The 7 Deadly Sins of Thought Leadership Marketing

And how to avoid them

Jack Martin
Apr 1 · 9 min read
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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

By now, most people are sold on the idea of thought leadership marketing.

The idea is to highlight the expertise of company leadership without “selling” anything in order to build trust with customers, other B2B decision-makers, potential investors, and beyond. Done right, people will be more willing to use your company or your company’s product because they feel connected to the brand.

The good thing is, most people understand this. They see the benefits of labeling their founders as SMEs and attempt to initiate a thought leadership marketing campaign for their organization. The problem is, most of what is created ends up being white noise among the millions of other people trying to do the same.

If you or your organization is struggling to get your strategy off the ground, be sure you’re not committing one of these seven deadly sins of thought leadership marketing.

#1. If the Author Is an Entity, It’s Not Thought Leadership

This is sort of a no-brainer.

Thought leadership is about highlighting leadership—as in, the people that actually lead an organization. The goal is to build trust among customers, team members, industry peers, and decision-makers and to do that, there needs to be transparency around who’s steering the ship.

Publishing articles from an entity won’t create that sense of transparency because people can’t connect to an entity. There’s no way to relate to an inanimate object. It can’t share a personal story or experience that changed its perspective on the industry. It can’t tell you about a time that it made a mistake, or failed its employees, or rebounded from an economic downturn because “it” didn’t experience any of that. But the people in leadership positions did.

At the end of the day, people are going to be reading your thought leadership content. Regardless of what your specific thought leadership strategy is—be it to stand out to investors, attract potential new employees, whatever—it’s people you’re trying to connect with. That said, content needs to come from people in order to resonate effectively with people.

All thought leadership content should be published from the first-person—otherwise, it shouldn’t be considered part of your thought leadership strategy.

Pick one or two executives on your leadership team who don’t mind building out their personal brand. Ideally, the founder, CEO, CFO, board member—someone with loads of experience—would be the author of all of the thought articles your company wants to publish.

That way, you’re actually practicing what you preach when you call your executive team “thought leaders”.

#2. Your Content Is Surface Level

Now that we’re clear that thought leadership content needs to come from the first person, let’s chat about the content itself.

All too often, I see aspiring thought leaders (even CEOs of already successful companies) make the crucial mistake of keeping content surface level. If you repeat what everyone else is saying, or regurgitate common knowledge, no one is going to see you as a thought leader.

Real thought leadership is about sharing what you’ve learned from personal experience. Here’s a scenario for you:

Let’s say you’re a venture capitalist at a firm looking to attract startup founders in the tech space. Before you became a VC, you founded and sold a tech company of your own, which you spent more than ten years building. You’ve been in the trenches, and know exactly what it’s like to be in the shoes of some of the young talent you’re trying to target. Again, the goal is to be seen as a thought leader. You and your partners want to be known as the “go-to” people for startup founders in tech—someone they can look to for guidance, advice, invaluable lessons. You want them to trust you.

What do you think is going to resonate more with the people you want to reach: an article about five trends in tech to watch out for in 2020, or an article about the five biggest lessons you learned as a founder, and what investors in tech are looking for in young talent?

Both articles have virtually the same goal: give the target reader (startup founders in the tech space) actionable insights. But the first article is surface level; the people you’re writing for probably already know what trends to look out for in 2020. What they really want, is that second article—the one about the biggest lessons you learned as a founder, and what investors are looking for in them.

Share personal stories from experience and identify your target reader to avoid surface-level content. That’s what’s going to separate you from all of the other people regurgitating common knowledge in an attempt to label themselves as “thought leaders”.

#3. You’re Not Telling a Story

This is one of the biggest pitfalls of thought leadership marketing.

Talking about how your company is leading the charge in your space or about how your product is disrupting a billion-dollar industry is not thought leadership. It’s sales-y and doesn’t add any value—and, not to mention, is boring as hell.

Successful thought leadership focuses on giving.

Every piece of thought leadership content you put out should have actionable takeaways for the target reader. The goal isn’t to sell people on your product or your expertise—it’s to get them to trust you, and to have them see you as a resource for valuable high-level insights you’ve learned from experience.

Still, that’s easier said than done. Falling into the trap of talking about how your company does things better is fairly common, but can be avoided by taking a couple of preemptive measures.

Before writing a thought article, identify who you’re speaking to and what you’re going to teach them. Create a persona—even giving them a name and a background—and make an outline covering exactly what you’re going to write about.

Perhaps most important, make sure what you’re writing about is something your target audience needs versus something you feel like writing about. Ask yourself how they’re actually going to benefit from reading your article. Then, think back to a time you struggled with similar questions they might have, and find a personal story you can weave in that your audience can relate to.

Knowing exactly who you’re targeting in your articles and what actionable insights you’re going to give them is how to successfully separate yourself as someone who adds value on a regular basis, versus someone that only wants to be promotional.

Eventually, when you’re good enough, your articles will resonate so well that readers will not only feel compelled to share but will actively begin following you to keep on learning.

