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October 30, 2015

What to do when everyone has Thought Leadership Content?

by Tom De Baere

thought leadership content should be freeThe problem with thought leadership is that the term ‘Thought Leadership’ is overused, abused, and can harm your business. Let me explain…

In many cases people refer to it as ‘thought leadership content’, which in essence refers to the act of publishing material that tries to position you or your company as a thought leader.

I think that is a very limiting view, and incomplete as a thought leadership content strategy.

Lately I have been increasingly “fed-up” with the vast amount of ebooks and webinars thrown at me, with great sticky titles, and sometimes even great authors or speakers, but with low or mediocre quality in the end.

I think it is the fault of inbound marketing. No, let me rephrase that: It is the fault of everyone jumping on the inbound marketing band-wagon, and executing poorly. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with inbound marketing. It can work really well, but only if you understand- and execute it properly.

Thought Leadership Supporting True Innovation

When I hear the word ‘thought leader’, or ‘thought leadership content’, I think of an individual or a brand that is recognized as the most forward thinking in their area, or someone or a brand that publishes forward thinking content.

To me these are people who connect the dots of what is happening in the market, who see new trends, and who provide answers to innovators and early adopters. In a great blog post from Michael Brenner, Head of Strategy @Newscred, he refers to the Diffusion of Innovation book written by professor Everett Rogers.

Rogers said the people in every society (Michael extends that to industry) can be divided into five different groups:

  1. Innovators – 2.5%
  2. Early Adopters – 13.5%
  3. Early Majority – 34%
  4. Late Majority – 34%
  5. Laggards – 16%


Everett Rogers_diffusion of innovation_though leadership content


It’s a very well known model, but when positioning yourself or your company as a thought leader, Brenner continues, you have to understand how to identify, engage and influence those who lead the pack.

I think that’s a really interesting way of looking at a target audience for your thought leadership. It’s something you have to realize when you aim for this type of strategy.

But back to Rogers and Brenner. Innovators and early adopters lead the pack, and are willing to take risks and adopt new ideas, even though they may fail. It is your task as a thought leader to address and inspire this pack, by moving away from talking about your product, into providing ideas, tools and insight into how your customer can solve their business issues and essentially becoming a trusted advisor.

If your strategy is innovation, thought leadership will help you to link with the innovators and early adopters. Initially, early adopters are driven by a vision and are willing to rely on their gut feelings when an idea can’t yet be backed by proof. They’re willing to take risks and adopt new ideas, even though they may fail. They lead the bleeding edge.

But as innovation moves from innovators to the early adopters and beyond, customers are more careful and discrete in their decisions. The’ll investigate, evaluate, and overthink the decision.

Then, when innovation becomes more adopted and goes mainstream, thought leadership content must shift into helpful insight and hands-on advice. It just has to become more infused with best practices, ROI insight, cases and methodologies.


The E-book-jacking Phenomenon

I started this blog post ranting about the low or mediocre quality “thought leadership content”. It is the type of content quality you find more and more, often used (abused?) by companies embracing inbound marketing as part of their marketing strategy.

The problem I have is this: when real thought leadership hits the market, others are coming into the mix and try to imitate these ideas, rather than adding on top of the original idea with insightful and original opinions of their own.

Let’s take the example of inbound marketing. Hubspot, a marketing automation software company, started to pitch the term, and claim that term. Their inbound marketing methodology still resonates in the market, and many Hubspot resellers and other marketing automation vendors sell the methodology to customers and make good money with it.

Now, part of the methodology is content that serves to identify prospects. This “identification content” is often referred to as ‘gated content’. Think of ebooks, case studies, webinars, events, calculators, etc, which are hidden behind a registration form.

In case you are wondering, I have no problem with this methodology, heck, I’m defending and using it myself. The important bit here is that this gated content should be absolutely positioned to providing tools that help your target audience to find you when they are looking for solutions.

The real problem I have is that, those that are entering the mix, and imitate the ideas of the real thought leaders, they are tricking customers into low or mediocre content quality with the sole intention to identify prospects.


Understanding when to gate content, and when not to gate

This is so important to understand.

If you create content with the sole intention to identify prospects, you’ll fail. Even worse, it will harm your brand on the long run. Giving a low quality or mediocre ebook after asking contact details from your prospects will leave your prospects with the feeling that they have been tricked.

When you want to position yourself as a thought leader, your objective is NOT to capture email addresses and leads.

Your objective is to get your thoughts out there, have it read by as many people as possible, so it can be shared, liked and commented upon. It serves as a way to attract people into your vision, show that you are plugged into their market and understand their challenges. And finally, it shows that you are thinking with them, to help them to remain competitive in their market space.

According to the renowned marketer and author of many marketing books, David Meerman Scott, white papers and eBooks will be downloaded 20-50x more WITHOUT a gate in front of it. Even at a much more conservative 5x improvement, that would be an additional 400 downloads for an eBook that averages 100 downloads with a gate!

It is a matter of understanding when to gate, and when not to gate. In a couple of interesting blog posts from Hubspot and Weidert group, you can read more on that subject:



Marketo, one of the leaders in the marketing automation space, clearly found the middle ground of when to gate, and when not to gate. As depicted above, early stage content is about attracting people with thought leadership content, news and customer centric content.


The danger of thought leadership and thought leaders

Many real thought leaders and proclaimed thought leaders plot visions that are really hard to contest. And while these visions might be true, theoretically and even relevant for a particular company, they might be dangerous to other companies.

path to social business goes through content marketingLet’s take the example of embracing the idea of social business. In essence the vision of becoming a social business is about your employees listening, answering and responding to customers via their own private and professional social networks.

I have written many times on the subject of social business, but in short, moving into social business is done by going down the path of first embracing a content marketing strategy, and then gradually becoming a social business.

The vision of becoming a social business in itself is important for companies. But without first modernizing your marketing and transforming your marketing, moving into social business is going to fail and will harm your business. Why? Because when you first go for social business without a strong content marketing foundation, your employees will connect with customer using meaningless messages and useless content. And with that, they are harming your brand.

What this example tries to convey is that, although you as a thought leader might see the future, it doesn’t mean your customers are ready for the future you are envisioning. It is your job to provide a path to that future, for every maturity level of your customers.

In practice, this could materialize into thought leadership content that has a fit to the vertical industry of the customer, a fit to the maturity phase of your customer, or a fit with the particular buyer scenario’s of your customer.

To finish this bit, while the benefits of thought leadership are great, it just isn’t as important in B2C industries. Did you choose a Coke over a Pepsi because you believe Coca Cola’s depth of knowledge of the industry exceeds Pepsi’s? Did you pour a bowl of Wheaties for breakfast because of General Mills’ perceived authority when it comes to cereal?

B2C buyers are driven by different motivations – usually, feeling safe, secure and informed – than B2B purchasers. As a result, both the intent and the messaging of your content marketing campaigns must be different.

Thought Leadership is not an Ebook

There are great ebooks, but there are also a lot of not-so-great ebooks (for some good examples, earlier this year I made a compilation of great ebooks (at least to me) on digital marketing).

Great ebooks come to exist through interviews with your best matter expert employees, interviews with your customers, great research, or even “Youtility” content or useful content such as workbooks, web tools, mobile apps etc fit the description.

Create them, publish them, your customer will love them. Put them behind a registration form if you want.

But real thought leadership is a continued set of programs and campaigns with the intention to educate people, and to entice people into action. Thought leadership is about exploiting your unique position that generates valuable insight to your customers and prospects, on issues they care about. It is the stuff that makes them notice you, love you, and contact you.

You don’t need a webform to do that.


Warm regards,

Tom De Baere

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