By Becky Tumidolsky
Some marketers believe thought leadership magically happens when brands start pumping out content that showcases their expertise.
Other marketers question or dismiss the term “thought leadership,” claiming it jumped the shark a while back or it’s too difficult to sustain or it’s too hard to quantify.
According to Dr. Liz Alexander, co-founder of the global B2B consultancy Leading Thought, the problem for both groups is that they mistakenly assume thought leadership originates in the marketing department.
A former journalist on both sides of the Atlantic, an international award-winning author on thought leadership, and the developer/instructor of a professional development course on strategic communications for a leading university, Liz has spent more than 25 years collaborating and sharing her insights with the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency, Google, and Transamerica Retirement Solutions. Liz says that despite marketers’ misperceptions and misgivings about thought leadership, she regularly finds herself in one-on-one conversations with CEOs who understand the value of true thought leadership and want to hear more.
“When we tell senior executives that Leading Thought’s methodology produces a pipeline of innovative thinkers and influencers who elevate the thought leadership platform of the corporate brand, they get it,” she says. “By taking a longer, broader view than most marketers do, these executives understand that once they’ve identified a unique perspective on a relevant challenge, they can use this to shape and lead conversations within and outside their industry. They see that as what’s valuable—not deluging clients and prospects with undifferentiated content.”
A Sad Case of Misuse and Abuse
“I’m a thought reader. I’m a thought needer. Given my love for blogging . . . I think it’d be fair to say I’m even a thought feeder. But I’m not a thought leader. Neither are you. Okay cool, we now know at least two of us here in cyberspace are not thought leaders.”—Barry Feldman
Back in the 1990s, when the Internet was still in its infancy, Milken Institute Senior Fellow Joel Kurtzman coined the term “thought leadership” to describe the business world’s most inspired thinkers and doers. He had in mind the rare intellectual like Steve Jobs—titans who think big to change the world rather than tinker around the edges to boost sales. (It’s worth noting that Jobs is said to have detested the words “branding” and “marketing.”)
Today, “thought leadership” is so carelessly bandied about, one wonders if the term has any meaning left. Surveying the current marketing landscape, Kurtzman has this to say:
“Every company has its thought leaders…in many cases (with) no real experience in the industry they are supposedly leading. They have barely scratched the surface in terms of their reading, their knowledge or ideas. And they are rehashing the past.”
Liz agrees. “Too many self-appointed thought leaders believe ‘content is king,’ thereby letting the tool be the master. They’re fundamentally misunderstanding the true nature and power of thought leadership and the path you must take to achieve it.”
What Thought Leadership Is Not
I asked Liz to describe, in her characteristically direct way, what thought leadership is not:
“Spewing out content without consideration for its relevance or quality is like begging for attention as the traffic speeds past you on the freeway. Nobody cares! A lot of what purports to be thought leadership is really just content marketing. True thought leaders recognize that content can be a valuable tactical tool, but it’s the strategic thinking that really matters.”
Having marketing-automated “conversations.”
“If I’m shouting undifferentiated, unfocused brand-centric messages to 50,000 people, that’s neither a conversation nor engagement.”
Staking a position without being willing to debate.
“It’s like the emperor’s new clothes: people who purport to be deep thinkers but refuse to engage with anyone having opposing views. Pontificating without a solid evidential trail or the stomach for debate is not thought leadership.”
“You don’t get to be a thought leader unless you’re willing to be a thought punching bag.”—Seth Godin
What Thought Leadership Is
Here is Liz’s take on the true nature of thought leadership:
A rare thing.
“Anyone can aspire to be President of the United States, but most of us will never be president. Similarly, very few people leave base camp and climb to the top of Mount Everest. Thought leadership is the same; only a select few will, or should, earn third-party recognition.”
Experts who listen, analyze, and project—and a culture that molds and values them.
“In our book Thought Leadership Tweet, we ask: ‘Do you admire the late, great Steve Jobs but no way in hell would you hire anyone like him? Do innovators thrive or die in your culture?’ A corporate culture that helps to develop deep, differentiated thinkers is more likely to establish the unassailable market leadership worthy of true thought leaders.”
A desire to have genuine, provocative conversations, regardless of frequency.
“Many thought leaders we’ve worked with and researched put very little content out there. They spend their time listening—researching clients’ concerns and challenges—and thinking deeply about what they find. When they do produce content, it’s provocative, highly valuable, and rare, because it poses perspectives no one else is offering.”
Many different spheres of influence outside one’s own industry.
“Thought leaders aren’t synonymous with experts. Certainly they need to know their stuff, but while you tend to find that experts are motivated to maintain their established position, thought leaders draw broadly from a variety of disciplines in their analyses of industry, business, and cultural trends in order to look at issues differently and consider different conclusions.”
No fear of risk.
“Risk aversion is antithetical to thought leadership. Thought leaders aren’t interested in staying within the drawing lines; they don’t fear criticism or failure. True innovators take the reins in their industries and challenge the status quo with passion and conviction.”
The Knowledge Bridge That Marketing Builds
Although thought leadership shouldn’t just be a function of marketing, Liz says, marketers can provide the invaluable role of translator and storyteller. By helping to package their internal experts’ critical analyses and game-changing innovations in ways that engage clients and prospects, marketers can demonstrate greater value than many currently are.
Citing the Egremont Group’s “Head Office of the Future” project and Dale Bryce’s work at Sinclair Knight Merz (outlined here), Liz believes that “marketers can take that expertise and create a bridge between their internal thought leaders and the issues and challenges their clients and prospects care about most. They can tell stories that make that expert material much more engaging, relevant, compelling, and provocative in order to serve rather than serve up information their market has no interest in or no idea how to interpret or apply.”
What Do You Think?
Have marketing practices over the past two decades devalued “thought leadership”? What issues would you take with Liz’s perspective? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Since 2001, Becky Tumidolsky has written awareness-building content for B2B brands and their discerning audiences. Her work has appeared in leading publications such as Forbes, U.S.News & World Report, Bloomberg Markets, Newsweek, and Inc. as well as corporate blogs, websites, white papers, and other content assets.
Becky loves writing fluid, error-free prose. She’s even more passionate about building the foundation for her work—uncovering core brand distinctions, framing them thematically, and developing fresh, compelling narratives that advance corporate strategies.
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