What Is Thought Leadership?

By Daniel Rosehill, Founder, DSR Ghostwriting

Has the idea of a formalized thought leadership program be floated within your organization?

Perhaps you’re a solo entrepreneur and are thinking about using thought leadership to develop authority in your niche. You’re excited about what you think it might be able to achieve or have heard that it ‘works’ from others but don’t understand exactly what it is.

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Or maybe you just want to get various ‘thought’ pieces out before a major initiative, such as a book launch, rolls around?

Maybe, on the other hand, you’re more reluctant — skeptical even about what the ROI from such an activity might be. You might think that thought leadership is a vacuous buzzword and wonder whether (or how) it really differs from content marketing, public relations, and the other forms of marketing that seem to be in vogue these days. Or perhaps your reluctance stems from the fact that a colleague has seen a competitor of yours leveraging the power of this form of marketing to good effect on LinkedIn and Medium. And you’ve been cajoled into returning ball as the spokesperson for your organization.

Regardless of whether your bias towards thought leadership skews positive or negative it’s definitely worth understanding what, exactly, it is in order to make an informed decision as to whether it might benefit you or your organization.

In this introductory post, I’ll explain a little bit about what ‘thought leadership’ entails; what it generally does not involve; and what it could realize for you or your organization in terms of solid ROI.

Let’s take a look.


What Thought Leadership Is


1. Thought Leadership Is A Marketing Activity

If you’re reading this, then I’m guessing that you’re interested in thought leadership because you think that it might ‘do’ something for yourself or your organization. Even if what exactly that ‘doing’ is remains somewhat nebulous in your mind you probably still hope that, ultimately, its idea is to realize some concrete benefit for your business — such as more sales and higher revenue. If so, your operating assumption is correct. And if you didn’t think this way, then I hope that this comes as good news.

As the name implies, thought leadership markets your thinking. And more specifically it tries to market some kind of thinking that you are doing that tends to be at the forefront of the debates happening in your industry.

However, with thought leadership, simply highlighting your thoughts about a key industry issue — like where automation is going to lead omnichannel ecommerce — is never the objective in itself. Ultimately the intended purpose of you leveraging your ability to demonstrate this thought leadership is to realize wins for yourself or your organization (even if, as we will see, that process might look a little more slanted compared to alternative tools in the marketing stack.)

Potential thought leaders are often extremely talented and focused on their area of professional interest. But, whether they are leveraged as the attributed thought leaders themselves or as the subject matter experts in a collaborative writing effort, it’s important to understand that their thinking is not being disseminated altruistically: neither for the benefit of mankind nor certainly for those in your industry who might come across your thought leadership in trade media publications that you both subscribe to. This does not mean that what you’re trying to do or say in your thought leadership campaign is necessarily vapid. Your thinking and what your company does might (hopefully!) indeed be truly revolutionary and it might be so far-reaching that it would be fair to say that it will change our world for the better. It’s just that, ultimately, thought leadership is a marketing activity that tries to directly capitalize on the breadth of your expertise, or what’s particularly interesting and insightful about your opinion(s), in order to realize competitive advantages.

The Importance Of Messaging And Perception To Thought Leadership Success

Compare this with some other forms of writing that might entail demonstrating your expertise on a subject: like contributing a scientific article to a peer reviewed journal. Whenever we’re writing thought leadership for a mass-market audience, by contrast, we’re also heavily concerned with managing two things: the messaging that runs through your communications and your positioning around key issues and in the competitive landscape within which you operate.

By the latter it’s meant, broadly, where you stand amongst your industry peers who might also have something interesting to say about the topic at hand. What messages do you convey in this authorship and what kind of territory does that mean you are staking out in a fast-evolving and high-stakes industry debate? There are many questions that it makes sense to ask before putting pen to paper (to write a thought leadership strategy document that it!). But one in particular is likely to loom front and center:

After reading the thought leadership you put out how are you likely to be perceived by your audience?

Will you convince them that you’re an expert?

Or more presciently: Will you convince that you’re an expert convincingly enough that they will be moved to invite you to speak at a key industry conference which will be attended by high value leads?

If that thought leadership translates to that industry invite the positive benefits downstream can be substantial.

Beyond the intangible reputational gain (thought leadership tends to self-perpetuate) will those conversations you strike up with prospects at the conference translate to real (tangible) business opportunity?

These are the types of achievements that thought leadership sets out to achieve.


What Thought Leadership Is Not


1. Thought Leadership Is Not Content Marketing

You’ve probably also heard about content marketing. It fits broadly within the picture of inbound marketing (efforts which are intended to attract your target audience to you).

What’s so different about thought leadership that makes it worthy of being called something else, you might be wondering?

