Jewel Marketing
Taiwan Content Marketing

Thought Leadership Isn't The Only Way To Lead

By Jason Patterson

Founder of Jewel Content Marketing Agency
Leadership is how B2B brands are built. But when it comes to content, thought leadership is the variety that gets the most oxygen. It has a great name. It sounds appealing to executives. But brands also lead through content in other ways, though we often don't think of them as leadership. But if we did, I think it would provide a helpful lens through which to view your content marketing planning and calendar, and I see leadership content falling into three categories.

1. Thought Leadership

A more accurate name for thought leadership from a brand would be branded discourse (though the former sounds better). As with many marketing terms, definitions for thought leadership vary. I think the main reason why thought leadership is muddled is because there are thought leaders and there's thought leadership. And if a thought leader says the capital of California is Sacramento, that isn't thought leadership, it's education.

And a lot of content we label thought leadership is actually education. Why? Because opinions, namely advocated for opinions, are essential to all thought leadership, and good thought leadership advocates opinions that are original and interesting, or at least vivid and well defended.

And a lot of branded thought leadership underperforms because legal departments hate opinions like that, and so do a lot of executives. Both tend to prefer opinions that are safe, inoffensive, and hard to disprove or disagree with. And good thought leadership is well informed and/or researched, and finance departments hate content like that because it's expensive when outsourced.

Thus, a lot of thought leadership offers "water is wet" opinions only, and much of it, even from the Fortune 500, has very little relevant factual support and draws on very few sources, often being presented in a "mile-wide-inch-deep" manner.

And just to be clear, "our stuff is worth buying" is a pitch, not an opinion. Naturally you want the reader to think this after reading, but if that's all you've got, it isn't thought leadership, which is (usually) about the world, not your brand.

Algorithmic changes by our Internet overlords helped push thought leadership into the trough of disillusionment in the late 2010s, but with LinkedIn now flooded with executive-posted haikus of wisdom, thought leadership is making a comeback. And with B2B buyers having trouble telling brands apart, and expressing a hunger for new and different views from brands, I think thought leadership can come back a lot more, and it may be time for your brand to get more into it if you haven't already.

Thought Leadership Advantages

Real thought leadership, credited to and presented by a founder or someone else with a big following, can be a relatively cheap (as it requires no special design resources) and easy way to reach a large audience, especially if you're a smaller business that doesn't have its own large audience, and doesn't have a big legal department or stockholders that'll neuter what you say.

Thought leadership can also be quite engaging, as the opinions (i.e., subjectivity) involved can play more to emotions than other content types and help you stand out from the pack (something B2B brands otherwise do poorly), a need that will only grow as AI increasingly floods the Internet with simple fact recitation.

Thought Leadership Disadvantages

The approval process for high-level thought leadership can be a nightmare at a larger business. And, as previously stated, thought leadership tends to be more effective attached to people and not just your brand, and people change employers, taking their followers with them.

2. Branded Scholarship

Branded scholarship adds to the body of relevant knowledge for your industry, or an industry you serve. It does this by either presenting new facts (i.e., original research), or through improved analysis and presentation of existing facts. Whitepapers often do the former, while many blogs do the latter.

Of course, many branded scholarship pieces also have opinions, making them also thought leadership. And this is not corruption of the purpose of branded scholarship. Audiences often don't want to read facts purely for the sake of them. Facts tend to be about the past or the present, but audiences often want to know about the future, and pretty much everything future-related is an opinion. And some original research also discusses or presents theory, which is also opinion (at least until proven).

Branded Scholarship Advantages

Branded scholarship is glamour content, and as is often the case with glamour, it's largely a matter of money. If you've got the money, you can make something pretty good. Also, this sort of content has secondary benefits in that the info tends to make good fodder for fact-of-the-day social posts, graphs, infographics, and other campaign components. It also tends to get linked to.

Branded Scholarship Disadvantages

The matter of money matters, and there's a certain amount of luck involved in branded scholarship. Even if you can afford to pay a consultancy to create a whitepaper for you, the facts they come up with won't always line up as well with what you want readers to think as you were hoping for, weakening your whitepaper's overall impact. Also, you need access to creative and promotion skills to get the most mileage out of your whitepaper in campaign form, and approvals can be slow on your end because the glamour of such content attracts stakeholders.

