Is Your Thought Leadership a Marketing Trojan Horse?

 John Mosbaugh/Flickr CC

John Mosbaugh/Flickr CC

What's the one sure sign that your organization isn't a thought leader? Here's a story that illustrates it perfectly:

Years ago, a CEO asked me to serve as an editor for an op-ed.

The strange thing about the assignment: Her staff had already submitted the piece to a major journalism site.

Even stranger: The CEO knew the site’s publisher and was confident her piece already had the green light. “Just make any editorial changes they ask for,” she told me.

I soon found out what was really going on. There’d actually been silence from the site’s editors for days. About a week in, the CEO sent me a nervous email.   

“Tell them I can make it more interesting,” said the last line. 

My eyebrows shot up. I opened the file. Sure enough, she was right: The op-ed could have been more interesting.

That’s because it couldn’t have been less interesting.

What Makes a Trojan Horse? Hint: It's All About Your Organization

The piece began on the right foot: by referencing a pressing current problem the website’s audience knew and cared about.

But about 200 words in, it was clear the CEO didn’t have much new to say about the issue.

Instead, she spent the rest of the op-ed writing about her organization and the great work it was doing to solve the issue.

So the piece was promotion badly disguised as analysis — a Trojan horse.

Of course, it was rejected. By the site’s publisher himself, and without giving the CEO a chance to revise.

A little humiliating.

The original Trojan horse was designed by the Greeks to deceive and undermine their enemy, the Trojans.

Trojan-horse thought leadership just deceives and undermines the people who write it. It isn’t intentionally deceptive. But it doesn’t provide what it promises. And it corrodes your expert standing like battery acid.  

I wish Trojan-horse thought leadership were rare. It’s actually endemic at many organizations, even research-driven ones. I also find senior leaders at these places often complaining about the ineptitude of their comms staffs at placing their op-eds, as if that were the problem.

Here’s an easy mirror test if you can’t tell whether your organization produces promotional copy disguised as thought leadership: Read a couple of the pieces your staff has written and make a mark next to the point — or points — when the authors tout the efforts, programs, goals, impact, mission and overall wonderfulness of your organization.

If the total number of marks on any piece equals one or more — it’s a Trojan horse.

Why Trojan Horse Thought Leadership Backfires

CEOs and even a lot of marketing and comms people find this hard to understand. “How will we promote our organization otherwise?” they wonder. "Isn't marketing the organization the point of content marketing?"

Not for thought leadership.

Thought leadership is the apex of content marketing -- and a substantially different animal. If it's just marketing in disguise, editors will reject it. The publications in which you want your thought leadership to appear don’t run marketing disguised as insight.  

So your staff has to put it on your own website or on Medium. (If your comms people are doing that a lot, it’s another sign your organization is breeding Trojan horses.)

Self-publishing doesn’t solve the problem, however, because decision-makers (actually, all readers) hate this kind of content. It’s a bait-and-switch: You set them up to think you were going to give them high-value analysis that could inform their problem solving and serve as an early-warning system, alerting them to issues on the horizon.

Then the piece is revealed to be a self-advertisement. Goodbye, return visits. Goodbye, branding as an expert. If you’re trying to build an audience, producing content that offers no actual content is your worst tactic.

So What is Effective Thought Leadership -- and Why Might Your Organization Fail to Produce It?

Thought leadership isn’t seeing a problem in the world and saying to yourself: “We do work on that! Let’s use it as a pretext to promote our work!”

It’s seeing a problem in the world and saying: “What unique insights do we have to inform our audience’s decision making about that problem?”

Your research staff doesn’t do research about your organization. It does research about the world, to influence policies and decisions in the world. To do that, it has to be credible. 

Similarly, writing for nonspecialist audiences about research, applied research and issue analysis has to be held to the same standard of credibility. No one gives your advertorial content a pass because you do great research or because your mission helps the world. Your content has to compete in the same media ecosystem as everyone else’s.

When your organization produces a lot of fake thought-leadership content, it’s an indicator that your marketing and communications departments aren’t thinking like publishers — that is, about delivering maximum value to the audience. 

It’s also certainly a sign that your culture needs renovation. 

That’s because, at the least, the people producing this noncompetitive content either don’t know it’s not competitive or know it’s noncompetitive and aren’t doing — or aren’t allowed to do—anything about it. 

Trojan-horse thought leadership is a bureaucrat’s notion of effective communications: on message, “getting our message out there,” nonthreatening to everyone, and reinforcing of all the organization’s echo-chamber, happy-talk messaging.

That’s content as a cancer stick. The more you do it, the harder and harder it becomes for your organization to break the habit and do content the right way.

And the more you do it, the closer you are to dead in the attention economy. 

When I tried to explain to the CEO why I thought her submission had been rejected, she was bewildered.

Nothing in her career had taught her the value of producing competitive thought leadership content. The necessity of making your content as interesting — and valuable — as possible to your audience the first time around.

Trojan-horse thought leaders don't get second chances.