Beyond Thought Leadership: A New Era of Authority
There’s a problem. We say “thought leadership” too much in the public relations business. We do it. Our clients do it. The whole industry does it.
As we’ve said before, the problem is not the phrase itself, it’s that there are too many people producing too much content and calling it “thought leadership.”
There are a lot of reasons for this. Publishing is cheap and easy. Marketers have thought leadership fever. There’s too much focus on quantity. Lots of would-be thought leaders don’t know what real thought leadership is or how to produce it. Marketing folks use content to appease noisy executives.
But the biggest problem is that too many would-be thought leaders get hung up on what they want to say, without stopping to consider what their audience wants to hear.
When that happens it’s at least partly our fault. Because our job is not to simply transcribe an expert’s ideas. It’s to educate them about what thought leadership means and convince them to produce actual thought leadership.
Today, more than ever, we need more than thought leaders – we need authorities. Individuals who deploy their deep experience, profound knowledge and distinct perspectives to deliver useful insights for others to learn and benefit from.
Creating Unique Positions of Authority
At Greentarget, we help professional services firms create unique positions of authority. Authority that enables skillful participation in the conversations that matter most to those firms’ audiences – and propels key audience members through the funnel.
This is more than just an elevator speech. With all the noise out there, with so much content and thought leadership pouring into screens and inboxes, we believe we have a responsibility to help ensure authorities are heard in a way that, if we do it right, will help audiences discover solutions to complex business problems.
Only true authority can do that.
True Authority is Heeded
True authority isn’t just heard, it’s heeded. To be heeded it must serve an authentic audience need. It must challenge conventional wisdom and norms. It must have a point of view that someone could disagree with. It must be tested on the battlefield of today’s media environment.
You’ll know your point of view is heeded when it’s adopted, diffused, challenged and iterated upon by other authorities. It’s heeded when it’s cited and interpreted by credible media outlets. Most importantly, you’ll know your authority is heeded when it opens the door to conversations that fuel client development.
For professional services, this is the power of true authority: when your points of view transform interested but passive readers into engaged client prospects. Moving from the awareness portion of the marketing funnel into consideration is what triggers door-opening conversations – and through those doors await new relationships, ready to be cultivated. That’s the holy grail of authority positioning.
True Authorities Understand and Serve Audience Needs
Authority is ultimately a service, rooted in understanding an audience’s needs. We have to establish empathy with our audiences to identify what they care about most. We do this using a variety of tools, starting with 10 years of proprietary data on the content preferences and behaviors of C-level executives. We also analyze keyword search patterns, work to understand media narratives, examine influencer conversations and conduct primary research to put our clients in their audience’s shoes.
For example, while others might use SEO data merely as a tool for drawing more eyeballs, we reverse the process and think of it as a proxy for what audiences are looking for. That’s the difference between content marketing and authority positioning.
Once we get our heads around what the audience cares about, we turn our focus to the fundamental elements of true authority: relevance, novelty, urgency and utility. True authority is heeded because it drives these critical reader reactions:
- This has a direct impact on my business. (Relevance)
- I’ve never heard anything like this before. (Novelty)
- I need to read this now. (Urgency)
- This will help me do my job. (Utility)
That last one is the golden ticket.
The Role of Utility
Utility attracts C-suite executives to content more than any other attribute. It is the quality most likely to move an executive audience closer to a purchasing decision. A point of view that’s just interesting or informative might impress but won’t be heeded. If it tells them what they need to do, they’re far more likely to pick up the phone, call the author and say “I need you to help me do that. Right now.”
Utility disrupts the professional services sales cycle by answering the question “what do I need to do to navigate or address this issue today?” Ideally, it provides the answer before the audience has asked it. It empowers audiences to act by tipping the scales from passive consumer to engaged prospect. With utility, authorities will be heeded. Without utility, it’s just talk. More talk means more noise.
Authorities Must Challenge the Non-Experts
True authorities do more than provide a roadmap for action, they identify and challenge non-experts and actual experts with new or conflicting perspectives. Our most informed, perceptive thinkers have a responsibility to engage. That responsibility requires a willingness to go to battle on the sea of noise.
Especially because, in today’s discourse, authorities are in competition with a cacophony of non-authorities spouting uninformed perspectives based on little more than intuition. Their noisy prattle has diluted the overall quality of our discourse, making great ideas harder to hear.
Look no further than TEDx for an example. TED started as a forum for sharing and disseminating the very best ideas, but quickly became a widescale business model. TEDx was born with the intent of bringing TED-quality ideas to a local audience. But the real play here was to help TED broaden the pool of available content to attract a much wider and stickier audience. TED became a mixed bag of really great, pretty good and merely pedestrian content. It lost the very thing that made it special: the rigorous curation of the most important, challenging and novel ideas.
Authority Requires Skilled Participation
Authority requires skilled participation in largely uncontrolled communications environments. This is no easy task and it’s not for the easily frustrated. Got something compelling to say? It’s not enough to put pen to paper and publish your thoughts on your insights page. Authorities must also engage and open themselves up to the possibility that their ideas will be challenged and iterated upon in service of the larger community.
True authorities are willing to suit up on today’s media playing field. They play to serve audiences, not their own egos. That means disseminating their point of view on a medium that forces brevity, applies scrutiny and demands accuracy. Engaging earned media compels our smartest and most informed thinkers to distill their perspectives into easily digestible viewpoints. True authorities understand and embrace the constraint.
Authority without dissemination is simply rumination.
Authorities Must be Willing to Battle Internal Forces
Putting all of these pieces in place leaves one final hurdle to overcome and it is the most challenging: the nature and structure of professional services firms themselves. In particular, the partnership structure. Authority requires a combination of focus and audacity, both of which get eroded by consensus-driven partnerships. Consensus is by its nature in conflict with powerful points of view. Authorities must be willing to engage in that conflict and refuse to let the safety of consensus inhibit or dilute their perspectives.
Authority is ultimately a position of power. It can fuel the coveted transition from outside advisor to trusted counselor – but it is not for the faint of heart. In an era of rampant noise and careless abuse of the thought-leader label we need our smartest thinkers to step forward to engage in dialog that benefits the business community and society as a whole. Those who do it well will be heeded – and rewarded.
Our mission at Greentarget is to direct a smarter conversation. But we can only direct. Authorities provide the insights and perspective that actually make conversations smarter. With their skillful participation we can elevate the discourse, empower business leaders and build the kind of reputations that fuel success.
Are you ready to seize the mantle?