Our sixth episode of “Everything Thought Leadership” features a discussion between COO of Buday Thought Leadership Partners Alan Alper and Julio Gomez, founder of Gomez Advisors, which later became part of the multimillion-dollar global software firm Dynatrace. Among his accolades, Julio was voted one of Time Magazine’s “50 Most Influential People Shaping Technology” and one of Wall Street’s “50 Most Influential People.” He currently works at the fintech Highnote as its Industry Evangelist and Thought Leader. Highnote provides businesses with the products, tools, and advice necessary to build their brands’ prestige and audiences.
In this discussion, Gomez and Alper talk about how to identify true thought leadership from self-serving pretenders; why budding thought leaders need to be provocateurs willing to stir the pot; how social media is changing how companies signal their thought leadership and engage customers more deeply; and the enduring value of primary research and long-form thought leadership content. He also shares how the US News & World Report’s college rankings sparked his idea for a company – Gomez Advisors — that uses rigorous performance measurement to rank online brokerages.
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From the Dawn of eCommerce to Fintech: A Conversation With Julio Gomez
Alan Alper: How do you define thought leadership — a term that’s often thrown around loosely?
Julio Gomez: It’s one of those terms that defines itself: it’s all about your leading others’ thinking. At its core, you’re taking an idea that is not very well-known or shared, and that may be controversial. But through communication you can turn it into a trend. Thought leadership is of the greatest value when it can have the most impact on greatest segment of society. Some thought leaders are not affiliated with firms; they are just there to look at society or the economy and come up with something that changes the world. Regardless of the size of the firm or the opportunities, the challenge is still the same: expose people to new ways of thinking.
Identifying the Real Deal
Alan: How can thought leadership function as a beacon that attracts a person or a company, and when does it come across as crass or self-serving?
Julio: Some truths are self-evident. There must be real honesty and real rigor in the logic of what you are proposing should happen or will happen. People consuming thought leadership are themselves capable of analysis and intellectual rigor, and you have to stand up to that. When are you reduced to just being a shill, it’s also self-evident. People will know if it doesn’t ring true or stand up to rigors of analysis.
Thought Leadership and Content Marketing
Alan: What differences do you see between thought leadership and traditional content marketing? Should they intersect? Sometimes if you’re not speaking truth to power, the message won’t get heard.
Julio: There’s a spectrum that goes from thought leadership to “how to,” and in the middle is education. Thought leadership is not content marketing, but content marketing is an important part of a well-crafted strategy. A lot of marketers struggle with how to build a brand, to build value for customers, to be the brown cow in a black herd. Thought leadership will change the world; education means explaining it, and content marketing is a key part of that.
Stirring the Pot
Alan: Which tricks of the trade have you’ve learned to differentiate yourself, and show that you not only had good ideas but also could deliver them?
Julio: In the analyst community, there’s a “stirring of the pot” element to being successful. You need some bravado to pull that off, and some ego as well. Confidence in your ideas makes this possible. An analyst who has bravado without the rigor of analysis, or the ability to communicate thoughts that resonate, will come across as a charlatan.
Alan: How did you find your own voice? The early days of eCommerce were turbulent and a very ambiguous time. How did you find topics that conveyed the best and brightest ideas?
Julio: Most people who can cut through the noise can see certain things with clarity. If you can do that with ideas that are ambiguous, and cut through the noise, people will want to hear the things that you want to say. eCommerce was the wild west when I founded Gomez Advisors. Consumers needed someone to make some sense of the chaos. We could see clearly because we had put in the time for analysis and put in criteria. We laid it out there so people could consume it and derive value from it.
The Primacy of Research
Alan: Given your background in analyst communication and as founder of Gomez, you must think that primary research plays an important role.
Julio: My Forrester days convinced me of the value of primary research. It’s especially valuable if you can execute on the primary research and apply good analysis, then communicate it effectively and in an easily consumable manner. You hear terms today like fact-based or data-driven. This is all part of the primary research universe.
Bringing Rigor to the Rankings
Alan: When you started Gomez, nobody trying to measure anything. Walk us through the thought process that gave you the idea for your company.
