Content Marketing

How to Write Thought Leadership Posts That Don’t Make Editors (and Readers) Want to Die

This story originally appeared in Fast Company.

If entrepreneurship is, as Harvard professor Howard Stevenson calls it, “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled,” then business builders have a lot in common with journalists. And whereas entrepreneurs can learn much from the journalism trade itself, some of today’s top business leaders are actually participating in journalism, with enterprise-worthy results.

The way they do it is through guest writing, and the point of attack is the Opinion section or other places where publications print expert commentary. Whether it’s the governor of New York guest writing a persuasive essay on climate change in a daily newspaper or this guest column you’re reading right now in Fast Company, most magazines, newspapers, and blogs allot space for industry experts to share their points of view.

But most publications won’t take just anyone. And they won’t print thinly-veiled marketing messages with no takeaway. Here are four tips for getting printed and breaking through the full-to-bursting inboxes at your top-choice publications:

Establish credibility

Editors are busy people who are constantly badgered by pitches that are far off the mark, and they are the gateway to publication through which you must pass. So don’t waste their time. Convince them to give you a shot through at least two of the following three:

1. Show you’ve got a track record of writing for legitimate places (the editor will infer you’re a good writer, and probably easy to edit). Your pitch email itself is another opportunity to show your writing ability, so let a little personality in. If your email bores them, why would they want to subject their readers to a longer version of it?

2. Write a concise story pitch that shows you can write well in few words. (I recommend keeping your story idea pitch to 300 characters or less.)

3. Tout relevant credentials or expertise in the subject matter (CEO of a relevant company, Albert Einstein’s apprentice).

These will make a wary editor’s leap of faith a little easier to make.

Have something to contribute to a larger conversation

To get the gig—and the audience respect that comes with it—“you have to truly be a valuable source of information,” says Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media and frequent guest writer for Advertising Age and Fast Company.

A former journalist, Lazerow understands that his industry—social enterprise software—is full of people hungry for information and fearful of being left behind. His guest posts about Facebook, advertising, and social marketing help his audience make sense of the industry, while establishing Lazerow (and his company) as a thought leader.

“Think about who you are trying to reach, and then think about the top questions those people would ask about the topic you’re writing about,” Lazerow says. “Try as best as you can to answer those questions.”

For the social media newspaper The Daily Dot, guest writing is a way to simply get on people’s radar.

“We wanted to find opportunities to tell our story to audiences we weren’t already reaching,” says founder Nicholas White. White’s stories at places like PBS discuss the future of newspapers, using The Daily Dot’s experiences as conversation starters. To be successful, says White, “It has to be a real contribution to a conversation, not just an ad for your site.” Telling compelling stories about your personal experiences or citing case studies from your own company in some instances can help illustrate points about your industry or area of expertise and give you material that no one else has.

Use journalistic rigor

As the prestige of a publication increases, so does the credibility and rigor necessary to be published. For example, in a recent op-ed I wrote about America’s freelance economy for The Washington Post, I researched and interviewed economists, business professors, advocacy groups, and man-on-the-street freelancers, and pored over dozens of government reports in order to back up my point, that the growing number of freelancers in the U.S. is helping the economy and needs infrastructure.

Thorough research, reporting, and proper attribution of sources prevents writers from being dismissed as self-promotional gasbags. And with all information publishing—whether objective news or content marketing—be ethical. Never betray your readers with misleading material.

Take a stance, if you have one—and you should

Guest writing, says White, often best succeeds when it’s opinionated. “It can’t be like, no, duh,” he says.

In many cases, that’s exactly the reason publishers will print expert commentary; you’re bringing something to the discussion that a traditional news story can’t. Your business should stand for something anyway. Why not leverage your unique point of view?

Focus on what you can contribute, not self-promotion

“Too many founders think about guest posting in terms of, ‘How can I translate my sales deck into a guest post?’” Lazerow says. “If you’re just going to use a guest post to plug your widget, it’s useless and people will see through it.”

Guest writing ought not to be thought of as marketing. The likelihood of directly tracking ROI (e.g., someone clicks on your byline in a guest post, then immediately buys something on your site) is very low, and not the best use of guest writing opportunities. For young companies with small footprints, or established organizations wishing to align with certain topics, guest writing raises awareness, builds brand equity, and cements the idea that a company cares about an industry, topic, or cause.

“Being a good source—through speaking with journalists and writing guest columns for publication—is one of the best ways to create value,” Lazerow says.

And in the long run, it can drive business. As White puts it, guest writing is like giving out samples in a grocery store. “You get a taste and hopefully you decide to buy a bottle.”

Image by Lucho Molina

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