If you’re like me, you subscribe to and read a lot of newsletters. Every morning, I get between 10 and 20 daily, weekly and monthly newsletters in my mailbox and some of them I read religiously (Dave Pell’s Next Draft), while others get an occasional glance if the headline catches my eye. These are all things I have chosen to subscribe to and while I look forward to many of them, I really don’t need any more.
Which is why I surprised myself this past week by diving deep into a 3000+ word newsletter from a company whose product I don’t use, whose mailing list I don’t recall subscribing to, and from whose CEO I’ve never heard of. But boy am I glad I did. It was such a good example of what true thought leadership looks like, that I had to share, and analyze what makes it stand out. (And I’ll even share a downloadable tool at the end to help you make sure your content can also stand out from the crowd.)
Here is how the email opened.
Right from the start, there was something different about this email — the simple headline, the warm tone of voice, the slightly geeky but very genuine picture, and the welcome invitation to come inside the company tent — all stood out as something worth reading. Often, corporate content gets one or two of these elements right, but rarely does it combine all of them.
And then there’s that line — the next 100 years are going to be nuts — that tells you this guy has a very distinct point of view…and sets the stage for an email worth reading. As a reader, I don’t want a bunch of dry facts, or a fully corporate sanitized email with everything all buttoned up. I want content that promises value…and then delivers. I want a fresh perspective…one I haven’t heard before. I want to hear from someone who is willing to lay out their world view … whether I agree or disagree. Stating and owning a distinct point of view is the difference between writing a marketing piece and developing true thought leadership.
Here’s how it continues.
When I work with corporate leaders on developing thought leadership content, I often invite them to tell their corporate story — how did the company come about, how did the experience unfold, what did they learn. Rarely do they do as good a job as David Barrett in taking us along on the journey – the ups, the downs, the why’s and the hows. What works here is not just the specifics of the start-up journey, but also the reasons behind the journey — both what led David on this path (‘this stark reality has weighed on me for a long time’), and also why this matters to us, individually and collectively. True thought leadership sets the larger context, includes the ‘what’s in it for them’, and keeps the reader engaged and wanting to read on by using “we” language instead of “I” language which reminds the reader that you are on their side.
The piece continues…
Thought leadership is best when it’s unexpected, it surprises you, it even makes you smile.
As I’m reading this, I’m thinking ‘why don’t more companies give their employees guidelines to live rich, have fun and save the world?’ And then I read beyond the bold sub-heads and realize these are not the kind of selfish corporate guidelines that you might expect from the typical tech ‘bro’ culture. “Live rich” is not about ‘I win and you lose’, it’s about employees being excited, empowered, and energized. “Have fun” is not about ping pong tables and free lunches, it’s about great peers and incredible social experiences. And “Save the world” is not just about corporate charity, it incorporates work/life balance and melding the company’s charity model with their business model so each supports and grows each other. How refreshing!
In the interest of length, I won’t include the next 3 sections of the email, which include lessons learned and plans for the future, (you can read them in the company’s S-1 filing starting on page 108), but here is how it ends.
What is most powerful here is:
- the use of visual language: “that deep gravity well of products and services inexorably tugs at every business in the solar system, gradually pulling them into orbit no matter where they started.” (see green highlight)
- the affiliation of this brand with other brands that are household names — not by saying Expensify is just like them or is even going to be like them someday, but by tying Expensify’s strategy with the strategy of two corporate behemoths. (see yellow highlight)
- the statement of beliefs that both differentiates this company from others and clarifies whether you belong on the team (if you agree) or you don’t. (see red highlight)
- the call to action — the invitation to leave aside the foolish and the frivolous and to join Expensify on their quest to make the world a better place. (see red highlight)
- the gratitude and appreciation in the last few lines align with the tone of the entire letter and leave us feeling like the author is neither better than nor separate from us as readers. (see blue highlight)
- the return to the construct of the next 100 years which started the piece – a circular construction that always helps to ground and give closure to the reader. (see purple highlight)
How Do You Create Equally Great Content?
When you’re creating thought leadership content, for your own byline or your organization’s, I know it can be a struggle to get it right. The way I like to think about it is that the measure of success in thought leadership is either you change the way people THINK about the world or you change the way in which people actually ACT in the world. But how do you do that?
Click here to instantly download the Evaluation Criteria PDF I developed with my colleague J.D. Schramm that I hope can be helpful. Use it to evaluate your own content or ask a colleague to complete this evaluation of your piece prior to publication so you know that you’re ready for prime time. And if I can help, please reach out.
P. S. After reading the Expensify email, I went and bought a few shares of the company’s stock. Guess it really was great content — it got me to both think differently AND take action! What has gotten you to think in a new way or take action recently?