Blog - Dominic Jeff -Writing for Business
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Can Thought Leadership really be Ghost-written?

The idea behind thought leadership is, in a nutshell, to project your expertise with insightful opinion and useful commentary. It is a natural and effective form of marketing. But many feel that since it has been co-opted by that dastardly cabal, the PR industry, it has become tainted and meaningless.

One of the worst accusations levelled at thought leadership is that it is now sometimes ghost written. How can you be a leader if it’s not even your own voice, the reasoning goes.

This argument is well rehearsed in this marketing blog which argues that ghost writing is part of the problem, as such articles inevitably lack the credibility, expertise and personality which a true leader should provide.

John Hall says: “The term ‘thought leadership’ has been thrown around a lot lately, often tacked on to industry articles without any consideration as to whether the ideas presented are actually … well … leadership-worthy. Unfortunately, what should be thought-provoking posts have proven to be simply buzzword-laden pieces of content.”

I agree. But I think that often it is when the knowledgeable experts and executives are left to their own devices that the buzzword cramming happens. There are some very authentic but truly awful pieces of writing produced by well-meaning business owners and earnest professionals in this vein. Many others focus excessively on themselves as they desperately try to stand out.

Perhaps the latter is because of the term itself. ‘Thought leadership’ not only sounds pretentious, but it actually places the onus in the wrong place. Should you really be trying to be ‘leadership worthy’? Surely, as in other aspects of life, such a hairy-chested approach will only serve to make you seem like a puffed up prat who thinks the’re better than everyone else.

This blog from the Marketing Insider Group  offers a better approach. It defines thought leadership as “a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience, on a particular topic.”

Here, a good ghost writer can really help, by asking those questions that everyone else wants answering. Often, experts themselves don’t realise just how much others don’t know. Their attempts at helpful comment will therefore go over their audience’s heads, or at the very least fail to address the really pressing issues.

Others genuinely don’t have the writing skills to produce a properly crafted article. Or more often they do, but they don’t have the time. After all, the kind of people who should be doing thought leadership are usually pretty busy.

A skilled ghost writer should be able to help with all these aspects. And they should be able to tailor their help to the strengths and weaknesses of the person they are ghosting for.

For example, if an entrepreneur is passionate, knowledgeable about their market and full of personality, then the writer’s role is to capture all that and get it across, just as a journalist would when writing up an interview or profile piece. When done well, such articles don’t just consist of answers to questions, however burning they may be: the author subtly weaves in enough background to paint a picture of the subject at the same time. Using these journalistic – as opposed to merely writing – skills, the same can be done through an opinion piece.

Others experts can lack personality, or at least don’t know how to project it. Here, the skilled ghost writer can focus away from that and ensure that it is their knowledge and insight that shines through. This is particularly effective when aimed at an industry beyond the opinion giver’s own sector.

The Communications Business are experts in thought leadership, and seek to “create and implement cutting-edge leadership influencer programmes which allow senior directors to take ‘ownership’ and set the agenda on strategic industry and business issues.” But this savvy PR agency usually targets its thought leadership at publications serving the industries which their clients serve, rather than the industries of the clients themselves.

In that situation, a ghost writer who also has knowledge of the sector for which he or she is writing can be of even more value. They will be able to help pick topics of interest, ask the questions on everyone’s lips, and ensure the article references suitable themes. The real commercial value of thought leadership surely lies in appearing knowledgeable to your potential clients, and in that respect, a writer with journalist skills can be useful.


Recent Articles: #vanlife and web design

I’m no web designer, as this site proves, but I think that those of us on the content creation side have an important role to play in shaping the web too. That’s why I ran an extended version of my ‘How Long should a Blog Be’ article in the prestigious Webdesigner Depot magazine:

Another area of personal experience I wrote abut recently was remote working… from a camper van. As a writer, I enjoy the freedom of being able to work from any location, and indeed a change of environment can be the perfect tonic for waning inspiration… especially when you go somewhere beautiful.

The picture below shows my trusty van near Oliana, in Catalunya, on a frosty morning. It was great to be above the inversion as I find the light in Catalunya in winter perfect for feeling energised and creative. If you’re in any doubt about why you should hire a freelance or encourage remote working, have a read!

Working on the Road – What Van Life Is Really Like

Solid Opinion is Key to Thought Leadership

The web, and the blogosphere in particular, is full of how-to-guides, look-at-me boasting pieces and this-is-why-you-must sales pitches. All have their place, but if you want to be heard and respected, a good old comment is often the best option.

True, everyone has an opinion. But on the other hand, yours is unique. And if you can pinpoint the issues which are of interest to your client base and provide an insightful angle on them based on your specific knowledge, they will listen. In fact, good expert comment and opinion is arguably the most high-value content in any publication.[quote]insight, rather than news, is what readers value.[/quote]

Opinion still sells

Just look at the major newspapers and how they treat their columns: in many cases, they are the last bastion of paid content – either protected by paywalls of kept as an exclusive benefit for those who still buy a physical copy of the paper. Heavyweight political commentators are usually the most highly paid journalists on a newspaper, editors included. And when they change teams, readers often follow them.

