Avoiding Common Thought Leadership Mistakes

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Christopher G. Fox

While most of my client conversations focus on positive steps to establish and maintain thought leadership positioning, I also occasionally hear questions or have discussions about what not to do.

Among the most common mistakes that come up in my discussions, several tend to come up more often than others.

Conflating thought leadership and product marketing. Thought leadership pieces are not an appropriate forum for touting the features and benefits of a company’s underlying offerings. When developed with craft and a deliberate strategy, thought leadership adds depth and nuance to product messaging. It highlights the broader industry context in which features and benefits are relevant. It also can highlight business needs for innovation that a company’s products and services bring to the market. Finally, although the language in thought leadership materials can be consistent with a company’s overall brand messaging, it needs to be done artfully and authentically, lest it stick out and lower credibility.

One-and-done efforts. Thought leadership takes time to build. When a company wishes to own particular topics and points of view with a differentiated position, a single piece of content will almost never do it. With a few exceptions, such as a TED Talk that catches fire with millions, most thought leadership requires extensive campaigns with smaller and larger pieces in multiple formats and media to achieve their objectives. One key to success is planning out such content in advance while at the same time remaining flexible to adapting the underlying themes, observations, and findings to relevant events in the news.

Excessive caution and risk-aversion. Compelling thought leadership must express a point of view. It should shake up people’s fixed beliefs and include insight from new ways of thinking. Relying on conventional wisdom can take the wind out of any thought leadership efforts. While thought leaders needn’t create animosity or controversy just to get attention, having something genuinely new to say makes a difference. Similarly, thought leaders should be willing to express opinions (yes, grounded in facts and reality) and use a bold voice to avoid sounding generic.

Falling into the jargon trap. Specialized thought leadership is not always intended to reach an equally specialized audience. The audience is often savvy and intelligent, but not necessarily with the same subject matter depth as the thought leader. Especially in industries like financial services and fintech, thought leaders must remember not to make too many assumptions about the differences between jargon, technical language, and specialized concepts. It’s not necessary to over-explain but defining terms clearly and simply helps thought leaders make their points more effectively. Even if their audience is likely to have a similar vocabulary, defining terms is a great way to guide audiences to a specific understanding of a concept that helps build the larger argument and make a strong point about the topic.

Writing for SEO. Doing keyword research to find what people are asking about and then repeating those keywords may bump up content within search engine results, but it also won’t help create thought leadership. It pushes thought leaders into staying too close to conventional wisdom and ultimately results in less readable, engaging content. Being a thought leader in part means needing to master the art of content distribution. Relying on algorithms to do that work diminishes a thought leader’s impact, especially since the deck is stacked in favor of paid placement or content that search engines have their own commercial purposes to promote.

The good news is that these pitfalls are easy to avoid with advance warning and sharp thinking. Keeping an eye out for them and planning accordingly helps thought leaders stand out and shine rather than blending into mediocrity and chatter.

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