Marketing Through “Thought Leadership” Not “Look at Me”

 Head of Aristotle. Marble. Roman copy of the mid-1st century from the Greek original ca. 320 B.C.

It’s become a running joke in Brad Feld’s circle that he “hates marketing.” But does he really?

Feld published a letter this week from Chris Moody, COO of Gnip. Moody’s letter captures what he believes Feld’s philosophy of marketing to be. It’s based on a belief that “startups have the power to change the world.”

Feld and others at venture firm Foundry Group don’t say “look at us; look at all the successful investments we’ve made.” They run conferences, write books and articles, and talk to everyone about their belief in the power of startups. In doing so they advance everyone’s thinking on the subject.

I like Moody and Feld’s description of marketing because it reframes marketing’s purpose in terms of leadership instead of products and transactions.

If I were going to create the Brad Feld sound bite for Marketing it would go something like this “Don’t do marketing. Focus on becoming a thought leader in your space. Talk everyday with your customers, prospective customers, partners, and the world about why you do what you do and why you think it is important. The reality is you can only talk about what you do one or two times before people think ‘got it’ and stop listening. But, if you talk about what you believe and point to countless examples that exemplify your beliefs , you can build real engagement with people who care/believe the same things.”

“Marketing through thought leadership” also maps well to Aristotle’s three ways to persuasively appeal to others: argument by character, argument by logic, and argument by emotion.

Argument by character (ethos) includes the aspects of virtue, practical wisdom and disinterest. When Feld demonstrates his belief that “startups have the power to change the world” he shows that he shares the same values (virtues) with the startups he works with.

His conferences, books, and conversations prove to them that he has experience (practical wisdom) in his domain. And when he shares his knowledge and experience so freely, his audience can see his disinterest, that he is not just in it for his own gain, that he genuinely wants to help them move forward on their journey. When he appeals to his character, Feld’s audience perceives him as a trustworthy leader and will let him influence them with his ideas.

Argument by logic (logos) always starts with where the audience is, with commonplace beliefs they already hold. Feld’s audience of entrepreneurs believes that “startups matter.” They find him persuasive because he starts his conversations from this position and then uses various logical arguments to bring his audience to the specific choice or decision he is recommending.

Argument by emotion (pathos) changes the mood of the audience to make it more receptive to your logic and more willing to make an emotional commitment to your goal. Though emotions like anger and humor are persuasive, they are short-lived. The most powerful emotion is to create a sense of group identity and belief. Entrepreneurs lead challenging lives as they put their ideas to the test in the marketplace. The activities at Foundry make them feel part of a larger group that is doing important work. When Feld creates this feeling among entrepreneurs they become more receptive to his ideas; they respond to him as a role model.