Even back in 2013, 'Thought Leadership' was listed in Forbes magazine's annual ‘tournament of corporate America’s most insufferable’ business buzzwords and clichés. Why? Because it's one of the most abused terms of all time. Yet, what it stands for counts more than ever - especially in Technology Marketing. I dig into Thought Leadership - what it is and isn't and how to get it right.
3 Good Reasons
Being a Thought Leader has big advantages - for your company and its flag-bearer:
- Prestige. It helps your brand stand out, making it easier to hire the best people and convince the customers you want
- Influence. If you're known as an industry authority, you'll be invited to speak at events, journalists will seek you out and, when you have something to say, will publish your content. This is far more effective and economical PR than the paid kind.
- Differentiation. It makes it easier to stand out from competitors, especially very large ones if you're seen as savvy, agile and always a step ahead.
Thought Leadership makes it easier and faster to grow your business. The direct impact is hard to measure, but the indirect benefit will be felt by everyone from employees to clients to competitors.
So, you now know the 3 big reasons, let's get into the meat: what thought leadership is and isn't, why claiming it won't cut it, and what it takes to be 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, knowledgeable people who provide fresh insights and smart solutions to common problems, and 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 or 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.
Thought leaders are more practical and down-to-earth than visionaries.
Thought Leaders don't declare themselves, nor do they don’t parachute into markets and anoint themselves. Though Leadership is not claimed but earned, and this depends on the perception of your audience.
The only way to earn Thought Leadership is to demonstrate it, consistently. You would never proclaim Thought Leadership status on your website; that's about as crass as claiming to be the smartest person on the planet. Yet, if others refer to you as a Thought Leader, it will stick.
Why is Thought Leadership crucial?
Buyers do 70 to 80% of their research online before they talk to any vendor, so your first priority is to make sure potential buyers can find you.
Once they're on your website, you need to show that you understand their problems, through authoritative, informative, original content.
You can't just sell to them; that's about as subtle as advertising. It's the wisdom you demonstrate through your content that proves your worth as a Thought
Leader, not selling the brilliance of your products or people.
Once web visitors get to know, trust and respect you, they’re more likely to shortlist your company.
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; most suffer from one or more of these:
- They’re bland and boring
- They contain nothing new, interesting or surprising
- They’re badly-written, convoluted and verbose, and fail to engage
- They’re full of technical jargon, which makes them hard to understand
- 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 and your target buyers, you could recite the details in your sleep.
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 into the discussion. These could be thought-provoking, confronting or entertaining, but they have to be original and spark 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 why true Thought Leaders are rarely global players, even though they have deep enough pockets to churn out tons of new new content. 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 a Thought Leader in your market.
1. Thought Leaders are themselves
Being a good communicator is a help, but authenticity trumps a slick turn of phrase. The easiest way to be authentic is to write blog posts the way you talk. Speak and write clearly, but most of all 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 and be respectful in your interactions.
2. Thought Leaders are generous
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 to your ideas. If you're 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 miles ahead by then.
3. Thought Leaders seize the moment
If marketing is about timing, Thought Leadership is about seizing the moment.
Here's a local example: Australia saw record heatwaves in the summer of 2017, which saw some states run out of power. Rather than seizing the moment, former Malcolm Turnbull used it to score cheap points against the Opposition.
He'd have earned much more respect had he taken the high ground and announced a forward-looking, ground-breaking plan that united the main stakeholders – energy experts, energy industry leaders and the opposition - in rare co-operation. With an election in the wings now, it's exactly what Morrison or Shorten should be doing. Neither is because they're chasing short term votes not long term leadership.
Turnbull missed his chance, but Catherine Tanna didn't.
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. At about the same time, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel published his review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market.
The ABC reported that Tanna's 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? This was Morrison's most memorable moment: as Treasurer, he brought a lump of coal into parliament and passed it around among his colleagues. Did no one see how out-of-step this gesture was in 2017? In 2019, why is Shorten not reminding voters of examples like this? The government hasn't moved a millimeter on climate policy since then - and replaying such footage would say it all without words.
Image Source: 3AW693 News Talk
4. Thought Leaders don't do it all
If you’re running a business, you have a lot on your plate. The last thing you need is another job writing White Papers, blog posts or speeches in order to raise your Thought Leadership credentials.
You don't have to - but you do have to put your stamp on your content.
You can always get it done for you - so long as you choose a marketing partner wisely and let this partner into your organisation and into your head.
The smartest ones will have processes to make the knowledge transfer fast, pain-free, cost-effective and, once it's done, the rest is easy. You'll get to have your say in your own voice - and grow your Thought Leader profile - without months of effort.
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