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Thinking about thought leadership

I've just been invited to give a talk to a group of senior level PR leaders and business leaders at a private event here in San Francisco. They asked me to speak about how Traction has used thought leadership to drive our success. 

I was interested in that because I was recently at the Mirren agency business development conference and they had a panel of experts giving their two cents on how agencies should use thought leadership as part of their biz dev efforts. I thought the advice I heard was fairly... uninspired... so I figured this would be a nice opportunity to articulate what has worked for us here at Traction. 

Traction has had some success with this. We've been named the best independent agency in the country by iMedia, the #2 small agency on the West Coast by Ad Age and the top interactive agency in the US by BtoB Magazine. We are regularly featured and quoted in the industry press. This has contributed to our growth as an agency.

The advice I heard at Mirren wasn't bad so much as it was standard. Write a blog. Use SEO keywords. Use LinkedIn. Have a presence on Twitter. 

I actually saw some other article posted recently by FuelLines, an agency business development consultancy on "How to Use Hashtags for Agency New Business."

Hashtags? Seriously? 

This inane advice reflects the problem with a standard-bag-of-tricks approach to content marketing. I can promise you that whoever wrote that certainly does not believe that hashtags are the secret to new business success. What they do believe, however, is that they need to produce content every other week so they have SEO juice and they have stuff to tweet everyday. 

Now, FuelLine's website says they have 71,217 subscribers so I cannot say that this is fundamentally a bad strategy. I know that they wrote this post about hashtags because I follow them and have valued much of the content they've produced in the past. Their blog has been named one of the top 100 marketing blogs in the world according to the Ad Age Power 150. 

But therein lies the rub. Yours hasn't.

Yes, you should blog (I'm writing this on my blog). Yes, you should tweet. But the reality is, you invest too much energy in producing content to just put it on your own blog (the one that isn't an Ad Age Power 150 winner) so 17 people can see it.

Write for other people.

It is an obvious truism (at least it is to me) that content is only worth producing if it's great content. Just as obvious is that the investment in producing that content has a much greater return if people actually read it. In the past year, Traction has had bylines in Ad Age, Digiday, Mediapost, iMedia, Entrepreneur, Forbes CMO report and others. We've become a nationally recognized agency because of this. 

This has the added value of what I call the credibility multiplier. An article that has been published in Ad Age or Forbes by a Tractionista has 10X more credibility than an article I just write on my blog (yes, I realize I just diminished the credibility of this post). 

Establish platforms.

Once you start getting published, it is tempting to try and get published all over the place. At first glance, this makes sense: you get more reach by being in more places. But remember, when it comes to media, advertising impact is planned based on reach AND frequency. For instance, I tend to do a lot of contributions to Ad Age—I see it as a platform. My name, photo and "CEO of Traction" gets put in front of their readers each time I do this. People who read that publication daily tend to recognize me when I go to conferences around the country and they know the name Traction.

If you don't have the credibility to get published in a big name journalistic publication, seek out other publications in your industry that rely more heavily on contributions for content. I call this "laddering." You can use them to establish credibility and ladder your way up to larger platforms.

Diversify voices.

This is important—to be honest, it's something we could do better at sometimes—but it's important to have multiple voices from the agency out there in the wild. Theo Fanning, our creative director has written opinion pieces for Digiday. Abe Snyder, our media director has written for Mediapost. It is a challenge to find the time in a busy agency environment for people to invest in writing content, but it's an important thing to do because clients hire teams, not CEOs.

Have an opinion. Back it up.

This is probably the most important. I read so much supposed "thought leadership" on my feeds that is just repeating themes without an original thought attached. Listicles draw traffic—no doubt about that. Smartly articulated, controversial opinions, however, draw respect. I'll take the latter any day. If you have something smart and unique to say, you can go back later and add "5 reasons to..." to the beginning of your article if you really want to pull some clicks. Start with the opinion.

Build a following. 

Tools like LinkedIn and Medium are great for building frequency among your most important readers—the ones in your network. These tools facilitate people following you. I had lunch with a potential client last month who told me, "I read everything you write." First of all, that's awesome because one day when she needs an agency, we'll be top of mind. But, it's important to note she doesn't do that by happening across bylines in the Ad Age newsletter. She's connected to me on LinkedIn so she sees what I publish or post a link to there.

It's also easy to do. You may actually be reading this on one of those sites—it takes me less than 10 minutes to copy and paste a post into those platforms and make some quick edits so everything looks good.

Granular SEO works best. 

If you are writing articles to draw SEO traffic to your site, niche terms work far better than generic ones. I can write "interactive agency" in blog posts all day until the cows come home, but it's not going to do all that much to juice traffic to my site in the long term. On the other hand, I can't even tell you how much traffic this post on "Deploying Wordpress with Capistrano and SVN" has brought to our site in the four years since it was published. And the article I linked to on LinkedIn vs. Medium a couple of paragraphs ago gets dozens of hits every month. 

These steps have been a content marketing formula that's worked well for me and the rest of the smart people at Traction. Is it PR, social marketing, content marketing or something else? I don't know and I don't care. I'm just happy it works.

Adam Kleinberg CEO

Adam is the CEO of Traction, an interactive agency broadly recognized as one of the top small agencies in the US. Kleinberg plays a hands-on role for all agency accounts and keeps his team at the leading edge of emerging digital channels. He is also a regular contributor to Ad Age, Forbes, Mashable, Digiday and iMediaConnection.