Thought leadership articles are in vogue. And rightly so. Insight-driven articles are a powerful way to build your profile as a business or company leader.
But, much like everything worthwhile: when it's done right, it's great – but when it's done wrong, it's terrible. Like really, really bad.
I've seen so many bad thought leadership articles over the last few weeks that I think it's time to call out a bad practice: generic and platitudinous content (sometimes written by AI) masquerading as thought leadership content.
Yikes. No thank you.
So, let's start with the basics?
What's thought leadership? Well, at its most basic and easy to understand, thought leadership is about demonstrating your expertise or leadership on a topic. Usually, it involves sharing insights – something new, fresh, and different – that other people in your industry might find interesting.
So, what's a thought leadership article? Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the next jump: a thought leadership article is a long-form piece of writing – we're usually talking about 800 words plus – that captures one of those insights in article form.
That article might be published in an industry publication, in a national newspaper, within a newsletter, on a blog, or on your website.
Think about it this way: a thought leadership article should make the reader say: "I didn't know that", or "I didn't think about the industry that way", or "I know what the writer is saying (or arguing), but I disagree with that."
It needs to challenge them in some way. It needs to engage their brain, and prompt them to consider new views, takes, and perspectives.
In essence: a thought leadership article should add to the discussion. That's the key. It should not just summarise the discussion, or summarise someone else's view. It needs to add to the discussion in a new, perhaps even surprising, way.
But, sadly, many of the thought leadership articles I’ve read recently are not like that at all.
Here's the biggest mistake I see committed time and again: someone writing a generic, non-opinionated, objective, analytical overview of an industry – and thinking that's thought leadership.
Usually, the best example of this mistake is when you see an executive (or company) pumping out a bit of content on their LinkedIn titled something like: 'State of the Industry in 2023'.
We need to be careful here. Some of these 'State of the Industry'-type articles can actually be thought leadership content – usually that's the case if they are making non-trivial predictions about the future of the industry.
Even better if they make normative judgements about the best direction for the industry, i.e., "The industry should go in this direction and not in that direction".
But most of these articles are not like that at all. In most cases, the CEO or, more likely, a member of their team has just spent a couple of hours trawling through Google, and then summarising everything that they have found in a single article.
That is not thought leadership. At best, this is collating a bunch of facts in a single place. At worst, it is stealing other people's insights and data, and trying to capitalise on it for your own interests.
It doesn't make you look good. That's a very bad thought leadership strategy.
Why isn't this thought leadership? Because it could have been done by anyone with access to Google. It doesn't demonstrate expertise at all. Instead, it shows how well you can copy and paste from around the web.
In fact, it could probably have been drafted by a robot. If you type "Provide me a summary of industry XYZ, including some top facts" in ChatGPT, it'll probably give you a good article.
Come to think of it, ChatGPT will probably produce a better summary than you could have written yourself. ChatGPT is (very) good at hunting around the web and summarising content. That's its primary strength.
Instead, thought leadership articles need expertise. Genuine expertise. Human expertise.
And expertise is more than just knowing (and being able to trot out) facts about a particular subject. Instead, it's about having a view on those facts: how they connect together and what they mean: what they mean for you, me, and the industry.
Thought leadership is about getting under the skin of an industry, showing how it all really works, and then taking a personal view on those facts.
When I'm sitting with a client, I try to force them into thinking this way by asking questions that force them to get beyond surface-level facts to their personal views on the facts.
These questions can be helpful:
If you could change one thing in your industry, what would it be? Why?
What is holding your industry back?
How will your industry look in 5, 10, and 20 years?
How should your industry look in 5, 10, and 20 years?
Is there a difference between how you think it will look and how it should look?
What is one thing that you think that other people in your industry would (genuinely) disagree with?
The last question is one of my favourites, but it's easy to answer this in the wrong way. And then you run the risk of committing the second biggest error in writing thought leadership articles.
The second biggest mistake I see when reading thought leadership content is arguing for a viewpoint as if it's a distinctive (and original) perspective, when it's really something that everyone would agree with.
This is a classic.
I might ask a client: "What do you think that no one else thinks in your industry?" And they'll answer something like: "The industry should be more sustainable".
Eek. I hate to break it to you, but everyone thinks that. Or, at the very least, they should think that.
That might have been thought leadership in the 1980s (or even the 1970s or 1960s), but today that's just good business sense and conventional wisdom. If you think that's putting your head above the parapet, you're really missing the mark.
In fact, going out to press with that type of insight is very likely to hurt you: it makes you look decades out of date, and makes it look like you're playing catch up with the rest of the industry – rather than leading it.
Instead, once you have come up with an insight, test it with your team and, perhaps, wider industry peers. Do they disagree with you? Are they truly surprised by what you are saying?
If the answer is yes, then that means that you're usually thinking in the right direction.
Of course, this is actually more difficult than you might first think: it takes a lot of time, thinking, and energy to come up with an original take on your industry that will move the discussion on in a surprising way.
This is why thought leadership is difficult. If you're finding thought leadership easy, then that's usually a sign that you've missed the boat, and you're skipping important steps or cutting corners.
But that is not to say that there are not tried-and-tested approaches and processes for coming up with distinctive, engaging, and left-field angles to write powerful and engaging thought leadership PR articles.
I have a number of tips and tricks to attack this challenge with clients, and make it easier for everyone involved in the process.
One of the most powerful approaches I have found is what we call the 'CHIMP' model internally. The CHIMP model is really just a series of prompts for you to think about, which could lead to ideas for powerful pieces of content, whether that's PR, social media, or even multimedia.
Changes (C). What changes would you like to see in your industry? What can be improved? What bad practice needs to be reformed? What would you change?
Hot take (H). What conventional industry wisdom do you disagree with? What 'hot takes' do you have on the industry, its direction, and accepted wisdom in the sector?
Idea (I). What big, hairy, and audacious idea do you think could positively (and radically) transform your industry? What crazy idea do you have?
Mythbusting (M). What perennial myth (that's widely believed in your industry or business in general) is untrue? What perspective or fact do you want to mythbust? Which platitude do you want to knock down?
Prediction (P). What prediction would you make for your industry? In 5 years' time? 10 years? 20 years? Is this prediction a good thing for the industry, or a bad thing?
These questions are difficult. Very difficult. They will push you to think in new ways, and force you into becoming an actual industry leader, and not just someone who heats up 'cold and outdated opinions' from other people in the microwave.
Of course, you may be thinking: "But I'm only just doing this thought leadership thing for a bit of marketing. Can't I just bang on about how good my product is?" No, that's not thought leadership. That's publishing an advertorial.
And advertorials don't work as well as genuine thought leadership because they're boring. "My product is great because XYZ." Snore. I have already fallen asleep.
Also, you cannot decide the answers to these by committee. You cannot get the marketing team around the table and ask: "What do I believe that no one else believes?" That has to come from you.
Sadly, over the last few years, thought leadership has developed a bad name and reputation (in some quarters). Generally because it's wrongly confused with business influencers posting generic dross on LinkedIn that everyone agrees with. Usually with a photo of them on a beach.
Real thought leadership articles need to add insight. And that's difficult.
Want to launch a thought leadership PR campaign? Read more about our thought leadership PR services, and how we can support you