The term “thought leader” was coined back in 1994. Today, some roll their eyes and regard it as a prime example of business jargon.
Yet the concept has value, whatever words we use, so let’s look at it.
It’s about engaging, not marketing, says Molly Smith, PR consultant. “Whether it’s providing advice, inspiring or educating others, or sharing an expert point of view, at its essence, thought leadership is about having something to say,” she writes in her article for Business.com.
Wait, that sounds kind of like content marketing, doesn’t it?
Let’s clarify: Thought leadership is not just a dressed-up name for content marketing, but rather a subset of it. If types of content marketing are illustrated in a pyramid – think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – thought leadership is at the top, above other brand messaging. For a breakdown on content marketing, check out our previous article, Everyone’s talking about content marketing… but what is it?
While thought leadership occupies the smallest portion of the marketing schema, in B2B marketing it has the greatest potential to deeply engage decision makers. About three-quarters of executives report that they are more selective than ever about the content they consume, and over 80 percent of state that sheer volume of content as the reason for their selectiveness.
To a lesser degree, thought leadership contributes to B2C marketing as well. Take Patagonia, for example. They’ve turned the idea of disposable clothing on its head with messaging that focuses as much on environmental and social responsibility as selling outdoor wear. And their brand loyalty is through the roof.
Here’s the catch: Thought leadership isn’t simply another marketing tool you can decide to add to your plan. You can’t be a thought leader unless you genuinely have something important and unique to say that will influence others for good. No matter how much good you believe your product will do for customers, sales messages don’t count.
How to become a genuine thought leader
Thought leadership cannot be manufactured, but it can be developed.
Also, avoid appointing yourself a thought leader. Other professionals see right through it. The term is an acknowledgement and honor earned from your industry and your peers.
Now that we have that out of the way, you should absolutely develop thought leadership. Start by asking yourself:
What questions do my customers need answers to?
What complicates their lives or blocks positive results? Is there a paradigm you could suggest they shift? Learn to probe and listen well. Which challenges are the most important? Which ones can you tackle?
Who in my company can answer their questions?
Maybe it’s you. But maybe you have other unrecognized experts right under your nose, too. Leaders exist at all levels — not just in your own C-suite. Develop the habit of drawing them out and empowering them to share what they know. You might be surprised at the treasure you find!
What else do I need to learn?
Inform your deep solution with deep research. B2B executives need insights that are backed up with data.
How can I inspire others?
Gather examples and stories to share. The most influential communicators touch hearts and use humor in addition to sharing facts. Be transparently human. Authentic people are easier to trust.