Julio: I was out for a drive and stopped in at a convenience store, and noticed the US News issue that ranked universities. Like most people I love lists, and I picked it up. It dawned on me that here had been many lists for online brokerages and other eCommerce, but they lacked rigor or any substantial criteria – they were mainly for entertainment purposes. US News’ college ranking actually was way deeper. That’s when the idea came into my head: why not have a definitive standard of quality for internet delivery of services, starting with online brokerages, and expand from there?
Alan: At one point you covered 20-plus industries, each needing a score card, and you needed analysts to decode what’s going on and a way to communicate it to help people make smart choices.
Julio: We wanted to create great value for consumers and also for eCommerce providers trying to distinguish themselves in an environment that lacked benchmarks. We had to help people make smart budget decisions: not everyone had unlimited money to serve all markets. We helped companies prioritize their investments and decide what they could bring to the marketplace that would be valued by their customers. The need for that has diminished; it’s not the wild west anymore. You probably have only three or four eCommerce places that matter: your online broker, your bank and Amazon for everything else.
Fortunately Gomez saw this, pivoted and moved into performance monitoring, or measuring the speed and reliability of web sites. Our data told us that this is a differentiator: what’s the use of designing bells and whistles, when your site is so slow that it drives the consumer to a competitor with a faster site?
What’s Working Today
Alan: When you’re looking at what works and what doesn’t work, what stands out, either because it’s really brilliant or because you wonder what the author is smoking?
Julio: A lot of interesting thought leadership is coming out in the cryto space – concepts like blockchain and decentralized ledgers. On the other side of the coin, a lot of the online investment advice is complete BS. There are just as many opinions about the market going way up as there are people predicting a crash. And a lot of what passes as research is someone just trying to lead you to support their position about what the market is doing.
The Role of Social Media
Alan: With the proliferation of social media and influencers who can be perceived as thought leaders, this is an interesting time. How has social media changed thought leadership? Some people look at a tweet or Linkedin post and assume it’s thought leadership. The author may have the style, but not the substance to be a thought leader.
Julio: Very often influencers are not thought leaders because they don’t move people’s thinking. They are good audience generators, though. This might show my prejudice towards long-form content, but re-tweeting something and adding one sentence doesn’t qualify as thought leadership, although it may influence your audience. Where that leaves us: different formats for different communications, with different consumers for those formats. Someone who’s trying to develop a strategy for a big corporation of make a multimillion-dollar tech purchase won’t be heavily informed by a tweet. The long-form thought leadership will provide the education to inform their decisions.
Alan: Some of it is generational: different strokes for different folks. People often gravitate to blogs and more snackable stuff because that’s all they have the attention for.
Julio: I need that stuff too. It’s very convenient to derive some value out of a lower time investment. But we need a clear understanding of how to tailor the communication type, length and style to what the audience needs.
Picking the Best Ideas
Alan: How do you conceive and deliver your own ideas?
Julio: Most people have really good ideas that come to them just from living and walking around, and that includes in their professional lives. But it’s not just about good ideas, it’s about good execution. If you can explain it, I’ll invest in it. That’s where methodologies, measuring impact and the ability to execute come in. I gravitate to high impact ideas where I can lay out the argument.
Standing Out in the Marketplace
Alan: How are organizations using thought leadership now to be heard above the din?
Julio: Content marketing is at the center of their marketing strategies and brand building, including social media brand building. This includes a wide variety of asset types: tweets, blogs, fact sheets, website information, sales enablement materials, presentations, white papers, even scripted voicemails for outreach calls. All of this content has to hang together and feed the overall strategy to build the brand and advance the commercial activities. None of us are doing these jobs for our health. Nobody is paying us because they admire us: they pay us because we are performing a very important commercial function.
The Future of Thought Leadership
Alan: How do you see the thought leadership profession evolving, across the board?
Julio: The format of thought leadership needs to evolve, and the amount of time it takes to communicate big ideas has to be reduced. That means your thought leadership pieces may not make it into Harvard Business Review; that’s a very particular audience. But as we try to expand both the delivery and consumption of thought leadership content, it’s got to go shorter. Probably blog length. You can do some interesting things with blogs and turn them into thought leadership.
Alan: So, use short term content to engage with them and get them interested in longer, more fact-filled content.
Julio: Pathways are important. You hook them with the thought leadership, then lead them where you want them to go. Make those journeys intentional and facilitate those journeys. That’s where the work needs to be done.