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What it really means to be a thought leader

We examine what some of the world's most influential thought leaders have in common to identify the four marks of great thought leadership.

These days everyone wants to be a thought leader.

At the time of writing, there are 354,000 people with the term ‘thought leader’ in their LinkedIn bio.

Just 164,000 describe themselves as marketers.

There’s no question that establishing thought leadership is something most marketers today aspire to – and rightly so.

Publishing engaging content is essential to modern B2B sales. It helps you get your brand onto a client’s radar early on in their decision‐making process, fills gaps in their knowledge and helps them secure buy‐in for your solution from other stakeholders in their organisation.

But the fact remains, there aren’t two thought leaders for every one marketer. We all know the number of real thought leaders is far smaller than that.

What is true is that while the amount of content brands are creating has tripled in recent years, there has been no corresponding increase in engagement with branded content. Just 5 per cent of the content that’s created still receives over 90 per cent of the engagement.

Writing blog posts, publishing white papers and conducting original research might all be necessary for securing ‘thought leader’ status. But clearly, none of this is sufficient on its own.

“A client relationship is about adding value in everything you do,” says Forbes’ Glenn Llopis. “Today’s corporate leaders must be potent pioneers, blazing new paths few would go down and having the courage to see them all the way through to the end.”

Over time, a genuine B2B thought leader will garner a community of followers who engage with the content they create. That community will include decision‐makers from organisations they want to do business with, and the content they produce will help their sales team close deals with them.

Now, that might go a little beyond the definitions of thought leadership you have read elsewhere. But if you want the content you produce to drive results for your business, that really is the minimum you should be aiming for.

This is something even the most successful B2B brands sometimes struggle with. So, here we’ll outline exactly what you need to do to establish yourself (or your brand) as an authority in your industry.

The four marks of great thought leadership

There are at least three different types of thought leadership – brand, individual and influencer.

Each of these different types has its own associated benefits and risks, and the role each one plays in your marketing mix will depend on the characteristics of your business.

But if you look closely, you’ll see that all successful thought leadership programmes have the same four things in common:

  1. They provide unique insights that align with an individual or organisation’s strengths.
  2. They challenge their audience’s assumptions about their industry, suggesting new ways of thinking about things.
  3. They catalyse action in that audience, making recommendations or stressing the cost of inaction.
  4. They have a defined distribution and amplification strategy to ensure their message gets heard.

As we argue in Why content marketers should fear the obvious, this is more than a checklist for content creators to go through. These four characteristics are essential to the success of any thought leadership initiative.

At the brand level, one of the most reliable long‐term strategies for doing this is to establish yourself as the ‘go to’ source for a particular set of insights. You can do this by conducting original research, like Edelman does with its annual Trust Barometer survey.

Edelman is the embodiment of these four principles. The PR agency has effectively monopolised consumer trust, establishing itself as the leading source of information on how brands can earn the public’s trust.

Strategic publishing partnerships can also be a great way to establish your brand’s authority in a specific niche. Great examples of this approach in action include Intel’s partnership with VICE for The Creators’ Project and Microsoft’s collaboration with National Geographic for Make What’s Next.

Many organisations also have individuals within them who are experts in their field and command their own following. Examples of this include LinkedIn’s Jason Miller, IBM’s Jeremy Waite and Microsoft’s Steve Clayton.

Individual thought leaders also tend to adhere closely to our four marks of great thought leadership, whether they’re promoting their organisation or their own personal brand.

Over the past eight years, Steve Clayton has pioneered a content hub that has been instrumental in transforming what people think of Microsoft – and when was the last time you were at a B2B marketing event that didn’t feature Jason Miller in some way?

Finally, there are people like Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson who create content for an audience of fans that closely matches the demographics many B2B marketers are trying to reach. In recent years, it’s become popular to call these people ‘influencers’.

As you can see, thought leadership is an umbrella term that applies to a huge range of different content types.

The sheer volume of thought leadership content that is produced every day is absolutely astronomical, and that’s why all the examples we’ve looked at here actually have one more thing in common.

They all focus on quality over quantity.

Why the best thought leaders focus on quality over quantity

In today’s saturated content landscape, you can’t get ahead of the game by being the company that produces the most content.

Your prospects are already overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information they’re bombarded with every single day. If you want them to engage with your content, you need to make sure it stands out from the crowd.

If you want business leaders to engage with your content, you need to make sure it stands out from the crowd.

That means challenging your audience with unique insights and perspectives and developing a strong distribution strategy that ensures your content reaches the right audience for your organisation.

Start by identifying a niche that’s directly related to your business and on which you have the expertise to speak with real authority.

Then, map out exactly which stakeholder groups you need to engage and tailor messages that appeal for their specific personas. Create content that’s useful, unique and on a topic that instantly grabs their attention.

Finally, take advantage of paid, earned and owned channels to get your insights in front of the right eyeballs at the right time. Without the right promotion and amplification strategy, even the most engaging blog post in the world won’t live up to its full potential.

A great example of this approach in practice is Microsoft’s 88 Acres: How Microsoft quietly built the city of the future.

As the tech giant’s chief storyteller, Steve Clayton knew Microsoft’s facilities team had been doing some amazing things with smart buildings and automation. So, he worked with a former newspaper journalist to report on their work and published the piece on the Microsoft Stories content hub.

“The 88 Acres package turned out looking far better than anything that a mainstream business magazine or newspaper would have done,” quips HubSpot’s Dan Lyons. “The story drew more than 500,000 views, and even generated business.

“As soon as it ran, Microsoft got calls from a bunch of big companies wanting to bring in Microsoft to smarten up their facilities.”

Now, Microsoft may be one of the world’s biggest brands. But virtually any organisation can receive comparable results with the right content strategy, creation and distribution plan.

Simply start applying the four marks of great thought leadership we’ve looked at here today, and you’ll soon be taking the first steps along the path to becoming genuinely influential in your industry.

Key takeaways

  • Find your niche. Identify a topic you can speak about with authority and analyse the existing content landscape to carve out a space for your organisation.
  • Focus on quality over quantity. Create content that challenges and inspires your target audience, providing them with unique insights and perspectives.
  • Amplify to succeed. Leverage a mix of paid, earned and owned media channels to get your message in front of the right people at the right time.

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