Say what you will about the term “thought leader” (or read what other people have said here and here), but most still agree that the concept of contributing meaningfully to industry conversations is a valuable marketing goal. The problem is, it’s not as easy as it looks.
Marketing teams scramble to churn out a schedule of ghostwritten blog posts and promote links to webinar sign-ups on social media. Meanwhile, they’re not sure why the industry media isn’t lining up for interviews.
What’s going wrong? Well, these are probably some of the reasons your execs aren’t thought leaders:
• They're "selling" on social media.
To build public credibility as thought leaders, your executives should be engaging on issues, not selling your products and services. Use the company-branded social media accounts to link back to sales or product pages. Senior leadership should be weighing in on significant topics, sharing links to thought-provoking articles, and commenting on the posts of other industry thought leaders. Reporters are looking to interview people who can serve as experts on your industry as a whole. They won’t call someone they expect will deliver a sales pitch.
• You're focusing on web traffic rather than thought leadership.
When cultivating thought leaders, you want to be thinking about engagement, not visits. Your executives’ posts will generate more engagement on LinkedIn if they’re posted as articles or status updates rather than as shared links from your website. (Read some data on that here.) You can still post the article on your company site to drive web traffic—just let other employees share that link. The main thing is to not dilute your results by trying to accomplish two goals at the same time. Focus on thought leadership, and then use the correct tactics and metrics for success.
• The writing is inauthentic.
Be very careful about letting other staff members log in to personal accounts to post on behalf of senior leadership. And, please, don’t hire five different freelancers to ghostwrite one exec’s posts. Keeping the voice consistent is critical—the audience is looking for evidence that leaders are not doing their own posting. Help your executives make time to do their own posting on social platforms and to engage with the people who engage with them. For articles and blog posts, a good ghostwriter will be adept at capturing the authentic voice of the intended author; if your writer isn’t, move on. When it comes to hiring a writer, pay for quality and then expect a lot.
• You're promoting the executive, not the content.
When your leaders present at conferences, are you sharing the substance of the talk, or are you just blasting out the event details in six different ways? Most marketing teams over-promote the event itself: “Our CEO was proud to address fourth-year medical students at Mercy Hospital on Tuesday.” Instead of sharing yet another photo of your CEO speaking to a crowd, tweet key points from the talk, blog about important questions that were asked, create an infographic from a presentation slide, you get the idea. Promote your executive’s message, not just the news that he spoke.
• They're focused on what they want to say, not what the community needs to hear.
Okay, this is the tough one. As marketers we certainly understand that executives become thought leaders not just by publishing a lot and sounding smart. True thought leaders provide an educational service to the community. But, executives often have agendas, and it can be tricky to steer them in other directions. You have to try. The success of your thought leadership effort depends upon helping executives identify places where they can shed light on a confusing topic or offer insight that’s truly valuable to the readers of your content. Make sure what they have to say is something the industry genuinely needs to hear.
• They're unresponsive.
When reporters do call to offer you that coveted moment of “earned media,” make sure your executives can be available to meet their tight deadlines. Executives are not always aligned to make last-minute interviews a priority. Unfortunately, one bad experience with a short-tempered or unavailable thought leader will set your efforts back immeasurably. Ensure that your thought leadership strategy includes a plan for responding to reporters when your thought leadership works.