Let’s come back to the previous point about thought leadership. About how it entails marketing one’s expertise, viewpoints, or both. And how, more concretely, it might involve leveraging one’s interesting position on a key industry debate in order to realize business opportunities.

Selling Expertise Vs. Value

This is typically not the mechanism at work with content marketing.

Content marketing, by contrast, is concerned more with providing value to readers as a means of marketing to them and thereby ultimately increasing sales. Make no mistake: content marketing (like thought leadership) can be a highly effective enterprise when done well. But its focus is largely educational. By providing useful information to readers one hopes to develop a sort of symbiotic relationship with them. Readers derive value from the content marketing resources you produce. And authors assert themselves as a trustworthy source in the minds of buyers who will develop confidence in them and ultimately become far likelier to buy from them when the right moment arises. Content marketing these days is also heavily intertwined with SEO — and for very good reason. In order to forge connections with the right prospective audience, one has to be talking about subjects — and hitting on keywords — that they are actively searching for. Otherwise the messaging, and all that value-buildling, will be ineffective.

There are a few points of contrast between content marketing and thought leadership that I hope are evident from the ground covered here:

  • With thought leadership the ‘products’ leveraged to achieve a positive campaign ROI are one’s expertise and viewpoint on an issue. And the more compelling and disruptive those are the more effective it can be as a tactic.
  • With content marketing the main product leveraged is the education and the amount of sustained value that the author can provide to the reader. The effect might be arguably more direct than thought leadership. But in big ticket (and long) B2B sales cycles, establishing expertise might prove to be a more appropriate prerequisite to developing a relationship than attempting to facilitate an ‘educational’ buyer journey which might prove completely unnecessary or even counterproductive (sophisticated buyers likely already understand plenty about the nuts and bolts of your industry.)

2. Thought Leadership Is Not PR


Compared to content marketing, thought leadership fits much more tidily within a public relations (PR) strategy — even if they are not one and the same.

Public relations is concerned with managing one’s relationship with the public — or improving the image of the business in their minds (“public perception”). PR also fits within the wider marketing jigsaw. But its goal of facilitating a more conducive sales environment for the business is much broader than thought leadership.

Nevertheless there is substantial overlap between public relations and thought leadership.

  • For one, both are concerned with managing — and heightening — brand reputation and awareness.
  • For thought leadership the aspect to focus on might be one’s general level of expertise about an industry or one’s viewpoint on a specific issue (or a set of them). For PR those same top-level objectives might be hit upon (making a favorable impression on one’s industry and prospects). But the focus, again, would likely be broader in remit. Whereas a PR campaign might break down messaging objectives by geography or groups of stakeholder, a thought leadership campaign might focus more on issues and viewpoints and the type of resonance they might have within a narrow and more specialized audience.

A lot of PR activities support thought leadership. And thought leadership is an important element in many PR campaigns. But the two are not exactly the same thing.


But Does Thought Leadership Work?


Several months ago, I summarized the findings from Edelman and LinkedIn’s latest B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study. Its findings provide a relevant and up-to-date answer to the important question of whether thought leadership ‘works’.

In very broad brushstrokes:

  • The vast majority (88%) of B2B buyers — those that thought leadership is often targeted at — assert that it can “work” (by heightening perception of the author or directly leading to sales opportunities). However, as in previous years, most said that they are disappointed by the caliber of thought leadership they receive.
  • 48% of respondents said that effective thought leadership could lead to decisive business gains such as inclusion in RFP opportunities. 38% said that it had realized a softer gain by increasing their perception or “admiration” for the producer.
  • Thought leadership is a slowly-building ecosystem internally. Those that had devoted more than five years to it displayed the greatest levels of internal satisfaction with the activity.

An even more abridged summary could be: Thought leadership can be effective if done right (resulting in both hard and soft gains.) If executed badly, however, it can damage credibility. And the more time an organization devotes to it the more enjoyable the process becomes.


What Thought Leadership Is And Is Not


  • Thought leadership leverages one’s expertise on a subject or viewpoint on an issue(s) to create secondary opportunity that is ultimately expected to translate into tangible business gains. It is a marketing tactic.
  • Unlike content marketing, thought leadership works by impressing the author’s expertise and relevance upon an audience or arousing their interest in his or her viewpoint (and potentially the organization that stands in the background). It is not necessarily about providing value through education.
  • Thought leadership is often an important constituent of PR campaigns (although the two are not the same thing.)
  • Thought leadership can positively influence both hard and soft business metrics. Although its success is heavily dependent upon how well it is done. It is a double edged sword.

DSR Ghostwriting specializes in providing long form thought leadership writing services (including speeches, articles, white papers, and e-books) to B2B technology and public affairs clients. To learn more, visit www.dsrghostwriting.com.

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