What Is Thought Leadership and Why Do you Need It?

What is thought leadership and why do you need it? These are questions I get asked all the time.

Executives want to know how to build it. Marketers want to know how to deploy it. Sales people want to learn how to convert it.

Thought leadership is also an important component to an effective content marketing strategy. So here I will share some of the insights from the discussion as well as 5 steps to create thought leadership that drives real results…

What is Thought Leadership?

Marketing ROI Formula DownloadTo me, Thought Leadership is all about having the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your buyers. It can also include your unique perspective on hot topics relevant for your customers. The key here is that the agenda is set by your audience. They determine what is important.

It can be difficult to give up this control over to your buyers. But the fact is that they already have the control. And we can all benefit when we allow our audience to set the agenda and then just go with it.

Thought leadership becomes effective when the passion and expertise of the thought leader coincide with the interests of the audience you are trying to reach.

Why is Thought Leadership important?

Thought leadership is important for both B2C and B2B companies but I think it is especially important in B2B. This is because of the complexity of the decision-making process in B2B environments and the large number of people involved. Thought leadership content can help anyone involved in the business decision making process to gain alignment across their company regarding the problems they are facing. It can help them to “name” the problem.

For marketers, Thought Leadership allows us to define the category of our solution. Branding on today’s digital age is all about being associated with the questions” our buyers are asking.

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 our buyers to act – to take the next step in their journey. Of course, the challenge is in the telling!

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 buying journey. You allow your audience to get to know you.

Thought Leadership can drive engagement with larger numbers of potential customers. It’s easy to quantify the number of people searching on your product’s category terms than on your product names. Speak to those folks in the early stages and you will see the contribution of conversion to real revenue directly from your website sky rocket.

Ultimately, Thought Leadership is one of the outcomes of a 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 do you create Thought Leadership that drives real results?

According to MarketingProf’s, here are 5 ideas for creating thought leadership content that drives sales:

  1. Conduct and share research: she says “providing research allows your company to become a source of information and online content.”
  2. Entertain and Delight: Megan advises marketers to “inject personality and humor into your content. Prospects will be more likely to remember you, and, when they do decide to evaluate solutions, you’ll be top of mind.”
  3. Interview the Product Team: to develop trust in your organization and provide some of the interesting back story on products.
  4. Invite Customers to Participate: I love the idea of interviewing customers to create content.
  5. Remove the curtain between thought leaders and customers: as Megan says, “nothing says “I’m a leader” better than having a few dozen people seek your advice in a group setting.”

Now tell me what do you think? What does Thought Leadership mean to you?

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Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

14 thoughts on “What Is Thought Leadership and Why Do you Need It?

  1. I’m finding that becoming a thought leader is easier for us social media marketers when we take on the role of facilitator within our organizations. Even in smaller businesses, there are people on your team who just know so much about the company, the products and the market and connecting that insight with customers is where the biggest payoffs occur.

    It also turns out that partnering with synergistic companies on co-written content can be a huge boost to both companies in enhancing the thought leadership status of each.

    1. I agree Phillip. Moderating and facilitating is a big part of it, and I especially like your point of the connection with customers. Partnering is a great way to show thought leadership. It accepts that your company will never be 100% of any solution and one perspective is never enough to provide our customers with the holistic point of view they need to drive their business.

  2. Hi Michael,

    I like your approach to defining thought leadership around questions. Very nice. I would go further and say it also includes defining or asking the next set of industry questions as well, not only answering questions but helping to define the next set of questions asked. This hits the “leadership” aspect.

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe Megan’s five points necessarily create this kind of content. Instead, for most marketers the first four points are great for content marketing execution, but activity like this is why I said Thought Leadership Marketing is an Oxymoron (link: https://digitalb2b.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/thought-leadership-marketing-oxymoron/ ).

    To me, being a thought leader requires having your own perspective (answers to questions), understanding the breadth of the environment (no categoy exists in a vacuum) and having a recognized and valued forward-looking perspective. Content marketers looking to establish real thought leadership positions need to consider how their content communicates or validates their forward-looking perspective. I believe most of the content produced by companies following the plan above will support the buying process, but will not provide a true thought leadership position.

    Again, really like your approach to defining thought leadership and some of the benefits, including affinity. I’m just not convinced that the ideas for thought leadership content will establish thought leadership for your readers.

    Would love to hear your perspective, particulary with the benefit of the inside view you have of SAP and its thought leadership initiatives.

    1. Eric, thanks for the always provocative and interesting points of view…I think the goal of the content is be part of the conversation. And then you earn the trust and even the right to state your point of view. I do not think you can start with your “opinion” or your “thought leadership” without first asking the right questions and helping your buyers to gain an understanding of and alignment around the problem.

      That’s why I made the point that though leadership is in inspiring the action to take the next step and seek the answers. Now I agree that a company also needs to be part of the answer and have the knowledge and expertise to answer the question. But I think too many marketers skip this difficult first step and then lose the ability to earn the stage time to answer. That’s why I think Megan’s 5 points are exactly what is needed and are not often part of the content strategy.

  3. Excellent tips! I work primarily with B2B companies in the tech sector. I’m going to send them this post asap! Right on.

  4. Michael,

    Very good article once again. Having the answers to the biggest questions on the mind of buyers is a nice definition. I also believe having the courage to say you don’t have the answers yet but are working on them is thought leadership as well. I also like what Eric had to say and your response about being part of the conversation. And that is the whole point – engaging buyers in conversation brings you to top of mind.

    Great stuff!
    Tony Zambito

    1. Tony,

      Great point! Many people confused the term “thought leadership” with self-pronounced thought leaders. I am speaking all about content and about answering these questions. And you are so right on to say that leaders don’t always have the answers. And it is the whole point to just get into the conversation.

      Thanks again for your support!

      Best, Michael

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  6. Thought leadership applies to a wide range of disciplines but perhaps more useful in some than others. The term is ancient and first applied to early academics/ public thinkers in various disciplines out of the natural sciences where there isn’t much debate on facts .It was revived by marketers at the opening of this century as marketing took center stage in the cyber era where voluminous activity is successfully done online with predictable results if certain procedures are followed to market specific kinds of commodities.

    Thought leadership also applies to concepts like economic development, democracy and environmental management that are central in today’s world. Experts in various areas make assertions and go out to prosetalyze audiences at various fora into following particular ways of conducting business or doing things thus claiming to be thought leaders often with success especially if their ideas work out.

    Academics on the other hand generate opposing views and create ambiguities that may challenge thought leaders making matters even more interesting and open

    1. I agree Robert. Academics often create the initial theories and thought experiments that thought leaders then implement. Or thought leaders really are the thought leaders because they identify the trends and where things are going!

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