Just about anyone in business can come up with a repertoire of classic mistakes their clients make. I expect that in my interactions with other professionals – web designers, dentists, financial planners and the like – I make similar newbie errors.

But here are four of the classic mistakes I’ve come across in demonstrating thought leadership.


Airline in-flight magazines

Pretty much once a year, some client asks me if I can help them publish an article in an airline in-flight magazine. You know those glossy publications in the seat pocket, next to the air-sickness bag.

Usually, my clients have in mind a pretty heavy topic – strategic planning for businesses, asset allocation in retirement portfolios, or time management.

It’s a really common mistake. But I find myself wondering, “Have you actually read one of those things? How many articles on personal finance or business management have you seen in an in-flight magazine?”

Airline in-flights exist for three purposes: to carry advertorials on expensive toys from the likes of Sharper Image; to sedate passengers waiting for takeoff so they won’t annoy the flight crew; and to promote destinations the airline flies to, with glossy images of spas, restaurants and horseback rides at those destinations. They are to thought leadership as a Big Mac is to nutrition.

Presumably, the clients who ask if I can help them get published in in-flight magazine are looking for readerships that are above-average income (they can afford to fly) and bored (the legroom in Coach seats today precludes getting any real work done on a laptop). I’ve never seen a business article in an in-flight magazine. If you have, please tell me about it – maybe send me a PDF.

And there are much, many better ways to reach these readerships. I’ve done several posts on how you can get your ideas into niche, targeted publications that can get your ideas in front of your intended audience. Post #34 tells you how to determine which publications are read and trusted by people in your market, and Post #35 shows you how to find out more about those publications.

Niche trade publication editors are glad to hear from you if you have ideas for articles that meet their readers’ needs.

Write first, find a home later

I was in Midtown Manhattan a few years ago, at the offices of a new law firm client I wanted to impress. I’d been well recommended, and I thought we’d had a good chat about articles that we could publish to promote their legal practice.

Then one of the lawyers pulled out a paper he’d written, in hopes I could get it published. The lawyer, a serious Anglophile, had written a screed extolling the Special Relationship between the US and the UK. My alarm bells started flashing.

It was totally off topic from his legal practice. He had no qualifications (say, a PhD in international relations…) on the topic, so there was no reason an editor should pay attention to what he had to say. He was well qualified to discuss corporate law, but about as qualified as I am to discuss the future of that Special Relationship. Like, not at all.

The paper had no new insights to offer, it didn’t discuss any new developments, and I could see no reason why anyone would benefit from reading it. Furthermore there was no place to get the article published, beyond some academic journals – but the author had no academic qualifications with which to persuade the journal’s editor.

I didn’t get the paper published, and for some reason the law firm didn’t go ahead with any other projects with me either.

This encounter reinforced for me a major lesson: DO NOT just sit down and, in a fit of creativity, write an article or other content. Always get a clear idea of where you will get your article published (even if it’s your own blog); this allows you to focus your writing on the needs of that readership.

Trying to contribute to publications that don’t take contributions

In blog post #41 I pointed out that some publications are written by “real” journalists, who may actually get paid for their work, and even have salaried positions with real benefits. That’s increasingly a rarity, but no matter how the world changes I think that there will always be a need for information that is:

   • Presented competently and in a way that informs the reader, listener or viewer,
   • Trustworthy in that it does not push a commercial interest
   • Comprehensive in that the staff actively look for news to cover

These publications include newspapers, commercial magazines, TV stations, radio stations and some online media. Although waning in terms of influence – daily newspapers offering commodity news in particular – they are still powerful.

These publications typically don’t accept “contributed” or “expert-written” articles, as their advertisers are willing to pay to have their advertisements adjacent to credible information in the news and features.

Many times I’ve had clients who want me to help them publish articles in major newspapers. There may be room for an “op-ed” article (traditionally called that because these articles are on the page facing, or opposite, the editorial page). Newspapers often accept opinion articles as op-eds, particularly if they are newsworthy and written by informed, credible members of the community. But a general article on employee health & safety, revenue recognition or saving for retirement? No.

The larger business magazines such as Fortune, Wired, Fast Company and Entrepreneur typically don’t accept outside contributions. At least, unless your last name happens to be Gates, Fiorina, Andreesen or some other luminescence.

But for ordinary mortals, even if they have really important ideas to share that their readers need to know about, these higher-circulation publications usually don’t take external articles on their print pages. Their online presence may be a different matter -- their editors may be more willing to take well-written, non-promotional articles for online publication.

There are two ways to find out if a publication takes “contributed” articles from subject-matter experts: (1) ask the editor by phone, email, Twitter DM or some other means; (2) read the publication – look for articles that feature an author picture, or with an “extended byline” at the end giving the author’s affiliation.

Making your content a sales pitch

Just recently, I clicked on a video on the BBC mobile app, about Millennial reactions to Police-involved shootings in the US. So what comes up? Images of horse racing, It’s an ad. So I did what anyone else would do – I pulled out my earbuds to avoid the sound track, and looked away until the ad was over. I just hate being sold at.

I’m writing this in a medical office waiting room, and the receptionist just turned on a radio station. Now I’m being forced to listen to more advertising (Yes, I know. Whine, whine, whine. #firstworldproblems).

Like I said, I hate being sold at. And I’m not the only one (to quote Yoko Ono, who is the real author of the song “Imagine”). But I do love to buy. And in this, I’m not the only one either.

If someone has a problem that you can help them solve, they will be interested in connecting with you. So, the purpose of your content is to demonstrate (1) that you’re someone they would enjoy working with, and that (2) you have technical competence doing something they need to have done. Those are the only two purposes. If you can convince them of that, your purpose is served.

This, by the way, is why it’s important for you to have contact information on your content – email, Twitter handle, phone number – or a link to your online presence (such as a website, or your LinkedIn profile).

But skip the sales pitch. It gets in the way of the overall purpose of your content.