What Makes a Thought Leader?

by Andrew Stanten

According to a 2016 survey by The Economist Group, at least 7 out of 10 executives will be more inclined to do business with organizations that are perceived as thought leaders.

But what, exactly, does it mean to be a thought leader?

Back in the 1990s, I worked at Rodale, Inc, publisher of Prevention, Men’s Health, Bicycling and more. The company was well known for what we then called “service journalism.” The idea was simple — give people practical, useful information and inspiration, and they will become customers.

Twenty years later, under the umbrella of “thought leadership,” we’ve ripped a page from the consumer publications playbook and applied it to B2B marketing. Companies across the country, from IBM and Oracle to app developers just getting off the ground, are competing for the coveted position of go-to authority (read: go-to solution) on their market’s challenges, earning the trust of customers with every word they write. Businesses become their own publishers, and social media and marketing automation platforms like Hubspot have risen to the occasion, making it easier than ever to distribute guidance on everything from software to security. This, in turn, leads to warmed-up prospects who ultimately turn into paying customers.

But with great popularity comes great competition. The internet is now jammed full of e-books, how-to’s and blog articles.

To be successful in today’s noisy thought leadership arena, you have to achieve what Joel Kuntzman, editor-in-chief of Booz, Allen & Hamilton magazine, had in mind when he coined the term “thought leader” back in 1994. You need to have ideas “that merit attention.”

These ideas will be different for every organization, but here are some of the common strategies I’ve seen from attention-grabbing thought leaders no matter the space in which you’re playing.

Own it

The first step to getting started is identifying your organization’s thought leader (and your content byline). This individual should genuinely have something to say — and not be afraid to say it. The best candidate may be your organization’s CIO, chief technologist or CEO, but they won’t always be the one with the time or skill to write consistently and effectively.

As an alternative, consider a lead developer or another knowledgeable executive who might be comfortable playing this part. Or, in the spirit of true service journalism, consider teaming up with a ghostwriter from within your marketing department who can regularly interview your thought leader. Using the exec’s opinions as a guide, the writer can then infuse some additional research to produce a draft for review and revision.

Stay plugged in

One of the hardest parts about producing engaging content is knowing what to write about. Many marketing automation services offer prepackaged, generic (often poorly written) content to use for SEO purposes. But do not be fooled: providing copy for copy’s sake is not practicing effective thought leadership.

You want what you put out there to be authentic and representative of your organization. It should be your own words — and words you are willing to defend. That’s why it is important that your thought leader and marketing team stay plugged in to industry trends. Ideas can come from anywhere: colleagues, a tech or trade publication, conversations at a networking event, a troubleshooting session with a client. Train yourself to look for these opportunities so you can provide a thoughtful take on the issues your customers care about most.

Keep at it

Unfortunately, there is no auto-pilot setting when it comes to thought leadership. You need to have a plan for content development and dissemination: a mix of short, medium and long-form content and a strategic timeline for publication that aligns with trade shows and product releases. You need a defined sales funnel and a way to nurture your leads through it.

And you need to be okay with this not being a “plan” in the traditional sense. This is different than a software road map or Gantt chart. This plan will require you to be flexible, nimble, and willing to scrap the plan altogether when opportunity arises. If you’re in the middle of writing an e-book but your PR manager calls with a placement opportunity in this month’s Harvard Business Review, then it’s time to stop the proverbial presses and get writing for HBR.

Be patient

Look, if you’re looking for a quick fix, this isn’t it. This is a long-term play that will, in time, result in better visibility and more credibility for your organization. Success may come in fits and starts. You might get a week of retweeting and phones ringing off the hook after that article in Harvard Business Review, and then crickets.

Not every piece of content is going to hit it out of the park. But steady self-publishing will raise your visibility outside of your bubble, increasing the odds that you’ll pique the interest of reporters, industry publication editors and trade show organizers. Not only that, it demonstrates your commitment to helping your customers and your ability to guide them on a wide range of issues they care about.

If you’re seeing a rise in website traffic and LinkedIn as a top referral source, then you’re doing something right. But data isn’t the end-all, be-all. Keep your ears open to how people are talking about your organization at trade shows. Do people know your thought leader’s name without having met him or her? Are you seeing more engagement in social media comments or customer feedback?

Unlike running display ads or pay-per-click campaigns, you can’t really throw money at this. It takes commitment and it takes patience to see a return on this investment. But at the end of day, you’ll be able to say you outsmarted and out-hustled your competitors rather than outspending them.