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Every company wants to be a thought leader; in fact, the term is thrown around pretty casually in marketing discussions. It’s a shame that such a powerful idea as thought leadership has been reduced to a buzzword. Very few companies actually become one and those who believe they are one, aren’t being honest with themselves. If you tell me you’re generating thought leadership collateral, that’s the first clue that you aren’t a thought leader.
What is thought leadership?
A real thought leader, whether a company or individual, is someone who’s opinions steer the fleet and who’s insights are inspirational. Thought leaders always have something interesting to say, often independent of whether it moves themselves or their businesses forward. True thought leaders are influencers of markets and opinions.
Tying revenue expectations to every activity often smothers a company’s thought leadership program.
Apple is a great example – they embody corporate thought leadership. Their entire company and corporate culture strive towards a “design above all else” philosophy. This puts their products at the vanguard of design discussions. Even when those designs are controversial, they’re still seen as saying something. Apple is a company worth listening to about the future of design. And top designers fight for the right to work there.
Marketing envies thought leaders
What marketer doesn’t want to create influence and credibility for their company? Marketing would love to be able to manufacture thought leadership in service of a company’s overall marketing strategy. (Yes, it sounds shallow to say “manufacture”. Feel free to substitute “use appropriate storytelling” if it makes you feel more comfortable.)
Yet many have come to associate “thought leadership” with “content marketing that has no overt sales pitch”. This watered-down facsimile has taken the place for true thought leadership in marketing departments around the world. Leaving your product out of your marketing does not make for true thought leadership. It’s simply the easy way to say you’re a thought leader.
True thought leadership is difficult difficult lemon difficult
Let’s face facts: unless you are one already, you aren’t going to be a thought leader in your domain.
If you want to be the “next Tesla” in your space, you have to pursue the right positioning, rewrite your corporate culture, hire only people that fit and let go of those who don’t, change your processes, get management at all levels to fully buy-in to transformative change, and stay at the visionary bleeding edge. An extremely tall order.
It’s hard to have this kind of influence – only a strong and luminary CEO could conceivably pull this off.
Thought leadership lite is really really difficult
In reality, the best you’re going to be able to do is give your company the appearance of thought leadership through a powerful thought leadership marketing campaign. But even then, this is quite challenging.
Good content pieces aren’t easy to create – they require good thought, research, interviews, writing and design – and the very best of them may require months of work.
A marketing-driven thought-leadership campaign needs to run consistently for a long time to pay dividends. You aren’t a leader overnight, it takes continuous work. You need to dedicate a significant part of your marketing effort to thought leadership. All the while knowing that it won’t be generating leads or impacting the business for perhaps years. This is precisely why many CFOs and CEOs have little stomach for attempting thought leadership campaigns. Tying revenue expectations to every activity often smothers a company’s thought leadership program.
Sales and business development compounds the uphill battle of the thought-leading marketer. These folks can insist on sprinkling product mentions throughout your thought leadership campaign. And that’s especially true if the campaign is going well or if it’s got a big marketing budget. Since you’re reaching all of those prospective clients, why not slide in a pitch for your best-selling product? Unfortunately, the stain of salesmanship can turn visionary ideas and knowledge sharing back into thinly veiled product pitches. It essentially destroys the progress you’ve made in establishing the company as a trusted, independent voice.
Good content is merely difficult
That brings us back to the so-called thought leadership piece. This is a piece of content – like a white paper, blog, e-book, video, or webinar – that showcases your company’s expertise and market understanding and shows that you are charitable enough to share it openly. It establishes your company’s credibility, and it can act as a great lead gen tool.
Many good marketers try to incorporate this into their marketing programs. Being limited to individual pieces of collateral, marketers can budget for them and protect them from getting sidetracked by internal influences. These pieces aren’t easy to create – they require good thought, research, interviews, writing and design – and the very best of them may require months of work. But they’re at least achievable.
Effective content isn’t thought leadership
But they aren’t thought leadership.
What they are is compelling pitch-free content. You probably won’t fool anyone into thinking you’re leading the market with your ideas. But by putting out valuable high-quality content that has no sales pitch you can create awareness, build your brand, and move prospects along the funnel.
Just don’t call it thought leadership.