#4. You’re Not Concise

We’ve already established that your articles won’t resonate if you sound sales-y, but you won’t resonate if you sound like a textbook either. You need to be concise if you want to keep readers engaged.

According to a 2020 study done by Edelman, 75% of B2B decision-makers identify brevity as one of the primary reasons they find thought leadership content compelling. And since organizations that cultivate a culture of thought leaders tend to see a greater impact in sales, this means it literally pays to be concise.

One key to moving readers down the page is to pretend you’re having a conversation with someone when writing. Literally say what you’re writing out loud, or re-read what you’ve written aloud after you have a rough draft.

If what you read back to yourself doesn’t sound like something you’d say in conversation, it’s probably not concise enough and needs to be fixed.

#5. You’re Inconsistent in Your Messaging

If there’s one thing you don’t want to do once you’ve started to garner a following as a thought leader, it’s to contradict yourself.

Contradicting yourself in the public eye can hinder the effectiveness of your thought leadership efforts for a number of reasons. For one, inconsistency in your messaging might lead people to believe your efforts to share insights aren’t genuine. They’ll think what you’re publishing is solely for views, or that you’re trying to appease an audience you don’t necessarily agree with just to try and gain more followers.

Another somewhat obvious reason inconsistent messaging might hurt you is the credibility factor. In the same way that saying one thing one week and saying the opposite the next might make you look inauthentic, it’s also a quick way to lose credibility.

If you’re constantly contradicting yourself, your audience won’t know what to believe. They’ll start to take everything you say with a grain of salt, and eventually, you’re going to lose your audience to someone else with more consistent messaging.

All that said, the best way to make sure your messaging is consistent is to have an editorial team proofread everything you publish. Whether it’s an internal editor, a marketing firm you outsource to, or even a friend who you trust with content, you need to have someone. And they have to know you, your voice, and exactly how you want to be perceived as a thought leader.

Whoever you choose, work with them on a regular basis. You don’t need to spend a lot of time in the long run if they’re clear on your values—as well as your thought leadership objectives—upfront. Send them every article you write before publishing, or even have them help you during the writing process.

Make this a priority. People end up contradicting themselves more often than they realize, and without a legitimate explanation, you’ll start to lose the following you spent so much time building.

#6. You’re Inconsistent in Publishing

One thing needs to be abundantly clear: becoming a thought leader is a process.

Think about people you consider thought leaders in your industry. In your eyes, what makes them a thought leader? My guess is that, whether you realize it or not, the person or people you thought of are always “there”.

You see them come across your LinkedIn feed frequently. They’re constantly publishing new articles. They were recently featured on an industry podcast and are set to speak at an event in a couple of months. Any which way, you hear from them on a regular basis.

Thought leadership takes time, effort, and consistency. You can’t expect to publish an article or two and go viral. You can’t assume having an article published in Forbes is enough for people to consider you a thought leader. You need to be out there sharing what you know—giving—on a regular basis.

One of the building blocks of an effective thought leadership strategy is an in-depth content calendar. It doesn’t need to be perfect—you don’t need to plan out every piece of content you’re going to publish for the next six months—but you definitely have to set goals around how often you’re going to publish, and stick to those goals religiously.

Since there’s a lot of content out there, volume is your friend. If you really want to move the needle, and your avenue is publishing articles, aim for two to four articles per month—once a week, or once bi-weekly. Plan out when you’re going to sit down and write these articles and make sure you leave enough time to edit after you have your editorial person (or team) proofread.

Pro tip: try front-loading by writing a number of articles at the beginning of your thought leadership campaign. This way, you can build up a portfolio of unreleased material so you always have something to post once you start publishing.

#7. You’re in It for the Vanity

This won’t apply to everyone, but some people need to hear it:

Thought leadership isn’t about the views.

If you think that simply being “seen” is the key to becoming a thought leader, you have a grave misunderstanding of the concept altogether.

It’s not about how many people are visiting your profile or reading your pieces. It isn’t about the amount of engagement on the content or getting published in a big publication. Thought leadership is truly about providing insights, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. For some people, that’s a tough pill to swallow, but trust me: it’s not worth worrying about.

When it comes to thought leadership, worrying about how many views your most recent article gets proves you’re in it for the wrong reasons. The quality that makes someone a thought leader comes from the number of quality insights that a person can provide over time—not the amount LinkedIn likes their article has.

After you’ve published consistently for a couple of months, you’ll start to notice the same people liking, commenting, and sharing your material. That’s the value of thought leadership—those people actually see you as a thought leader because you’re sharing what you know on a regular basis. And that number is only going to trend upward over time.

The best part is, even if it doesn’t “feel” like you’re reaching a lot of people initially, you’re putting content out there for people to find weeks, months, even years down the road. Good thought leadership pays remarkable dividends over time to those who understand it’s a long-term play.

Trust that what you’re saying will pay off in the long run, so long as you’re consistent, and always keep making giving the focal point of your articles.

Thanks for reading!

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