The mutual fund and ETF space is full of buzzwords, particularly when talking about content marketing. Content marketing can be defined as any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of media and self-publishing content in order to acquire clients. But lately it seems that in the content marketing world every special report or longish article is a "white paper" and that anything anyone writes or develops is "thought leadership." In reality, both terms are in danger of losing their meaning.

While a white paper was once an academic research paper, today the term white paper has become synonymous with an authoritative report or guide helping readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.

White papers are a form of grey literature, which means it is informally published written material (such as reports) that may be difficult to trace via conventional channels such as published journals. B2B white papers are often used to generate sales leads. So while long-form written content can be helpful in advancing a business agenda, just writing and putting out one's own paper is not thought leadership. Real white papers have a strong degree of rigor involved, not just a point of view or a business agenda to advance. Also, it is important to keep in mind that the piece will be seen as more credible if published by an entity other than one's own firm. That's why the old phrase "publish or perish" has long been bandied around in academic circles. Professors know that they must submit and have their work published in peer-reviewed journals if they want to advance their careers.

Having worked in the financial services industry over the past 25 years, I speak with some authority when I say that most of us will never be seen as thought leaders - we just don't have the time to sit and think and produce articulate, original thought on a particular subject, in a sustained way, over time. That's what it takes to produce thought leadership pieces. One must think, really think, and advance the conversation around a body of thought. The sad reality is that most of what we see in the industry is far from thought leadership (a more apt description might be "group think" or warmed over common knowledge), and yet we continue to see "thought leadership" tabs on many-a-website and in push email campaigns.


In their book Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Services Firms Become Thought Leaders, authors Russ Alan Prince and Bruce H. Rogers provide these two definitions:

1. A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.

In other words, true thought leaders do not bestow the title upon themselves; other people do that for them. An individual or brand that produces repeated, thoughtful contributions can own a spot in their clients' and key constituents' minds.

2. A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.

This is an interesting distinction: notice the words "significantly profit" in description #2 above. In addition, Rogers and Prince walk their talk. As chief insights officer for Forbes Media, Rogers is responsible for managing the Forbes Insights content and research division, as well as the Forbes CMO practice. As president of Prince & Associates, Prince consults with a "select and oft times esoteric clientele on dramatically growing their business" helping them become high-caliber industry thought leaders coupled with "an intense focus on personal wealth creation." These two experts have been dubbed "thought leaders to thought leaders." Not only do their clients significantly profit from industry thought leader perceptions, so do they.


Coming up with helpful, relevant content will continue to be a challenge for financial firms and executives. Smart teams and individuals will refrain from calling themselves thought leaders; instead, they will let others do that for them, based on the merits of their work. Those writing long-form guides that seek to persuade the reader that the firm's solution is the best one, won't call it thought leadership; they'll call it an Insights Series, a Special Report or, if they must, a white paper. Instead of recycling common knowledge and trite clichés, they will add something to the conversation.

Individuals and teams that do take the time to think and generate unique insights that can help the industry and the general public, will try to get their very best pieces published by a credible media outlet. While they will give up some control over the actual content, they are likely to enjoy greater reach and their thoughts will be seen as more credible simply because they have been vetted by a trusted, professional source. In addition, a good editor will push them to provide better prose, clearer thought and the most relevant information for the audience.

Once the content is live on the hosting entity's site, they will post short summaries and links back to the original publication on their own social media accounts.

Professionals and teams who take time to think deeply, articulate problems and layout innovative solutions over a sustained period of time might even be dubbed thought leaders in the process.

Marie Swift is president and CEO of Impact Communications.

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