'Thought Leadership' appeared in Forbes magazine's 2013 annual ‘tournament of corporate America’s most insufferable’ business buzzwords and clichés. Clearly many people abuse this term, but what it stands for does count. We dig into what thought leadership is and isn't, why it claiming it won't cut it - and what it takes to become a true thought leader.
What is a Thought Leader?
Wikipedia’s answer is ‘an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.’ Put another way, thought leaders are go-to people in their fields of expertise; trusted, wise people who provide fresh insights and smart solutions to common problems as well as thought-provoking perspectives.
What is a Thought Leader not?
You don’t need to be a genius to be a thought leader, or have a bunch of degrees and memberships after your name. A HubSpot post talks about marketers turning their clients into ‘the Steve Jobs in their industry: the Steve Jobs of Plumbing or Real Estate …’ Tongue in cheek of course. First point here: Steve Jobs was a visionary - not a thought leader - as is Elon Musk of Tesla.
A thought leader is more practical and down-to-earth. In a low-tech example, US company River Pools (yes, swimming pools) became a success story after the GFC nearly killed off the business. They did it by doing something really simple: answering every customer query on their blog. As a result, River Pools became ‘the most educational swimming pool company in the country.' Joe Pulizzi at CMI has another simple definition: ‘Think of yourself as the trade magazine for your industry.’
Thought Leaders also never proclaim that they are. That is, they don’t parachute into markets and anoint themselves as Thought Leaders. Though Leadership is not announced but earned, and this depends entirely on the perception of your audience - not you. The only way to earn Thought Leadership is to demonstrate it, consistently. You would never proclaim Thought Leadership status on your website; that would be as crass as describing yourself as the smartest person on the planet. Yet, if others do it, it will stick.
Why is Thought Leadership crucial?
Buyers do 70 to 80% of their research on the web before they talk to any vendor, so your first priority is to make sure potential buyers can find you.
Then, once they're on your website, you need to show that you understand them and their problems, through authoritative, informative, original content.
You can't just sell to them; that's like adverstising, which is why we all ignore it or use ad-blockers. It’s the wisdom you demonstrate through your
content that proves that you’re worthy of being considered a Thought Leader, not claiming the brilliance of yourself or your products.
Once web visitors get to know and respect you, they’re more likely to put your company on their shortlist. Thought leadership has other benefits too: like being asked to write guest blogs, contribute articles to websites and speak at conferences. That’s how successful thought leaders become influencers.
Why doesn’t everyone ‘do Thought Leadership’
Many try and few succeed, mainly because it’s not easy. Think of most of the White Papers you read; the vast majority have one or more of these features:
- They’re boring or contain nothing new, interesting or surprising
- They’re badly-written, convoluted and verbose - and fail to engage
- They’re full of technical jargon - and the purpose is unclear
- Half way through, they morph into 'brochureware' and end with a sales pitch.
‘Business buyers don’t buy your product,’ Laura Ramos from Forrester makes clear, ‘they buy into your approach to solving their problems.’ Ramos adds that a recent Forrester benchmark study found that ‘87% of marketers struggle to produce engaging content.’ The hard part for most people is resisting the urge to go straight into selling mode - but that's where the opportunity lies.
What does it take to get it right?
The hardest part is seeing the world through your audience’s eyes; standing in their shoes and engaging with the problems that keep them awake at night. If you really know your industry, that shouldn’t be hard.
The next hurdle is being provocative, something a lot of CEOs aren’t willing to do. Yet those who do, stand out from all the rest. As a Thought Leader, you must do more than just educate potential buyers; you need to bring fresh insights and ideas to the discussion. These may range from thought-provoking to confronting to entertaining, and need to generate the spark to ignite deeper interest and interactions. That’s why the term is Thought Leader, not Thought Teacher. You have to lead - and leaders are passionate and fearless.
This is a key reason why true Thought Leaders are never global players, even if big companies have deep enough pockets to churn out new content by the minute. They're just too cumbersome and risk averse to be nimble or controversial. And, that’s precisely why you could be both and take on the mantle of Thought Leader.
Thought Leaders are themselves
The rest comes down to how you communicate: speak and write clearly, write blog posts the way you talk, be yourself. Don’t write to a schedule; write only when you have something valuable to say. Use a tone that is conversational, down-to-earth, and avoid jargon. Listen, be respectful in your interactions. One more thing: ‘Thought leaders are generous and giving people,’ Neil Patel reminds us. ‘They are generous with their time, their talents, their money and their advice.’
And that’s why you don’t need to worry about tipping off competitors, either. If you are a true Thought Leader, they’ll never implement your ideas or processes as well as you would and, if they manage to make some headway, you’ll be kilometres ahead by then.
Thought Leaders seize the moment
If marketing is about timing, then Thought Leadership is about seizing the moment - or not.
Here's an Aussie political example. Record heatwaves in February 2017 could have been a defining leadership opportunity for our PM. Yet, rather than seizing it, Malcolm Turnbull used it to score cheap points against the Opposition. He could have taken the high ground and announced a forward-looking, ground-breaking plan that united the main stakeholders – energy experts, industry leaders and the Opposition – in rare co-operation. That’s what leaders do; the unexpected.
Turnbull missed his chance, but Catherine Tanna did
not. Tanna is the CEO of Energy Australia, the country’s largest operator of coal-fired power stations. She took out full-page ads in all major newspapers calling for a non-partisan push for clean energy. She said Australia needed a transition strategy to cleaner energy sources
and a roadmap for investors. (Very recently, Dr Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist, came to the rescue with his Independent Review into
the Future Security of the National Electricity Market.)
Of Tanna, the ABC reported ‘Her comments echo the sentiments voiced in a joint statement issued from an unlikely alliance of 18 groups’ (including the
Business Council of Australia, the Australian Aluminium Council and World Wildlife Fund) ‘demanding a non-partisan approach to energy policy’.
What did the government do? Treasurer Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament and passed it to his colleagues. Did no one see how out-of-step this gesture is in 2017? True leaders have a keen sense of the mood of their times. Clearly, this government does not.
Thought Leaders don't have to do it all
If you’re running a business, you probably have a lot on your plate already. The last thing you need is an extra job writing White Papers, blog posts or speeches.
You don't have to. There are marketers who can do it for you, once you let them inside your company and your thinking. It’s fast, pain-free, cost-effective and you get to have your say in your own voice - and grow your Thought Leader profile - without months of effort.
To make this work, you need smart marketers who understand your technology and how you think. This has tangible spin-offs: your experience, opinions and character shine through the words, which shows readers that you’re real and worth listening to. That’s Thought Leadership.
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