Conversations on thought leadership

Thinking about writing articles for trade publication? There’s more to it than meets the eye.

If you’re looking to carve out a reputation as a business thought leader, one way is to write a book that showcases your journey or your expertise. Publishing shorter content, such as articles, can be part of your “book” journey. Publishing articles in periodicals read by the people you want to buy your book helps make them aware of your ideas, and it helps to build the “platform” that many book publishers demand – they want to see that you’re an acknowledged expert in your field, with a following. One way to make that happen is to work with an experienced article ghostwriter. To learn more about the process, I interviewed Carl Friesen of Thought Leadership Resources. The following is Part 1 of a two-part interview. Part 2 can be found here.


Jonathan Verney: Let’s start by defining thought leadership. What is it and how can it help an entrepreneur or business professional expand their brand and their business?

Carl Friesen: In some ways it involves staking out a new idea. Leadership involves something new, and innovation is a big part of thought leadership. I think quite often it involves some kind of a call to action as well, like here’s something we should do differently. I’m glad you asked this question because it’s kind of on two levels. There is the Tom Peters and Richard Florida level of thought leadership, around big picture issues. But then there are thought leaders in really, really geeky areas like landfill gas management, for example.

I bring this up because it’s a story I’m working on right now. I’m working with an engineering firm and they’re dealing with… not just landfill, but the gas that’s produced by this landfill, which includes methane, and that causes global warming. But there’s also the condensate which is the liquid that comes along with the gas that has to be managed.

So my client wants to be a thought leader in this very narrow field of landfill gas condensate management. But this stuff matters to a key audience, the kind of audience he wants to reach, because there are US-EPA regulations on this. And if he could find a better way to manage that condensate, even better. So part of my job is to help him find it. I just love working with these kinds of people because they’re such geeks and they love what they do. And I think being seen as a subject matter expert in a really narrow and geeky field can be equally valuable, in fact probably more valuable, in solving real problems, than the big picture Richard Florida kind of thought leadership.

Verney: Why is it important for business leaders to pursue thought leadership?

Friesen: I think it’s partly because people need to know that they’re following a cause bigger than themselves. If I’m working for a company, I can’t get all that excited about making a bunch of rich people, shareholders, richer. I think it’s important to be able to get employees to follow along with your vision for the future.

So if you’ve got an idea, like Uber or Airbnb that includes a vision of changing a whole bunch of ways people do work and live their lives. And so those people could be seen as thought leaders, but it also applies to investors. Investors want to buy something that they’d consider worthwhile, not just rate of return. And I think also customers want to feel like they’re part of the journey. So that’s why I think that the thought leader has to be able to demonstrate their leadership of something that has value beyond simply making money.

Verney: How does the writing and publishing of business articles differ from writing books?

Friesen: I think it’s more focused. If you’re writing a book it’s more general because it covers more areas, but most articles have to be very narrow. Now one reason is because most publications are really, really narrow. I did one article for a publication out of London. It’s called World Pipelines. And yeah, there’s a publication just for the pipeline business. So I presented an idea on behalf of a client out of Tulsa that talked about the management of the liquids that come with the natural gas. And the editor turned down the idea because she said it doesn’t relate to the midstream, like it’s not narrow enough for us, because we don’t deal with the upstream, the finding of oil and gas. We deal with the transportation, the big trunk pipelines.

So for her publication, you’d have to have an article idea that’s relevant to the midstream. So I tweaked the idea a bit and we got that article written and published. But I think most publications are really narrow in the subjects that they cover, and so your idea has to fit their editorial requirements. So I could go to that editor with an idea for an article on the refining of oil and gas, or processing, and she wouldn’t take it because it has to deal with issues of transportation using big trunk pipelines. So I think that’s part of what’s different about it.

Also, because it’s shorter it has to be more focused than a book and I think tighter writing maybe. You have to be able to demonstrate the value of what you’re providing right away, because most people would spend maybe ten minutes on a magazine, and you want your article to be one of the articles they read inside those ten minutes.

Verney: Can you explain in detail how the process works? How do you go about interviewing your clients, how many interviews are there, how many drafts and so on? Would they draft something and then you edit it or would you draft something and then they edit it? Could you explain in a bit more detail how the process works and how long it might take.

