What Is Thought Leadership? And When You Should Use It?

Few terms raise the ire of the buzzword police more than thought leadership. But what is thought leadership? When should you consider using it, and how do you balance the talent and experience of your team with the humility and authenticity today’s audiences demand?

Let’s start by getting on the same page.

What Is Thought Leadership?

I define thought leadership as a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience, on a particular topic.

It’s not pedigree. It’s not where you went to school. Thought Leadership means you provide the best and deepest answers, to your customers’ biggest questions, in the formats your audience likes to consume.

Thought leadership is a key component of content marketing. But I would caution brands to avoid what I call the “unique point of view trap.” I have heard more than a few executives delay betting on content marketing by focusing on “the unique point of view.” They say “there is so much noise in the marketplace. We can only compete if our content is differentiated.

I would argue that your audience isn’t looking for your content to be differentiated all of the time. They are just looking for the best answers to the questions. Or as Bryan Rhoads at Intel like to say, “you have to win the internet every day.”

My advice: differentiate with your point of view, when appropriate. Differentiate with your visual design. But mostly, differentiate by becoming an authority and by helping your customers with different types of content, every single day.

We also have to be careful with thought leadership. Wikipedia actually calls it “business jargon.” And defines it as content that is recognized by others as innovative, covering trends and topics that influence an industry.

When Should You Consider A Thought Leadership Approach?

One of the best ways to establish authority on your topic is to produce deep research on the subject. You have to present a depth of knowledge that no one else has.

You also have to define all of your customers challenges and define the best ways to overcome them. Many brands think this is an opportunity to talk about their products and how they are better.

I would caution against that approach. As soon as you start promoting yourself, your audience will start to tune out and you will lose the trust you worked so hard to build.

Who Should Use Thought Leadership Content Marketing?

Thought leadership is important for both Consumer and B2B companies. But the complexity of the decision making process in B2B, the length of time it takes for decisions to be made, and the number of people involved, all point to thought leadership as an important component of B2B Content Marketing.

Thought leadership content can help anyone involved in the business decision to gain alignment among their peers, which is often no small task.

And for marketers, Thought Leadership allows us to define the category of our solution or our brand purpose in customer terms. So even consumer companies can use thought leadership effectively to support their overall mission and to define authority in their space. After all, branding is all about being associated with specific needs of your consumers.

Where Does Thought Leadership Come From?

Thought Leadership can come from any source – executives, customers, product managers, designers, customer service reps, sales people. We all have knowledge, experience and a point of view.

But ultimately, thought leaders need to inspire your consumers to act – to take the next step in their journey.

What Are The Benefits Of Thought Leadership?

The benefits of Thought leadership start with brand affinity. By communicating thought leadership you become part of the conversation, early in the consumer journey. You allow your audience to get to know you.

Ultimately, Thought Leadership is one of the outcomes of a solid Content Strategy. And content is bigger than marketing. Leaders are everywhere. Expose your thought leaders and you begin the process of becoming a social business – real people with real faces talking to real customers and buyers.

How To Create Thought Leadership That Drives Results?

Identify the topic that is closely associated with your brand. Are you an authority on that topic. A simple Google search can help you answer that question. Often we find that brands are not just competing with their direct competitors.

You are competing with everyone. Anyone who publishes content in your space is competing for mind share and authority.

You also need to identify the questions your customers are asking. Identify them all, make a list and  prioritize them.

Answer those questions across multiple formats and multiple channels in a way that adds value to your audience. Start with the most important and work your way down the list.  Seek to be the best answer to those questions.

Finally, you need to create your thought leadership content in an engaging way. Viral cat videos and listicles are great but you shouldn’t dismiss any content types that your audience might be interested in.

You need to educate them but we are all human and none of us mind a little humor. Use lots of examples and facts and quotes.  I love the idea of interviewing customers to create content or curating content from other sources while adding your own perspective.

Your audience is looking for help. Are you willing to give it to them? And tell me what do you think? What does Thought Leadership mean to you?

Are you interested in engaging and converting new customer for your business? Contact me here and let’s talk about how we can help.
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Showing 8 comments
  • Pontus Staunstrup

    Great read, Michael, and very good arguments.

    Something seems to be missing at the end of this section: “We also have to be careful with thought leadership. Wikipedia actually calls it “business jargon.” And defines it as content that is recognized by others as innovative, covering trends and topics that influence an industry. Others have pointed”

    Thanks again

    • Michael Brenner

      Doh! Thanks Pontus. I was bleary-eyed by the time I finished this one and missed that. Thanks so much for letting me know.

  • Dave Brock

    Michael: Outstanding post. I think there is a broader context to the “use” of thought leadership in complex B2B markets. It’s the, “….and this is what it means to you….” piece that’s delivered by sales people as they engage prospects and customers.
    We don’t necessarily need to be so differentiated or distinct (but that helps), or even provocative. But if we can help the sales person translate content pieces that may capture interest, generating a conversation specifically about what it means to the customer now.(specific persona at a specific point in their buying journey)
    But this puts an additional burden on content developers to be able to provide the tools to help the sales person bridge that gap and maximize the impact/specificity of that thought leadership with the customer.
    Thanks for a great article.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Dave, I completely agree. One of the things we see with the most successful brands doing thought leadership is that they create content for each stage of the buyer journey. Answering all the questions as they progress down the funnel is the only way to increase speed of conversion.

  • Lorraine Shearing

    Great article – thanks! You mentioned Thought Leadership as a component of Content Marketing. I’d be curious to know how you see the two as differing?

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Lorraine,

      It’a a great question! And pretty tough to answer because I think most people see thought leadership as a type of content. It’s a piece of content like a research study white paper. And content marketing is most certainly not an asset or even a series of assets. I have to laugh when I hear people say, “we do content marketing. Here is a link to an ebook.” That is not content marketing. That is an asset. A piece of content.

      Content marketing is a customer-focused mindset where you consistently create content that helps your audience. And your brand gains authority in the process. So in many ways (and I think I said this in the post) thought leadership is something you achieve by successfully implementing content marketing.

      Now having said that, I do think thought leadership content should be a component of successful content marketing. Those ebooks and whitepapers and webinars and slideshare decks from the executives and “thought leaders” inside the business should all be part of the content marketing mix. But so should listicles and short explainer videos and maybe even silly gifs. But those probably wouldn’t count as “thought leadership.” 😉

  • Manmay Mehta

    Wow!! What a post.
    You really break all the misconceptions with sheer logic. Thought leadership is not putting your unique point of view. But convincing and resolving your customers’ doubts in the best way like No one else does.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Manmay, this is one of my favorite posts and ideas. You don’t have to present something unique, but you can be uniquely helpful!