Why you may need to think again about thought leadership


A couple of years ago we were asked to make some strategic recommendations about how an established B2B brand could gain quick traction and momentum in an industry sector outside its traditional sphere of influence. Specifically, we were asked to consider how “thought leadership” might play a part.

It’s a good question. If you’re entering a new market – or trying to influence a new group of customers in an industry where you already have a solid presence – demonstrating that you understand some key issues and have some new ideas about how they might be addressed is certainly not going to do you any harm. In fact, in these post-truth times we could probably do with a few more people being a bit more rational and considered. And it may just prove to be the door-opener you need.

But “thought leadership” is not a magic wand. You can’t just bash out 500 words of me-too copy on Medium and suddenly expect to earn the trust and respect of your new peers. For one thing, you need to do a bit of thinking before you can lead. You can only really demonstrate understanding and give advice if there’s substance behind your insights. That doesn’t mean you can’t replay a bit of what other people are saying – curating other perspectives is a fine and honourable tradition – but if you’re adding none of your own value you can’t really expect your people to sit up and take notice.

More fundamentally, though, any thought leadership initiative should only be considered as part of a broader, holistic content strategy. Show leadership through some of your content; demonstrate practical value elsewhere. In fact, if you have a strong, differentiated and marketable offer then it may be that you should focus exclusively on demand generation and leave thought leadership to others in your industry. If being seen as a pioneer is a priority, though, here are some guiding principles.

Put yourself in their shoes

If you want a specific audience to listen to you, you’d better make damned sure you’re telling them something they want to hear. Picture a specific persona: an individual in a particular role at a named company. Your marketing team may have pen portraits of target personas already. If not, you’ll have to use your imagination. Give this person a name if it helps. Certainly consider what kind of day she might be having and what it’s going to take to make her interrupt it and pay attention to what you have to say.

This is good advice for any kind of content, of course, but thought leadership is always going to be a discretionary “read” so make sure you’re confident that what you have to say addresses a pain-point your imaginary reader/viewer will relate to. Then be super-clear about what you’re going to say. And just as clear in the way you say it.

Don’t lose your own focus

Adopting a considered, journalistic, research-led approach is an excellent way of ensuring your thought leadership content is pitched right. But don’t get carried away. Remember you’re not an actual journalist (unless you are one, in which case this probably isn’t your bag. Thanks for stopping by, though.)

Your business has an agenda. You might even have a manifesto. (If not, you should think about writing one. It’s a great way of giving context and focus to your overall direction of travel.) Make sure the thoughts you put out are as relevant to your own agenda as they are to your audience’s. SAP has a long history of delivering content in this vein. Its current OpenSAP Thought Leadership Program is even moving beyond content and into training and education.

Don’t (always) be original

The greatest thinkers the world has seen have always borrowed from what has come before. No less a pioneer than Isaac Newton said as much in one of the few things he’s remembered for that doesn’t involve equations: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

So don’t be afraid to read and curate the thoughts of others. A clear digest of advice and examples may be just what your audience needs. But don’t plagiarise, don’t forget to credit your sources and always find a way to add your own spin.

Provide direction – but don’t preach

Another favourite quotation, this time from a stakeholder we interviewed when we were shaping recommendations for the project mentioned at the top of this post: “Thought leadership without recommendations is just marketing bullshit.” This gets to the nub of what makes (or should make) thought leadership strategies stand apart from other marketing and tactics – BS or otherwise. And the chap who said it knows his stuff, being a prime mover in the IBM Cúram Research Institute, a model for independent – but focused – thought leadership.

Demonstrate an understanding. Be positive. Offer advice. But don’t lay it on too thick. You’re showing how good you’d be to work with, not inciting revolution.

Don’t talk about yourself (too much)

You’ll be tempted to sprinkle your thought leadership content with liberal mentions of your portfolio or your successful customers. Do so sparingly. Remember this is about building confidence, not selling. Be honest with yourself if you’ve crossed that particular line – and cross it right back again.

Be personal

Original thinking comes from individual brains, not corporate committees. It follows that opinions appear more genuine if they’re attributed to specific people. Your audience is smart enough to know that that individual may have had some help with background research or word polishing – I’ve had help with one of those things for this piece myself! – but they will also respond better to a real person, one whose delivery feels natural and whose profile and background they can look into.

A business that worries about employees building and exploiting their own personal brands should recognise the value of having respected individuals on the team, especially in an industry where domain expertise is crucial. If this feels like a threat in some way then it might be time for the business to re-evaluate its own brand values.

Think beyond the blog

A surprising amount of virtual ink is spilt explaining to the world that we all have vanishingly small attention spans and that only bite-sized content will do. Encouragingly, though, you’ve managed to make it to the end of this piece (if you’ve jumped straight here you’ve missed a tiny bit of swearing – go back and take a look), so I’d argue long-form copy really does still have an important place.

When it comes to thought leadership, though, the pendulum seems to swing so far in favour of dense blog posts and white papers that you’d be forgiven for thinking that was the only option. Once again, think about your idealised “reader”. Are there other ways you could get your point across that will capture her imagination better, create a longer-lasting impression or make her more likely to share with her colleagues and broader network?

Video content is a natural extension of the thought leadership blog, of course, whether it’s to-camera opinion pieces or creative animated infographics and other treatments. But be prepared to think a bit more laterally too. Consider blurring the lines between thought leadership and philanthropy to link pioneering thinking with material human gains; create new digital experiences that make thought leadership a more collective and collaborative experience; consider creating or sponsoring a regular industry report based on original research.

We’re all broadcasters and publishers now. Find your voice.

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  • Strategy