A Few Words On Thought Leadership In Digital Marketing

By Kevin Klein | @kkwrites | Former PPC Hero

Editor’s Note: Former Hanapin Marketing Account Manager, Kevin Klein, guest posts on the blog today with a response to an article we recently published. You can connect with Kevin on LinkedIn here.

 

I’ve been friends with the peerless Managing Editor of this blog, Matt Umbro, for quite some time now. For the full tenure of our friendship, we’ve had perpendicular views on a gauntlet of ideas. From football rooting interests (I go Washington, he’s in the tank for the Pats), to our content development philosophies (I say blog quality is not dependent on blog length, he says the Google crawlers don’t care about my opinion), we’ve been diametrically opposed to everything in between.

 

So when he recently posted his instruction manual on how to become an industry thought leader it was no surprise to either of us that I took umbrage (Umbroge?). In continuing our legacy of spirited debate, Matt invited me to parachute into my old stomping grounds here at PPC Hero— I like what you’ve done with the place, old chums— and state my piece.

 

So from here out we’ll dispense with the niceties, and I’ll simply launch into my attack on Matt’s personal character, his hygiene, and everything he holds dear. Okay, okay, fine, I’ll just give my two cents on “thought leadership” in our industry.

 

Matt breaks out his roadmap to “thought leadership” nirvana into four subcategories. They’re as follows:

 

  • Devote 10 hours a week (at least) of personal time to furthering your craft.
  • Write as much as you can.
  • Increase your exposure.
  • Attend industry events.

 

That’s all fine and well, but I’m immediately skeptical of a how-to-be-a-thought-leader checklist that doesn’t include, well, thinking or leading. In fact, when you boil Matt’s thousand words or so down to its salient points, it could almost be a pamphlet on building your personal brand.

 

I loathe the idea that standing on a stage in front of a bunch of industry lemmings, or mingling at a bar table over a round of pilsners and using the minutiae of campaign management as conversational fodder is a prerequisite to being relevant. I strongly believe in the shy employee who summons the courage to say to their superiors, “what if we did this instead?”

 

Instead. That word is a close friend to “thought leadership” as I perceive it. A willingness to shave against the grain, to not repel from conflict, to not subscribe to a principle because it bears your community’s stamp of approval. Instead.

 

Communities are phenomenal. They’re dynamic and real-time resources and provide a sense of support and comradeship that’s often difficult to find in an office setting where your peers don’t understand what you do. I love communities, and I seek them out for all my interests, personal and professional. But I don’t think they’re great for “thought leadership.” In fact, I believe communities can often be confirmation-bias echo chambers that deaden forward thinking.

 

Why? Because these communities exist publically – on websites, message boards, social media, at conferences – and public conflict is taboo. The belt-and-suspenders crowd immediately associates conflict with unprofessionalism. There’s a fear of the professional enemy and stigmatizing yourself. All of that’s fair – I’m not telling anyone they need to set flame to the bridges they’ve worked hard to build. I’m just letting them know that maybe you can build better bridges if you use different materials.

 

But how do you find these materials? Which materials should you use? I’ll lean into this first by pointing out that I vehemently disagree with one of Matt’s points, even more than the others. This is what prompted the invitation to write this article. Matt suggests that you have to spend a chunk of your personal time continuing to focus on your professional craft.

 

There is nothing more at odds with my worldview than that sentiment (which admittedly has no shortage of extollers). Digital marketing is a neat little box, the perimeters of which are equidistant from the intersection of data-driven marketing and conventional campaign marketing. Chances are you already live in this box for 40 hours a week, at least.  Those extra ten or fifteen hours won’t enhance your thinking. What they will do is reinforce the neurological thoroughfares that you already traverse each day.

 

Forge new pathways for your thoughts. You’re never going to arrive at a new destination if you’re traveling the same roads as everyone else. I believe your time outside the office should be given to allowing your brain to stretch. Read a novel. Read a memoir. Converse with a stranger. Take a hike. Turn off the lights, grab a good pair of headphones, and give an album a close listen. Really listen. Take a course. Attend a lecture. Volunteer.  Try eating a fried scorpion. Do something that forces you to flex different cerebral muscle than you do from 9-5.

 

If you don’t possess intellectual curiosity, and resultantly don’t possess intellectual diversity, you’re not going to set yourself apart. A diet of group-think and group affirmation won’t shed the status quo fat.  “Thought leadership” is the muscle hidden underneath.

 

You’ve noticed by now that I’ve been putting the term “thought leadership” in quotation marks. The reason for this is because I think, particularly in digital marketing, the concept has grown to be a caricature of itself. A term whose meaning is drained use by vacuous use. When I think about our industry, I think of business leaders, technical leaders, community leaders, and leaders of people. These figureheads are there in abundance. But thought leaders? I don’t think most of us truly know who our thought leaders are.

 

I think our thought leaders have climbed their business ladders with cleverness and technical acumen and communication savvy. I think our thought leaders have fewer social media followers than your mom and dad. I think their thought leadership exists as encrypted packets of information that zip through the air, always around us, alighting from server farms to cell towers to personal devices. They’re silent agents of change, and their ideas are not broadcast as content, but rather as earnest discussions in dorm rooms and bars and boardrooms and eventually progress.

 

In sum, I respectfully disagree with Matt. Work harder and be louder and put yourself in the spotlight more often is misguided advice for those who want to lead with their ideas. Instead, I say work smarter and find the things outside your profession that you find beautiful. Let the pleasure or pain they bring you evolve your thinking, and bring your evolved mindset to old problems. Don’t shy from opposition. The world outside your office walls is your greatest resource.