Dissecting Thought-Leadership

[no title] 1972 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987


To start, I don’t really like the term “Thought-Leadership”. Like many things in marketing, it’s a bit too “marketing-ey”. It also has echoes of NLP, something I’m not a big fan of, to say the very least.

But, I guess it’s pretty descriptive for what it means – I’d define it as something along the lines of:

Providing insight, ideas and leadership in a given subject area, that stretches the limits of the current consensus, driving a subject in new directions and providing deeper understanding.

The reason I’ve highlighted “leadership” and somewhat repeated this idea later in the sentence, is that I believe it’s important to distinguish between this sort of activity and certain types of content marketing which are merely reflecting the current consensus and knowledge in a given area. It also highlights why I think thought-leadership is so hard, particularly if you’re using this as a marketing technique.

First, to distinguish between thought-leadership and merely “reflecting the consensus” – I think this distinction is based on whether you are genuinely providing new insight and a deeper understanding on a subject, or are you just re-iterating others’ points of views and ideas? There’s nothing inherently wrong with the latter (unless you’re plagiarising of course 😉 ) – a lot of great content marketing is based on this approach. The example I gave a while ago, of VW providing content on how to keep your car safe in the winter is a really solid bit of content marketing. What they’re talking about (getting tyres, brakes etc checked before the winter starts, checking tread, knowing your revised stopping distances and so on), is hardly pushing the forefronts of engineering knowledge. But does that matter? I think this is really solid content marketing, which will enhance VW’s reputation and draw in people to their site.

But it’s not thought-leadership. I’m not sure what thought-leadership in the area of car winter safety would actually be!, and I’ve actually struggled to find really good examples, outside of the area I work in. I think this is because, although there are many personalities (particularly in marketing, where the Cult of Personality is rife!), how many of these are providing ideas where you think “Wow, I would never have thought of that! I now, fundamentally see this subject in a new and different way”. Rare, I think. As I say, there are a few I know in my work subject area (database development), but outside that?

The two good examples I could find in marketing generally are:

  1. Steven Wood at Eloqua (now part of Oracle). Steven has written a couple of great books on marketing automation – Digital Body Language and Revenue Engine. I see these as great thought leadership because he wasn’t just repeating received wisdom on a given subject, but really trying to say something new, and to give a more in-depth point of view on the subject.
  2. Google Analytics blog. The thing I like about the GA blog is that it’s a mix of content but, more importantly, that they do genuinely try to say something new and insightful with many of the posts. For example, here’s an interesting post on using Universal Analytics with an Xbox Kinect to measure data about physical movement.

But, I think there’s a couple of other things these examples have in common, which make them good examples of Thought Leadership – things which are not easy to replicate in a convincing way:

  1. Authority – both are respected sources of information, so you listen. If it was exactly the same content from a.n.other random individual, I think it would be more difficult to get value from the content.
  2. Relevance to business – again, both talk about topics which promote their businesses. As I mention, I think it would be relatively easy to find someone authoritative to talk on a topic of his/her choosing, but is that going to promote what you sell?

And this is why I think effective Thought Leadership is actually very difficult indeed. You need to find someone who fulfils the following three requirements:

  1. Knowledgeable/insightful and able to push the topic forward,
  2. Is a respected influencer in the community,
  3. Is willing to talk on the subject that promotes your business.

You can throw money at the problem of course, by hiring some big names. But even then, if you hired someone very expensive and authoritative in a specific area, but that person wasn’t already very interested in the subject matter of your business (criteria 3), you’ll still struggle to get good thought-leadership from that person.

An alternative is to grow someone from within. May be your CEO would be willing to tour the world talking about a given topic, writing blog articles on the side to support this. Or maybe you’ve got some very smart internal people who are already authorities on a subject, but you didn’t know it. All are options, but as I say, if you fulfil the three criteria above, you’ve a lot more chance of having a real impact, rather than just pushing out content that few people read..



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