Why ghost blogging can’t be considered ‘thought leadership’

Many executives have more adept writers pen their posts, but without their personal insights and direct audience engagement, they cannot lay claim to that expertise and innovation.

Many moons ago, there was a big online debate about ghost blogging: Should we do it or not?

I fall in the “yes” camp for several reasons:

  1. Executives are busy, and, although blogging is a great way to develop one’s reputation, they don’t have to write the first draft.
  2. Blogging is not an easy endeavor and, while most executives are highly talented, this takes a special skill.
  3. Not everyone enjoys writing, and we all know that if you don’t enjoy it, you’re eventually not going to do it.
  4. Many top officials, including many U.S. presidents, don’t write their own speeches. I know that’s not the same as blogging, but it is content development.

Heck, even I have a ghost writer. She writes the first drafts, and then I add my voice, make a few changes and make sure it’s a thought I am completely behind.

She doesn’t write the Spin Sucks posts, but she does give me a first draft of nearly every guest blog post I contribute.

The big difference in our arrangement, however, is that I spend time with the draft before it’s submitted—and that’s not always the case.

What is ‘executive thought leadership’?

I’ve had an ongoing conversation with a friend on that topic for a few months.

Just yesterday, she said to me:

Is it executive thought leadership when all the thoughts come from the writer who has never spoken to the leader whose name goes on it? When you don’t even get bullet points or a few notes to start? When the executive doesn’t review the content before it’s published?

No. It’s not. You cannot be a “thought leader” if the thoughts are not your own—and that is the difference.

What she’s talking about is content creation on behalf of an individual or organization, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Of course, there are exceptions, and I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen.

Content has many different purposes

Heck, we write a blog for an executive who, I am fairly certain, has never even looked at it.

He tells me all the time how many compliments he gets on it. Still, we’ve tried to get him to review the content before it’s published, to publish to Pulse and to engage with readers. He won’t do any of it.

So, rather than call it “executive thought leadership,” we use it for search engine optimization purposes. It doesn’t have many readers, and it never gets any comments, but it does do really, really well for organic search.

Whenever he says that he wants to be known in his city for a particular topic, I talk him through why that will never happen without his involvement. It’s impossible to know what a person thinks without their participation (as much as we try to be mind readers).

Here are ways to help an executive become a “thought leader”:

  • Give them outlines and topics.
  • Scour LinkedIn groups for ideas.
  • Subscribe to and read SmartBrief and Talkwalker Alerts for them.
  • Subscribe to and read Pulse and Medium for industry news.
  • Read the stuff they’ve produced. (Some have books so that makes it easy.)
  • Take sales presentations, and build insights from those.
  • Interview the executive to get his or her thoughts recorded.

Once topics are agreed upon, you can create the content, add visuals, optimize it, tag and categorize it, and then ask the client to read and approve it.

In many instances, the executive will change a few things, tweak the voice and suggest different images, but you might have a few of their voices down so well that those changes aren’t necessary.

Not everything can be outsourced

One thing shouldn’t be outsourced: having someone else respond to readers as the executive whose byline is on the piece.

If the piece is produced by a named human being, he or she alone should answer comments, engage in discussion and spend time on the social networks where those readers hang out.

Imagine if you were a reader and you left a comment and the person responded—and later you learned it wasn’t that person at all, but someone on his or her team. All that trust would be flushed down the toilet in an instant. No one wants that, so let’s not do it.

Of course I would love it if all the executives who see value in blogging did it themselves, but I know that’s not the world in which we live. Most executives won’t ever have the time or expertise to use most marketing tools themselves, let alone blog.

It’s our job to help them expand their businesses; if blogging works, why not use that tool?

As long as there are rules and parameters—and the executive participates in a way that the content does become them—I say go forth and prosper.

Let’s be clear: If the content creation happens as my friend describes above, it’s not “executive thought leadership.” It’s content creation for a different purpose.

What say you?

A version of this article first appeared on Spin Sucks.

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