Of all the buzzwords and phrases surrounding marketing—unlike the desire to “go viral” or an obsession with “growth hacking”—”thought leadership” remains a concept of great potential (and confusion) for brands.
A joint Edelman and LinkedIn study reinforced the value of thought leadership and showed that thought leadership could have a significant impact on a company’s long-term viability:
- Nearly half of business decision-makers spend one hour or more a week reading thought leadership content, with almost one in four spending four or more hours
- Based on the quality of this content, half of the decision-makers say it is useful in influencing their purchasing decisions
- 42% are willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that produces thought leadership versus those that do not
However, the issue is that 74% of teams have no way to link sales or wins to their thought leadership. And simply producing thought leadership content does not guarantee success, as poorly crafted content can even decrease a company’s reputation.
So, what exactly is thought leadership, and how can brands engage in these activities in a successful way? Let’s explore the essential elements of a thought leadership platform and the activities that your team can pursue.
What is Thought Leadership?
An individual or brand reaches “thought leader” status when they become commonly associated with a specific topic or area of interest. Thought leaders are trusted voices in their space, and people look to them for their take on the latest trends, predictions, and cross-industry implications of the thought leadership topic of interest.
Many immediately recognizable thought leaders also happen to be C-suite leadership at global companies. For example, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is praised as a thought leader in cloud computing. IBM Executive Chairman and former CEO Ginni Rometty is a thought leader in quantum computing. But any person can become a thought leader regardless of their title or the size of their company.
An important thing to understand is that thought leadership is built through a series of consistent and calculated efforts that enmesh your brand and spokesperson in whichever space you target. It is not a finish line to cross or a box to check off your to-do list. Further, you should not expect to become a thought leader overnight. Thought leadership activities take several months—if not years—before they translate into ROI.
Can Brands Be Thought Leaders?
A quick point of clarification: thought leadership requires a spokesperson driving the activities. There are a few reasons for this. First, thought leadership involves an element of trust and respect that is earned, and people more readily trust other people, not brands. Second, thought leadership requires a person whose experience has given them a unique point of view. Further, contrary to the author’s byline on some company blogs, a brand doesn’t create content—people do!
Your brand needs to claim its unique position in its industry. A successful thought leadership strategy hinges on having a trusted and engaged thought leader to embody and give a face to your brand’s thought leadership position.
The Foundational Elements of a Thought Leadership Program
A thought leadership platform involves a deceptively simple base: a topic of interest, a spokesperson, and proposed thought leadership activities.
How to Identify Your Thought Leadership Topic(s)
Before you do anything else in your thought leadership program, your team needs to identify which topic(s) you would like to align with and activate company subject matter experts (SMEs) as thought leaders around.
This step may take a considerable amount of time, which is understandable and expected, given its importance. Determine the topics with the most potential for improved thought leadership (some spaces are too crowded) that are also relevant for your target audience.
Follow these steps to identify thought leadership topics for your brand:
- Step One: Brainstorm Topics: First, brainstorm any areas most important to your brand and list them out. Members of your executive, marketing, and sales teams should be present for this brainstorm. These topics can include anything related to your core product or service offering, company values, or the industry/industries in which you operate.
- Step Two: Refine List: Taking your initial list of topics, begin to group them based on category. It is OK for any individual topic to appear under multiple categories if needed. The purpose here is to identify and address redundancies and begin seeing any natural overlap between your proposed topics. This overlap can help build a richer narrative around your thought leadership topic and signal whether you need multiple thought leaders.
- Step Three: Research Your Topics: With your newly organized and condensed list, begin researching these topics to see who is actively talking about these topics, where they are discussing these topics, and what new or unique perspectives your brand has to add to the conversation.
- Step Four: Identify Final Topics: With your research complete, you can now identify the area(s) you want to explore. Document the overarching topic/thought leadership area and the subtopics that are most relevant for the activities.
Your team may determine that it needs to have multiple thought leaders to address different topics, which is where coordination is crucial. Each thought leader should have a unique and clearly defined thought leadership platform, so there is no confusion on which person is relevant for what activity.
In larger teams with multiple thought leaders, it is common to review these programs quarterly, twice a year, or annually.
How to Choose a Brand Thought Leader
To reinforce an earlier point, an individual’s title or role at a company should not be the sole determinant of whether they are a viable thought leader. Too often, teams assign an executive to a topic that they are not interested in—or assign an executive with no interest in thought leadership. This disconnect will not only slow down your team but without the active participation of your SME, your activities will also carry a sense of inauthenticity.
To find the right thought leadership spokespeople at your company, look for individuals who:
- Proactively write or speak about areas of interest outside their role with your company
- Engage with their audiences on social media (not just share company content)
- Speak at or attend industry events and have expressed an interest in continuing those activities
- Show a natural passion for the thought leadership topic
- Will dedicate a portion of their day to support the thought leadership activities
8 Thought Leadership Activities Can You Pursue
Your brand can increase its thought leadership through many avenues, and your program will scale based on your thought leader’s comfort level and maturity in the space.
