Back in 2013, Forbes included “thought leadership” in its compilation of the most annoying business slang. The author basically said thought leadership was nothing but a snobbish word for “expertise.”
I can’t argue about thought leadership being an overused term. But equating thought leadership with expertise is a gross oversimplification.
The fact is, thought leadership can still be a powerful marketing tool, especially when it comes from the top. The CEO. The president. The executive director. The managing partner. A senior vice president.
More on that in a minute.
What Is Thought Leadership?
Everyone has their own definition, but here’s mine:
Thought leadership is the sharing of insights, information, and/or innovative ideas that reflect the knowledge, perspective, and unique voice of an authority figure in a particular field.
In other words, thought leadership goes deeper than expertise. It has to be shared. It has to have value. It has to be distinguishable from others. And it has to come from people who know what they’re talking about.
How Thought Leadership Went Off the Rails
One reason thought leadership devolved into annoying slang is that it became watered-down. Anyone could publish a blog article, create a video, or email a newsletter with little effort or investment. Just recycle the same ideas as other people or go off on a half-baked rant with no factual basis.
You didn’t even need a website. You could just publish content on social media.
The relative ease of publishing led to an oversaturation of bad content. Although LinkedIn continues to be an effective platform, too many organizations use it as a dumping ground for self-serving, self-promotional content stuffed with keywords and sales pitches, all dressed up as “thought leadership.”
This has caused many marketers to shy away from developing thought leadership content.
But here’s the thing. Business decision-makers still see value in thought leadership. Real thought leadership.
According to the 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, 58 percent of decision-makers consumed thought leadership content for at least one hour per week in 2018, compared to 50 percent in 2017. The largest increase came from those who spent at least four hours per week consuming thought leadership content (12 percent to 21 percent).
55 percent used thought leadership content to evaluate potential partners and vendors. 92 percent said this content increased their respect for an organization. 75 percent said they’ll follow an author or organization based on thought leadership.
The Disconnect in the Perceived Value of Thought Leadership
The research also revealed a disconnect in how business decision-makers and marketers view thought leadership content. More specifically, buyers value thought leadership a lot more than sellers and content creators.
- 87 percent of decision-makers said thought leadership content increases trust, compared to 49 percent of content creators.
- 89 percent of decision-makers said thought leadership content enhances a brand’s reputation, compared to 55 percent of content creators.
- 45 percent of decision-makers invited an organization to bid on a project based on thought leadership, even though that organization had not been previously considered. Just 17 percent of sellers believe thought leadership creates RFP opportunities.
- 58 percent of decision-makers said they chose to do business with an organization based on thought leadership. Just 26 percent of sellers believe thought leadership is directly responsible for closing business.
- 61 percent of decision-makers are more willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that articulates a clear vision through thought leadership. Just 14 percent of sellers believe thought leadership allows them to charge more than competitors who create inferior content or no content at all.
Of course, thought leadership isn’t just about finding new business. 55 percent of decision-makers said they purchased more from an existing partner or vendor because of thought leadership content. 60 percent bought a product or service they hadn’t previously considered.
But there’s a downside. Poor thought leadership content can have the opposite effect, causing decision-makers to stop following an author or organization (60 percent), lose trust (46 percent), and take their business elsewhere (29 percent).
Unfortunately, one area of agreement for decision-makers and marketers involves the quality of thought leadership content, or lack thereof. Just 18 percent of decision-makers and 25 percent of content creators rate the content they consume as “excellent or very good.”
The good news is, if most of the content out there is less than stellar or downright poor, there’s a tremendous opportunity for organizations that commit to developing true thought leadership content.
How to Create Thought Leadership Content that Works
Put the “leader” back in thought leadership.
Thought leadership should come from the leaders mentioned at the beginning of this article – the CEO, president, executive director, managing partner, senior vice president – not the person who draws the short straw when the marketing folks say you need fresh content.
Put the weight of a senior executive’s name and title behind your content. This instantly gives your content more credibility and makes it more likely to grab the attention of decision-makers.
That doesn’t mean senior executives need to spend an entire day writing an article. But they do need to contribute more than a by-line.
They need to make thought leadership a priority. They need to think about what insights they can provide that would be helpful to the reader. They need to be prepared to share relatable stories that support the topic. They need to be willing to take a stand on certain issues.
That’s what leaders do.
As for the actual writing, a good content writer and interviewer can extract the right information, communicate passion and vision, capture the senior executive’s voice, and tell the story in a way that’s relevant to the target audience. This will make it easier for executives to commit to developing fresh content consistently over the long haul.
In addition to generating leads, closing sales, and building trust as illustrated by the Edelman-LinkedIn research, a thought leadership strategy can help executives land speaking engagements at conferences and chamber events. It can help them score media interviews. It can raise their profile and the brand’s profile.
When you develop the right content, focus on helping and not selling, and get your content in front of the right people, your senior executive will be recognized as… wait for it… a thought leader.
To be clear, I would never suggest doing away with SEO strategies, and there’s a place for promoting products and services. However, the top goals when developing thought leadership content are providing value, offering a unique perspective, and positioning the executive and the organization as experts in their field. This can be done in addition to SEO and promotion.
Good thought leadership content has value. Bad thought leadership content does not. People will read if you give them something worth reading.
Thought leadership content that delivers the greatest impact comes from the top. Get buy-in from the C-suite and make thought leadership an organizational priority. Publish true thought leadership content on your website. Publish and promote it on LinkedIn. Email it to a targeted list. Showcase it in your newsletter.
That’s how you put the “leader” back in thought leadership. And that’s how you turn content from another box to be checked into a brand-enhancing, trust-building, lead-generating, revenue-producing machine.
Check out my webinar on thought leadership: Position Yourself as an Expert with Content that Connects!
Barbara Close says
Great article Scott and you’ve perfectly characterized the thought leadership conundrum.
Scott McKelvey says
Thanks, Barbara! Fortunately, the conundrum has created an opportunity to win with real thought leadership.
Scott, great article and perspectives of n Thought Leadership. Thanks
Scott McKelvey says