5 Pillars of Strong Tech Thought Leadership

Street Fight receives dozens of thought leadership column pitches per month, most of them by the B2B tech vendors that drive the martech ecosystem we cover. As the publication’s editor, I have reviewed and edited hundreds of guest columns, and I have also written them as a marketing practitioner.

Communications professionals and tech executives often ask what distinguishes strong tech thought leadership from pitches that miss the mark. Here are five pillars of high-quality tech thought leadership to guide would-be thought leaders to success.

Craft a specific and original thesis

I’ve taught college composition courses, and when I was taught how to teach those classes, a seasoned writing pedagogue told me that before teaching students how to write, we had to teach them how to think. Like poor student essays, the least successful thought leadership pitches lack a clear central idea or argument.

The first step to success in becoming a thought leader, then, is to determine the precise contribution you’re going to make to the ecosystem. Furthermore, this contribution should be a rare insight that you are particularly qualified to share. What do you see in your industry that few others see? What problems do you spot for which you have unusual solutions? What are people discussing that you could more clearly articulate?

Clarity makes a passable thesis; specificity and originality make a strong thesis. Be sure to define your terms. For example, I often see takes in marketing on the importance of empathy. These takes are often ineffective because they fail to articulate what the author means by “empathy.” Language is more ambiguous than you might think; be specific to help the reader understand the value you’re bringing to a discussion.

Originality is also important. This year, we in martech have all read hundreds of articles on the importance of first-party data. Fair enough. But how do brands amass enough first-party data to drive strategies typically built on third-party data? Will privacy benefit big brands at the expense of smaller ones with less access to first-party data? These are the nuances where originality thrives.

Be concise

Concision and specificity go hand in hand. Typically, writers are not concise when they do not know what they want to communicate. Nothing makes an editor groan like a martech op-ed that begins, “2021 has been packed with uncertainty.” This does little to advance your thesis or educate the reader. You’re better off getting straight to the point (your thesis).

Skip the conclusion if it is redundant

Some martech publications advise writers always to include a conclusion. I disagree. Often, the 600-word op-eds martech writers pen do not require a recapitulation of the argument, especially if the piece includes sections that help the reader easily understand the essay’s main points.

If you do include a conclusion, it cannot simply restate the points of the essay (see the point about concision above). The conclusion must transcend the content of the essay, enriching its main ideas by bringing them to a new plane or context. For example, perhaps you’ve discussed how to tackle tracking changes in 2021. The conclusion may be a good place to expound on the future of data privacy regulation and best practices for tracking beyond this year.

Avoid the urge to sell

I get it — you have a CEO to satisfy or you are a CEO yourself, and you want to take advantage of the real estate you’re earning on a third-party media site to make a sales pitch. But even if you get the promotional angle past an editor, selling is unlikely to earn you readers, and readers are the real people who turn around and become customers. Think about a recent essay you read that read like a sales pitch; did it make you want to research the company or did it turn you off, leading you to bounce halfway through?

Here’s the thing — you can shorten the path to conversion and earn new business without selling in the article. The premise of thought leadership as a marketing practice is that you position yourself as a leader in the space and a go-to resource for insights for the precise problems your potential customers need solved. This is a long game.

Thought leadership only rarely yields immediately attributable ROI, but it will earn you dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of readers, boost brand awareness, and generate some fans among those readers. Eventually, fans may become customers. That’s the target — but you have to accept, if you want to be a thought leader, that the ROI for most of your efforts will not be as evident, at least not at first, as that of a social or search ad.

Solve problems for your readers

Not every tech op-ed needs to be centered on a reader’s problem, but much of the best tech thought leadership follows this strategy. I don’t think this is because good writing necessarily requires a problem; I would speculate that it is because focusing on a problem leads writers to follow this column’s first piece of advice — that is, focusing on problems and solutions leads authors to be specific.

Of course, orienting thought leadership around a problem also beckons the readers you want — prospective customers, or the people who have the problem that you, and perhaps only you, know how to solve. If a strategy — in this case, solving problems — leads to salient arguments and connections with prospective customers, it’s a solid strategy for marketing content.

The value of tech thought leadership

While writing this column, I thought of Scott Galloway, who has become one of the most prominent thought leaders in all of technology. I recently listened to Galloway’s first interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher. Galloway got on Swisher’s show because he had previously been working to establish himself as a thought leader, and going on her show was in itself an act of thought leadership (sharing insights with the ecosystem with no immediate benefit other than building his own brand).

I am confident that many of the steps in Galloway’s path to becoming a thought leader generated no measurable ROI; he was just sharing specific, sharp, original insights with the (formerly much smaller) audiences available to him. But Galloway’s story — the story of accumulating instances of thought leadership leading to a massive platform and no doubt a whole lot of ROI — while an outlier in its scale, is precisely how thought leadership functions as a marketing strategy.

You share original and well-written or well-articulated insights that matter to your audience. You build trust and a reputation. And somewhere down the line, you will get customers out of it — or maybe fame, riches, and a CNN show. The ROI doesn’t manifest immediately. But when it comes to thought leadership, tomorrow’s spoils vanish for those intent on seeing returns today.

Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Joe is an ad/martech veteran who has covered the space since 2015 and regularly consults with companies in the space on content and communications. You can contact him at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.