In order from least to most difficult to navigate, explore each of these thought leadership program elements to bolster your reputation:
- Social Media: One of the simplest ways to become recognized in a space is to post and share content about it on social media actively. Like, retweet/reshare, or engage with relevant content consistently (at least five times a week), and build relationships with other users on the site. You can optimize these channels using social media tools that automatically post and repurpose content so your thought leader can focus on engaging with other users.
- Content: An essential element of a successful thought leadership platform involves creating content on the topic. Whether it’s a blog post, SlideShare, whitepaper, or even a book or ebook, it’s crucial to have a steady record of content aligned to the thought leadership topic. Consider reposting content through LinkedIn Pulse, Medium, or through various media outlets that offer contributed content opportunities (such as Entrepreneur’s Leadership Network that has a free option for you to post one unique article every 90 days).
- Webinars: Increasingly relevant with the influx of digital events in 2020 and beyond, webinars are a perfect way for thought leaders to discuss their space in a more approachable way than attending a conference with hundreds of people. Teams can either host proprietary webinars or have their spokesperson join partner webinars.
- Conferences: Industry events or conferences are a prime opportunity for your brand to network with your target audiences and position yourself alongside a topic. Your team can pursue a speaking slot, explore a paid sponsorship for guaranteed exposure, exhibit, or simply attend events to achieve varying degrees of recognition.
- Awards: This category will mainly apply to brand-driven awards, but there are also awards to recognize professionals in a space. Anything from your local media’s “Top CEOs in the XYZ area” lists to awards from professional organizations or media outlets are relevant to explore.
- Industry Organizations: This will require an ongoing commitment, which is why it is noted as “more difficult” on this list, but industry organizations are valuable for networking with peers, gaining access to the latest research and studies relevant to your field, and staying ahead on the trends impacting your thought leadership topic.
- Research: Your team can commission third-party research or aggregate your proprietary data to shine a light on some aspect of your thought leadership topic. Although this can quickly become expensive, research reports provide a range of content potential and connect your brand and thought leader to a larger audience that accesses the research. If your team cannot commission research, you should use third-party research to enrich your thought leadership positioning.
- Media Relations: We’ve saved media relations for last because you have the least control over your potential results. Pursue interviews with relevant media outlets and journalists to discuss your thought leadership topic without directly pitching your company’s product or offering. These interviews should be exploratory, transparent, and thought-provoking, not a plug of what you’re selling.
What To Include In An Executive’s Thought Leadership Profile
As your thought leadership program matures, document your strategy and detail what makes each thought leader unique. This thought leadership profile acts as a media kit for your SME’s thought leadership platform. This way, you can more easily review thought leadership opportunities, find the right spokesperson, and access the resources you need to pitch them for it.
You can store and structure your profiles in whatever format will be easiest for your team. Typically, these profiles are internal and confidential, but here are a few sites that we recommend as inspiration for what you can include:
- Allen Gannett: Allen’s site provides a clear overview of his areas of expertise. Notably, check out his concise yet fun bio. His speaking page features elements you should include in your thought leadership profile (past speaking topic, short overview, link to video).
- Ann Handley: Ann is a marketing rockstar and perfectly positions herself on her website. Like Allen, she has a speaking page that lists her past speaking engagements (with videos). She also has multiple bios for visitors to view and a page full of headshots and photos from which to choose.
- Christopher Penn: Christopher details the topics he can explore during keynotes, has cut-and-paste biographies, multiple headshots on Flickr, and details his past speaking events.
Each of the above examples demonstrates a range of ways you can structure the information, and remember that the process is iterative. Continue to add new assets to your profile as you publish or update them.
When first building a thought leadership profile, here are a few foundational elements you want to include:
- Headshot of spokesperson in high resolution (300 dpi) and lower resolutions (72 dpi). Make both landscape and portrait versions available
- Links to past speaking engagements, including the session title, abstract, and a recording of the presentation
- A personal blog. This can be a standalone site, or they can host it through their LinkedIn publishing page. This tactic only works if the thought leader keeps their blog updated consistently with fresh and exciting content.
- Biographies, short and long. Almost every award submission form and speaking application will ask for the nominee’s background. For each thought leader, prepare a 150-word, 100-word, and 50-word bio to copy and paste as needed.
A Successful Thought Leadership Program Evolves with Your Business Objectives
With these essential elements in place, your team is on the right track to building a foundation for your thought leadership that supports each of your chosen spokespersons.
Review your thought leadership topics at least once a year. During your review, ensure you are still targeting an area of relevance to your audience. Also, look for new ways to differentiate your messaging.
Most programs will start small with social media and content elements. Over time, you can partner with your thought leaders to scale their activities as they become more comfortable with these engagements.
If you need help getting your organization’s thought leadership program off the ground, get in touch.