Friesen: My ideal scenario is where I sit down with a client who has a high degree of expertise and a clear idea of the market they want to reach, and from there I would get an idea of what market they want to reach, which would help me find the relevant publication. And there are thousands and thousands of niche trade publications out there, and I just have to find the right one. And for that I use my access to an online Media Relations Database called CisionPoint. And what it does is helps me find the right publication. Then we find what the expert wants to be known for, what expertise do they want to be recognized about. And that helps me develop a story idea that’s going to come across as informative and not as a sales pitch.

Verney: Tell me more about that publication.

Friesen: It’s called CisionPoint. It’s a paid access database, it costs $4,000 a year. But quite often public libraries have access to this, or university libraries. So if you get access to a public library or a university library you can ask their reference librarian what business tools they’ve got access to. I know some libraries have access to similar kinds of databases. So that’s the main one that I rely on. There’s also one called Ulrichsweb which is much more geeky. And it lists mostly journals and it’s much more international. CisionPoint is much more North America-based. So we find a publication, we develop a topic for this, and then I would pitch that to the editor.

Verney: In book-writing, we often submit a query letter and a full proposal to commercial publishers. Do you need both of those or is article-pitching more query-pitched?

Friesen: It’s just a query, and there are four points to a query. You first get the name of the editor spelled correctly and get their email address, and then you describe what the story idea is about, what you want to write about,  such as management of landfill leachate. Then you go into why the readers of this particular publication would care about it. So we’re talking about municipal landfills and we’re talking about US Environmental Protection Agency regulations they have to meet. So that’s why it matters.

There’s a bullet point outline for what the article is going to look like, so three or four bullet points. To use my engineering client example again, this is what condensate is, here are the most recent developments in US EPA legislation on this, here are some of the trends we can expect in this area, and here’s how you avoid problems. So it’s a fairly simple outline, three or four bullet points. And then your final point is to describe the qualifications of the writer, why is this particular writer qualified to write on this particular topic, and so on. So you put in that this person is a professional engineer, they’ve worked on landfills for the last thirty years, they’ve published papers on this topic and so on.

So four bullet points, and that should all fill just a one-screen email, you don’t need more, because the editor is interested just in evaluating the idea, because they’re not paying for the article, you see. If it was a freelance writer doing this for money, that would be different. But you’re writing it for free. So the editor’s going to probably say yes to your idea. If they don’t like the article that comes in they’ll just say it doesn’t meet their editorial requirements.

So I rarely get a query letter turned down, partly because I’ve usually done my homework. But if the whole process is going to fall apart that’s where it falls apart, is at the query stage. The editor like the one in London might say well no, that doesn’t work for us and so we need to find something different. What I found is that it’s rather necessary to get the editor’s buy-in first and then you’re probably good to go—if you do what you say you’re going to do in terms of the query, then yeah, I’ve never had a problem getting it published. That’s because I’ve been doing it for a while. It’s not that easy for everybody, I’ve discovered.

Verney: How long does the process take, generally, from beginning to end?

Friesen: It’s two stages really… Well, three. One is getting the go-ahead from the editor which can happen inside of a day or so. You get turned down pretty quickly. Writing the article—typically depending on how long it takes me to get hold of the client and then write the article—takes three or four days. To get the client’s approval on the text of the article takes longer, usually it takes me about maybe two weeks from the start of the process until I’ve got the article in to the editor and accepted for publication. And that’s not a guarantee it’s going to get published, that’s if it’s been accepted for publication.

But a lot of these publications work out about maybe four or five months, so for a monthly publication… from the start of the germ of your idea to the magazine arriving with a thump in your mailbox is generally about three or four months. That’s if it’s going in print. If it’s going online it could be shorter because all they had to do is get published. But if it’s going into print, a typical monthly magazine… then about four months total.

Verney: What tips can you offer that might make the process quicker and more effective?

Friesen: One way to make it more reliable is just simply for the writer and author to read the publication. A lot of people don’t bother to do that. They won’t take the time to read through it. And there’s really no excuse not to these days because quite often these publications have some back issues or maybe the current issue available on their website. You can get a pretty clear idea what they’re all about, what they’re pushing.

Sometimes they will have writer’s guidelines. You find those on the website, and they’ll tell you what kinds of things they want to see written. Now some of these are not necessarily up-to-date. I still see some of these that say submit it on double-spaced paper or send us a floppy disk, and you know, that was updated back in the 80s. But read the writer’s guidelines and query first. I can’t stress that enough. Don’t just sit down and write the article. Send a query. Get the editor’s buy-in before you actually start making the article happen.

The rest of my interview with Carl will be published in Part 2.

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