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Three strikes against "thought leadership"

Whenever I hear, “We want this white paper to develop some thought leadership…” I cringe.

As a marketing executive, I’ve sponsored white papers that helped sell millions of dollars worth of software.

As an independent copywriter, I’ve worked on more white papers than just about anybody.

And believe me, “thought leadership” is NOT a worthy goal for your next white paper.

Here are three good reasons why.

Strike 1: You can’t measure thought leadership

What is thought leadership, exactly? How do you get it? And how can you tell whether your white paper helped you get more of it?

In the old days, marketers were measured by how good the company logo looked, or how cool the TV ads were. It was all subjective and image-driven.

Today, it’s a numbers game. Marketers are held to account for the ROI on every campaign.

White papers are no different. Nor should they be.

Most marketers need to account for the number of leads generated, the number of prospects nurtured, or the total value of sales booked with the help of a white paper.

Often they even count the number of times their content was commented on, linked to, re-Tweeted or Liked.

But how do you account for “thought leadership”?

The truth is, you can’t. You can’t tell how much you’ve got, or if any campaign helped you get more.

“Thought leadership” is entirely subjective, anecdotal, and unmeasurable… just like smoke blowing in the wind.

photo of baseball umpire's whistle

Strike 2: You can’t just declare that you’re a leader

After all, what is a leader?

To me, that’s the CEO of a company, the head of state for a nation, or the most successful, most respected, most innovative company in a certain market.

Leaders aren’t shy and retiring; they’re out there leading parades, giving speeches, and kissing babies.

If your company is already a leader in your industry, everybody knows it.

If not, you can’t just hire an outside writer to do a white paper, “develop some thought leadership,” and make you a leader. Even with the best white paper in the land, that’s not going to happen.

Strike 3: Thought leadership is all about the seller, not the buyer

The worst thing about thought leadership is that it takes a totally back-asswards perspective.

It’s all about a claim made by a vendor. It smacks of chest-beating, also known as “we-we-ism.”

When you’re talking about yourself—and making claims about how great you are—you’re not providing anything useful, helpful, or valuable to your prospects.

So that’s the third strike against “thought leadership.”

It’s an old-fashioned idea dressed up in a modern buzzword. It’s not about creating any value for the customer. It’s just bragging. Boasting. Pitching.


photo of pitcher throwing ball

Swing for something better than “thought leadership”

These three strikes against “thought leadership” show what an empty notion it really is. It may sound important, but it’s actually very flimsy.

Don’t fall for the myth of “thought leadership.”

Don’t use it as a goal for any white paper, ever.

Instead, I urge you to pick something more useful and more achievable.

Whatever happened to positioning your firm as a trusted advisor? Or even an “expert in your field”?

How about providing useful information that will help a prospect understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision?

If you do all that, your “thought leadership” will take care of itself… and so will your measurable results.


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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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  1. Victor on June 10, 2016 at 8:31 am

    Hi Gordon, great tips, again. But I’m wondering, what if after a company’s white paper gets published, they saw an increase in the number of their Twitter followers jumps from 1000-2500, or perhaps their email list, from 2000-4000.

    Aren’t these followers and subscribers seeing the company as a thought leader, since they became their followers to get more updates from them?

  2. Victor on June 10, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Hi Gordon, my apologies….just noticed the errors in my comment.

    But here’s what I’m asking: what if after a company’s white paper gets published, they see that the number of their Twitter followers jump from 1000-2500, or perhaps their subscribers, from 2000-4000? Aren’t these followers and subscribers seeing the company as a thought leader, since they became their followers to learn more from them?

    • Gordon Graham on June 13, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      Hi Victor, Thanks for your comments. I agree those are worthy metrics that many marketers follow. Any white paper that helps those metrics grow is somewhat successful.

      I think my point comes down to this: It’s harder to get budget to write white papers aimed at building “thought leadership” than at generating leads, nurturing prospects through a complex sale, or closing sales. Those outcomes are all connected to revenues in a more direct way.

      Of course, white papers are not a one-step path to revenue, but “thought leadership” is an exceedingly roundabout way to get there. I much prefer calling this process “positioning the company as a trusted advisor” or “helping prospects know, like, and trust the company.” Cheers.

      • mattducz on July 23, 2016 at 2:17 pm

        It seems that becoming seen as a thought leader would be a byproduct of a successful white paper – even though it shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of a WP, correct?

        I see what Victor’s saying; obviously a well-written white paper will show that you have a vast knowledge of your industry. But, like you said Gordon, the focus of a WP should be on the client, not the vendor. It would seem that a WP that tried hard to make its company be seen as a thought leader would actually have the opposite effect, right?

        • Gordon Graham on July 24, 2016 at 8:07 pm

          Yes, I think you’re getting it. No one becomes a leader by “trying” or by “declaring themselves” a leader. Thought leadership, much as I dislike the term, is gained by truly progressive thinking that expands the understanding of your audience. And I believe that to set that as a goal of a white paper is going in the wrong direction. A better goal is to help your readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. If you can help them do that better than anyone else, you are truly a leader in your field.

  3. Robert W Bly on November 10, 2020 at 9:05 am

    I believe people who say “thought leadership” do not mean you are literally the #1 thinker in your field. I believe what they really mean is “become a recognized expert in your field.” As someone (possibly you) has said, content should provide useful information while demonstrating your expertise.

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