays that placed the author's venture at the center of every discussion.
Right: Analytical thinking.
The world is filled with millions of theories, case studies, and insightful anecdotes. Share some of these with your audience. If you're worried about coming off as trite by name-dropping Wozniak or Zuckerberg, don't be. These leaders are admired for a reason, and it's insightful to discuss their ideas in a larger context. One of the best submissions I edited discussed the evolution of technology as it relates to psychology. It was intelligent and fresh. The amount of references to the author's company: 0. The number of times the author mentioned other companies or products: Seven. "Nuff said.
Dial down the bravado. Readers don't trust or relate to an author who does nothing but mention her wins. It's OK (and probably beneficial) to show vulnerability and imperfection.
It isn't anathema to talk about yourself as long as you do so humbly. An honest anecdote serves as an emotional hook. Share your lowest moment or most difficult decision. I found it refreshing (and uncommon) to read columns that acknowledged how challenging and thankless it can be to run a business. It can be difficult for agencies to deviate from their pre-established talking points, but it's important to recognize that audiences benefit more from hearing about your learning moments than your greatest hits.
Wrong: Bad storytelling.
Agencies love to crow about how they're storytellers, not marketers. Yet the central flaw I observe in thought leadership essays is a blatant disregard for the most basic tenets of storytelling. There's always a resolution to share (agencies never forget to tell you about a company's latest funding round or award), but rarely any set-up or conflict. Would that fly in film or tv? Imagine, for instance, "Star Wars" without Darth Vader or "Breaking Bad" without Walter being doggedly pursued by his brother-in-law. Would we care as much about a Jedi who's never challenged or a drug dealer who always gets away with it? Probably not.
Every arresting story has it. If you want to use your own company as an example of why, say, transparency is crucial in the workplace, tell us how you came to this conclusion. What were some of the bumps along the road? Was there a breaking point for your company? Readers won't fully comprehend your point about transparency if you don't tell them a complete story.
Bonus Tip: Save the dreaming for your TED Talk.
Smart thought-leadership essays tamp down the mission-statement bluster ("We're [changing/disrupting/augmenting/monetizing] the world!") and instead share lessons learned and human stories.