All of that indicates that insight, rather than news, is what readers value. That is because big news is of little value in the internet age. It carries no exclusivity as it will be regurgitated over the web within minutes of it breaking, and therefore people won’t pay for it.

True, news is a perishable commodity and has to appear immediately rather than waiting for a print edition. But that is all the more reason why bloggers should aim for a well-crafted comment rather than simply seeking to inform.[quote]a company blog that is mostly snippets of company updates and staff charity announcements isn’t going to create much of a buzz[/quote]

Of course, most bloggers and marketing writers aren’t aiming for scoops. But on the other hand, a company blog that is mostly snippets of company updates and staff charity announcements isn’t going to create much of a buzz either. It will simply make the organisation look inward-focused and self-congratulatory.

Pure marketing copy has its place – on landing pages, sections of websites and brochures. But if you bombard people with sales pitches, they will literally go away. They’ll stop reading your blog or mark your emails as junk.

A good informative guide – whether in long-form downloadable format or as a blog – can really help attract potential customers and increase page views, but there’s only so many you can produce. With opinion, the possibilities are endless.

Never run out of blog ideas

Because you can pick any current issue or news item and give your twist on it, you can literally select a fresh theme every week. Or every day if you really want to!

That’s not to say you should be churning out ill-conceived waffle. And clearly, by ’opinion’ we’re not talking about stating entrenched views or going off on rants. Good comment takes in opposing sides of an argument. It analyses the facts and positions. And at the end of its elegant reasoning, it may or may not choose to come down on one side or another.

Your opinion can be mild but well-reasoned. Or it can condemn hard, sing praises where they’re due, and trumpet calls to action. So long as it’s well laid out, informative and interesting, it will be well received and will go a long way to cementing your reputation as a thought leader.

Need some help becoming a thought leader? Dominic can help

What’s the ideal length for a blog?

A good editor once pointed out to me that every journalist wants to be a documentary maker, when they should be concentrating on finding more stories and giving them the treatments they deserved. No longer, no shorter.

Seeing as, at the time, I had to give my stories the treatment he thought they deserved (he was usually right), the adage is more useful to me now than then. The internet era has done away with strict word counts and in theory, every online article can be as long as the author feels necessary to cover the subject.

Unfortunately, many bloggers forget the second part of the old joke relating to dresses and speeches (and articles): they should also be short enough to be interesting!

So, how long should a blog be? If you’re guest writing for a publication, or even for someone else’s blog, the simple answer is that it’s as long as the editor or blog owner asks for. While this was a strict rule in the days of print because the text had a slot to fill – even longer articles had to be within 25 words of the target – it remains common courtesy today.

There are certain advantages too: a strict word count forces the author to edit and prune ruthlessly and this is usually a good thing – see my last post for the relevance of old-school style. But it’s also worth remembering that major blogs and online magazines still have a style to stick to.

Editors really appreciate copy that is to length, and it will vastly increase the chances of your article appearing as you wrote it. Because if you don’t edit it to size, somebody else will. Even if you’re not given a target length, it may be worth emulating what is currently on the site you are writing for.

What about your own blog? Can each post be as long as the subject deserves? Maybe it’s my newspaper background but I think that some sort of adherence to a style is desirable. For a start, it forces editorial discipline and stops you getting carried away into the realms of the documentary.

Opinions as to the ideal length of a blog vary wildly. Even excluding the picture bloggers, gif-copiers and news-spammers of the blogosphere, formats range from around 300 words to over 2,000.

This admirably detailed post on Medium aims to take a scientific approach, by analysing the number of clicks and links which blogs of various lengths get. Curiously, they concentrate on the time it takes to read an article, rather than the word length – Medium’s conclusion is that for SEO purposes at least, you should be aiming for 7 minutes.

They don’t give a word estimate for that, but this blogger did the calculation and comes up with a whopping 1,600 words. That drops to around 1,000 if you include lots of pictures and graphics (assuming people stop to look at them) but it it still sounds a bit too long to me.

It’s not that people’s attentions are short – it’s just that there are so many distractions out there. If people are reading at work, how long is their break? When will the boss be back? A 1,600 word article looks like it will take a good chunk of time. Personally, I think you’re getting close to the length where you might consider writing a ‘white paper’ or downloadable report.

For the purposes of a well crafted opinion piece, aiming for the length of a newspaper or magazine column seems a good bet: That means between 600 and 1,000 words. That is a nice size for your readers to enjoy in their coffee break, with a chance to think about it and hopefully share it on social media before going about their day.

This is why a lot of the premium content in newspapers is of this length: it’s a golden chunk of someone’s time – when they take a break from their main activity.

Of course, the scientific evidence points to 1,600 words as an ideal length for SEO, and that’s not to be sniffed at. But what if you split that blog into two – part one and two? Medium’s analysis doesn’t make clear if your two shorter blogs will gather more clicks than one long one, but with a broad bell curve on the graph, its a good bet they will.

Here’s one I did for a client recently – hopefully you’ll be tempted to read the second half too!

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