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Trust is hard-earned, easily broken and difficult to repair. It’s also a rare commodity at the moment. We’re in an age of mistrust, where content is ubiquitous, checks and balances are lagging, and opinions seem interchangeable with facts.
Thought leadership is the antidote to misinformation. Today, we explore examples of what thought leadership looks like, from The New York Times to Basecamp. Plus, what you can learn about “doing thought leadership” as a business.
Read on to find out what thought leadership has to do with dishwashers and why all the best newspapers have morgues.
This is what it feels like to be in today's market of ideas. There’s just a tsunami of content. Once upon a time, it was big news if we got a new channel on the telly. Using a computer meant going to the computer room and using one of the old BBC Micros. (Yes, that is going back a bit!)
Now, though, there are billions of websites, billions of TikToks, billions of... You can pick any internet statistic, and there's just lots of it. And it’s hard to sift out truth from lies, fact from fiction. It just becomes this wave that washes over you.
All this content is not necessarily a bad thing; it's the world we live in. But it starts to be important because…
How do you get your stuff in front of the right eyeballs? Facebook and other social media sites use algorithms to tap into your addiction triggers. This way, they can serve up advertising to a rapt audience. There's a commercial intent to all of this. These sites exist to make money. If you're not paying for it, you are the product.
So, what feeds into this system? Outrage, on the one hand, and familiar ideas and thought processes on the other (the “bubble”). Truth can get lost in a sea of hype, emotion, self-fulfilling prophecies and dopamine. That tends to mean that people are less and less trusting because they are divided and polarised and living increasingly in their own information bubbles. All this results in growing distrust of the media. Mainstream and new media.
Then, amongst all of this, some people deliberately set out to misuse this media landscape we live in. The Rand Corporation called this methodology the “firehose of falsehood” when they wrote about Russian propaganda.
There are good and bad actors who are clearly using this technique. The goal is not so much to persuade people or to counter one version of the truth with another version of the truth.
This is the danger that we face. As businesses, we all have a responsibility to do something here. We have a role to play. Edelman thinks businesses are — surprisingly — relatively trusted and perceived as competent. It’s up to us to use thought leadership to stand up to BS.
Thought leadership is washing dishes
How do we use thought leadership content wisely and effectively for marketing? We’re going to frame this with what may seem like a trivial example but stick with it. Honestly, almost anything can be thought leadership. Even dishwashers. It’s all about how you tackle the subject matter.
So. Opinions can be thought leadership. Everyone has an opinion about how dishwashers should be loaded, yes? Couples have even divorced over it.
The New York Times published this article, How to Use Your Dishwasher Better. They went and found some research from Bosch and Miele about how to load dishwashers. They did some empirical testing about how dishwashers work, how to load them effectively, and why you don’t need to rinse the plates before putting them in the dishwasher. They’re writing in the world of traditional mainstream media, using data, evidence, research, experts and so on.
Now, some people don’t think The New York Times knows anything about loading a dishwasher. They may have evidence to back that up. So suddenly, we're in the world of debate as thought leadership. You can have strong opinions, which is valid thought leadership, too, as long as you listen to all sides and are open to new ideas. Actually, the more validly or legitimately opinionated you are, the more impactful that content is, right? It sparks a conversation and engagement.
Let’s go further. They didn't have dishwashers in the 18th century, but doing the dishes can be art. Here is art that's hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence of somebody doing the dishes:
Let's see how deep this rabbit hole goes. What about washing dishes… as religion? Here is a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist thought leader and zen master:
‘While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.’
Deep, man. This is part of a longer sermon on mindfulness and focus. It's not proselytising. He doesn't want you to change how you do the dishes; he wants you to be more aware of it. Lots of people do it in a very distracted way.
See how we've gone from how do we load the dishes in the dishwasher, something relatively mundane, to something quite profound? Same subject, same topic.
Thought leadership can be all of these things. It can be factual, scientific, opinionated, experiential, artistic, or religious… but it should always be sincere. The difference between thought leadership and bullshit is sincerity of intent AND truthfulness. (Health warning: plenty of people pedal BS with full sincerity.) It may be your truth, as long as you’re backing it up with good evidence and sound research. But there’s unity and integrity to good thought leadership. It’s deeply considered and well-researched, showing the full picture, not just cherry-picked data. It’s anything but placeholder, AI-written poly filler. It’s aware of limitations and transparent about that: more work required; more information needed; we’re open to new ideas. If you don’t have that, then you’re simply pushing dogmatism.
