Last week I spoke about the value of genuine thought leadership, which is the Holy Grail of content that produces authority and credibility to the leaders and organizations that can excel on this front. But it is equally vital in a discussion of thought leadership and social media sharing to examine the things that thought leadership is not, as follows:

  • Thought Leadership is Not Lead Generation

First and foremost, thought leadership is not lead generation. Far and away, marketers name lead generation as their highest priority (71.3% in both 2013 and 2014 according to Marketing Profs) for the content they generate and share. The number two priority, at 49.9%, is thought leadership and market education.

Make no mistake, lead generation is a vital goal for virtually every organization. It cannot be overlooked or ignored. But the single greatest mistake in thought leadership activities is to expect thought leadership—particularly because of its high value in credibility, in education, and even in SEO authority and ranking—to do the job of lead generation as well.

“We were on the cover of Inc. Magazine, and in CNN Money, showing our ability to do something that has never been done before, ever,” is a common lament of leaders who misunderstand this distinction. “Yet I can’t name a single sale that occurred from that coverage.”

Or “Why did you share that infographic with Forbes where they get all of the leads and we get none of the leads?”

Both of these statements reflect the typical gap in appropriate thought leadership thinking. While strong thought leadership is the form of communication that stands at the very pinnacle of authority and influence, and while it serves as an invaluable resource to incorporate into lead generation campaigns, it is not lead generation. Nor does thought leadership replace the function of sales. Strong thought leadership is the gasoline you pour into an effective sales and lead generation engine for maximum impact and sales conversion results.

  • Thought Leadership is Not a Commodity

“Make me a thought leader,” is the frequent request of executives who lack the vision of what a commitment to excellent thought leadership will entail.

They assume that obtaining a masthead and an opportunity to contribute to a few prestigious publications is an outcome you can obtain by paying a person or an agency a sum of money to “get me connected” and then showing up now and then with content for the publication to issue (and even becoming disgruntled at the expectation that it’s the publication’s job to drive traffic and interest to the pieces the author presents).

In genuine settings, the opportunity to contribute is a hard-earned achievement, both to obtain and then to continue to earn by attracting a following that crowns the initial achievement of getting themselves into print.

Far too many self-considered “thought leaders” contribute columns to even high-ranking publications that draw few views and are of little avail. Some are even a net negative to the author’s reputation as they show poor form and style, lack of innovative thinking, or serve as thinly veiled excuses for the executive to sneak in promotional references to their organizations or themselves.

  • Thought Leadership is Not About You

“We need to tell the piece about how our company _____.” No, you don’t.

“This is my voice, and I must stay authentic to my voice, my thoughts and my experiences and expertise. I’m a columnist now.” Well, not for long. Your readers are not interested in your personal ethos.

“Other entrepreneurs should be inspired by what I’ve done.” Perhaps they should. But they won’t be.

The golden rule of genuine thought leadership is that every aspect of the communication is generated with the readers’ needs and interests in mind. “What’s in this for me” is the crux of every reader’s willingness to care for even a moment about what you think or what you or your organization has done. The ability to provide information that applies directly or even urgently to the reader in a way they can put to immediate use is genuine thought leadership. The rest is an expensive waste of resource in the creation of a piece of content that will please and inspire only you and perhaps a few of your family and friends (and if they’re being honest with you, perhaps they’re not reading either).

True thought leaders work closely with a team of trusted advisors to ensure that the subjects they share and the material they generate is truly hitting the mark.

  • Thought Leadership is a Highly Specialized Form of Content Marketing

Expert opinions vary on the ways thought leadership differs from content marketing. In our opinion, thought leadership is a highly specialized form of content marketing. The concepts align and overlap.

The content that drives leads and conversions most effectively is a specialized form of communication as well. Strong content marketing materials employ many of the same attributes as thought leadership—educative content with a strong value-add that is interesting, compelling, and perhaps even provocative or entertaining at times. True thought leadership materials can serve as the foundation for great lead generation campaigns, as the genesis of a thought leadership article can be expanded to give specific company and product examples, and can (and should) include a direct call to action. Each form of content, however, must be clearly authentic and identifiable for just what it is.

An authoritative article should not bend itself into a subtle or not-so-subtle marketing bid. And a company’s content marketing material should not pretend to be an independent industry article or an authoritative research report.

Transparency and integrity is vital to the relationship of trust with prospective customers and to achieving the goals that either form of communication can bring.

From this standpoint, how effective is the content your company is currently creating? Does each form of content match its intended purpose in its form and style? To assess your own current abilities and to discover how the content you’re currently creating could by serving your company better, call or email the specialists at to get a free assessment today.