3. Branded Guidance

Branded guidance also adds to the body of relevant knowledge in your target industry, but it has two big differences with branded scholarship. One, branded scholarship is more academic in nature (or at least it more closely simulates it), while branded guidance is more practical or instructional. There's a "doing" element in branded guidance that's often absent from branded scholarship. And two, branded guidance often isn't interested in advancing an opinion or theory, at least explicitly.

Thus, branded guidance tends to be content such as e-books, "how to" guides, or checklists. And before you ask, yes, some branded guidance pieces also tick the branded scholarship box (an e-book might do this), or even all three boxes (some whitepapers do this).

And it's important to note that branded guidance is not the same as technical writing/manuals on how to use your products. Granted, the style may be somewhat similar, but branded guidance rarely gets down to the "push Ctrl + X" level of detail, and what really separates it from tech writing is that branded guidance is not particular to you or your products, it's about something more general.

Branded Guidance Advantages

People often think of whitepapers or thought leadership as hero content, but they're mostly hero content to you, not your customers. When customers are having a problem, or are unsure of what to do, guidance from your brand can be a lifesaver. Nobody urgently needs your brand's blog article on why cybersecurity should be built from the ground up, or your whitepaper on ransomware proliferation over the next five years, not in the same way they urgently need your seven-step guide on what to do if your system is hijacked by ransomware.

Branded guidance may also offer more SEO utility than whitepapers or thought leadership, because while the topics they cover might be valuable, they also might not be explicitly searched for. Branded guidance also helps you reach audiences who influence buying decisions but who might not be big whitepaper readers (like small business owners). It's also useful if you're in a relatively new and unexplored field that doesn't have a lot of established best practices, while providing similar campaign fodder to a whitepaper (though usually not as much).

And finally, a nice e-book or "how to" guide can be the best kind of swag content (i.e., content you hand out at a trade show or attach to a cold-call email), as your odds of it being immediately useful are higher than a whitepaper on some egghead topic would be.

Branded Guidance Disdvantages

Unlike with a whitepaper, you can't just pay someone to make an e-book and just sit back and wait for it to happen. It requires close collaboration over a length of time between a marketing writer and an SME, and that can be hard to achieve. It also requires layout and art direction skills that, if you don't have them in house, can be hard to shop for (not every creative is equally good at content design).

Why You May Need All Three Kinds Of Leadership Content

Having a diverse content variety will help you reach, and get backlinked to by, different types of audiences, and engage different elements of the same audience. Think about it this way. Branded scholarship, with its facts and rigor, engages your audience's mind, while branded guidance, with its handbook-style focus on action, engages their hands. And thought leadership, with subjectivity and opinion being the key qualities, engages the heart (despite what the name implies), by showing them yours.

And since thought leadership is personal, if you have a prominent CEO or other well-known industry figure with a big following in your employ, thought leadership is particularly well suited to being authored and distributed by them, and through other "word-of-mouth" channels, while the other two less personal leadership categories tend to be more about the organization authoring them than the person, making them fine for brand channel distribution.

Thus, a diverse leadership content mix raises the odds of you getting through no matter what. It also raises the odds of engaging with audiences in a way that connects by raising the odds of having something they're more naturally inclined to read, or are otherwise in the mood for.

As to what the optimal mix is, I can't tell you. It's going to vary by your circumstances and industry. But I can tell you this. Thought leadership is best suited to small businesses, because there are fewer layers, lawyers, and stakeholders to water it down and slow it down, and the upfront costs are relatively low.

Branded guidance is well suited to mid-sized businesses, because typically they have at least some in-house SME, writing, and creative expertise to draw on, while their "one foot in enterprise, one foot in SMB" profile makes them well positioned to understand real-world needs and pain-points across a wide variety of businesses. And branded scholarship, as you might have guessed, is best suited for big fish. They have the money, the name, and the promotional resources to make it work.

Not that smaller players can't also do and promote a good whitepaper, it's just harder for them to do it well.

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