Finally, thought leadership is respectful to the audience, meaning relevant, useful and interesting. It cannot exist in a vacuum. Thought leadership, like all content, lives in the space between the creator and the audience.
How to build trust - a deep-dive into The New York Times
The New York Times is just a lens for these points. Pick your paper. But here’s what we see them doing to build trust as a thought leader:
Separation of opinion from news. They treat opinions and news differently, and they keep them separate. Businesses could do the same: CEO’s take on XYZ, resource centre, FAQs and so on.
Clarity about money. Who pays? Cui Bono (who benefits)? NYT is very open about this. In marketing, you should be honest about the value exchange. For example, if you have a piece of premium content behind a form your audience wants, you can be upfront and ask for contact information to grant access. If you deliver on that exchange, then that’s fine. But don’t short-change people.
Bylines. NYT has bylines, meaning authors are named, often with a short bio. We’ve recently chosen to add bios to our blog so you can see who this content comes from and why it’s worth your attention. You can do this by communicating who you are as a business and where your expertise comes from on your website.
Visible sourcing. We get pushback from clients who say, ‘Why are you putting all these hyperlinks all the way through all our articles?’ Well, The New York Times is full of hyperlinks, too. It's about communicating sourcing and giving value to the reader. It builds credibility. And it gives credit where it’s due.
Fact-checking. Make sure what you’re saying is backed up by data. I went back into my email archive to 2005, when I wrote an article for Wired about German Autobahns. I said: ‘There are parts of the German Autobahn network that do not have a speed limit.’ This is what I got back from the incredibly diligent editors:
Transparency. The New York Times has a huge library of articles that explain how they work. In one case, they talk about how they can produce a 10,000-word article within an hour of something happening in the news. That's not possible, of course. So, people get caught up in conspiracy theories about how they do that. But actually, they have morgues of content, including pre-written obituaries for famous people. By telling the truth, they put those conspiracy theories, that misinformation, to rest.
Right. That’s The New York Times. Who else can we turn to for examples of thought leadership?
Scott Galloway. See the No mercy/No malice blog. He has a captivating, compelling, and challenging writing and presentation style. It’s opinionated and experiential and backed by hard data, too. He has a team of researchers, so each article is a deep-dive, an opinion piece and almost a research paper, but with a lot of fizz and ginger. This is a real lesson in opinion-based thought leadership.
Edelman Trust Barometer. This is very much research-based, survey-based content. They're very clear about their methodology. They do original research and publish the results. Businesses can do the same or simply source research bodies like Edelman in content.
Chatham House. Where Edelman is a PR company, Chatham House is a think tank, for want of a better word. You may have heard of their ‘Chatham House rules’. They invite high-level experts who debate things, and they encourage the freedom of debate by offering non-attribution. Meaning they will capture what you are saying but won't say it’s you. You are protected, so you can be candid. Companies often do something similar with non-attribution for things like case studies, where you can’t name names, but you can publish results.
Jancis Robinson. She’s an interesting persona in the wine world, but what's really interesting is the database of reviews on her website, which you have to pay to subscribe to. She and her team taste, taste, taste, taste, taste. There will be multiple generations of reviews of many wines on there. So you can see whether that winery is on an upward trend. You can see whether the 2014 or 2015 bottle is better. Authoritative, comprehensive, reputable, and long-lived. It’s a fantastic model to follow.
New York Times: Wirecutter. So, this is where NYT reviews products. They do very unbiased, rigorous reviews of the best headphones or the best whatever else. They include the methodology, how it was scored and so on. You feel safe reading their reviews because it’s all absolutely transparent.
ProcessDriven. Our friend Layla Pomper, who helped us when we were using ClickUp, is the world's authority on ClickUp. Seriously. If you've got a problem with ClickUp, she provides amazing video and blog content that epitomises how-to, problem-solving, specific technical stuff. It’s thorough and up-to-date. An excellent example of how to do ‘how-to’ content for SaaS apps and B2B tech platforms.
Basecamp. Basecamp is one of our role model companies, and the founders there, David and Jason, have consistently used their thought leadership, books, and so on as marketing. It’s all written from experience and with some flare and some insight. We recommend anything that they produce. Their content has depth and is well-considered.
Take these examples and look to thought leaders you admire, too. Investigate what they do and how you might apply those lessons to your content. If you’d like to learn more about translating thought leadership into marketing, here are five articles to help you on that journey: