Although many businesses are able to tick along well enough without having to dabble in the business of “thought leadership,” positioning oneself as a thought leader can offer advantages in terms of public visibility and increased trust.
At some point, every business owner is likely to have had some strong thoughts and opinions about their industry. However, rather than digging deeper into issues and sharing their views with the world, the relentless nature of running a business inevitably causes them to miss out on opportunities.
Enter the movement of thought leadership. It’s a term first coined in 1994 by former editor-in-chief of Strategy and Business magazine Joel Kurtzman to describe someone who is “is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate.”
Kurtzman goes on to say they are people with “distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”
Used sparingly and in the right context (such as allowing others to describe you as a thought leader instead of referring to yourself as one), thought leadership is a powerful way to cement your reputation as an expert and a trustworthy influencer.
Why thought leadership matters
Properly executed thought leadership strategies can give your business that competitive edge needed to stay front-and-center in consumers’ minds, generate sales leads and help close deals.
In its 2020 global survey of senior executives from 10 different industry sectors, marketing agency Grist noted 91% of respondents said thought leadership was either critical or important to their decision making.
The survey respondents cited factors such as staying abreast of important business issues, forming a view of future business developments and gaining an edge over competitors as reasons to consume thought leadership pieces. This is good news for the much-maligned buzzword.
Thought leadership can play a real role in helping brands reach and grow their audience, engage with them and keep channels open to share knowledge and learn.
In addition, thought leaders keep their fingers on the pulse and are able to drive the agenda of the day. They put a real face and voice to the business.
When thought leadership misses the mark
Audiences are savvy and don’t accept overt self-promotion. Successful thought leadership must be recognized to be authentic, original and cover relevant topics and trends within the industry. Many potential thought leaders fail to properly engage with audiences because their messages aren’t tailored enough to resonate.
According to the Value of B2B Thought Leadership survey, “thought leadership fails when it is too generic (63%), lacks original insight or ideas (58%) or promotes the advisor rather than addressing client needs (53%).”
The result is that executives will only read a third of the material that comes their way and only 28% will actually act on the thought leadership pieces presented to them.
How to exercise thought leadership
So how do you assert yourself as a true thought leader?
It should come as no surprise that listening to others is one of the most important ways to approach a thought leadership strategy. According to Mark Rogers, founder and CEO of Insights Without Borders, thought leaders should be humble and always seek out knowledge. “True thought leaders genuinely understand and listen to each other’s stories,” Rogers said.
From there, the next step is to take a step back from your daily business agenda and learn to look at the big picture. Thought leaders must foster a deep understanding of the forces which shape their industry, customers and other stakeholders. More consumers now expect businesses to behave ethically -– it’s up to leaders to actively be part of the process which leads to better business practices.
Opinion pieces, blog posts, guest posts, speaking engagements, podcasts and other forms of publishing are valuable outlets for thought leadership and have the benefit of enhanced audience reach. Keep it high-quality, educational and genuine. Social media is a great way to gauge reactions and to stay on top of trends.
“You must constantly learn [about] your industry, as well as the macro forces at work in the broader economy,” said Numaan Akram, founder and CEO of Rally. “Being a thought leader requires forward thinking, but you must also have the discipline to study market dynamics to find patterns. From there, you can combine what you have learned, analyzing those patterns with your vision to solve real-world problems.”
Is being a thought leader worth it?
Sharing insights and putting yourself forward as a market leader is an exercise fraught with risk –- it takes considerable time and resources to hone expertise and disseminate it –- but it’s also an opportunity to make a real impact in your industry and beyond.
Thought leaders inspire action through real vision and passion. That’s because they have their fingers on the pulse and can tap into a deep well of knowledge to bring about positive change.
“They possess an innate ability to contribute to the conversations happening today while also being able to speculate on what is going to happen tomorrow,” said Skaled Consulting founder and CEO Jake Dunlap.
“Rather than chime in on every topic, they set the pace for the industry, and offer intelligent insights and informed opinions,” Dunlap said.
Thought leadership may not be for everyone, but creating a culture of openness and sharing of expertise will go a long way to helping your business stand out and connect with others. As Steve Jobs once said, “innovation is what distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
Thought leaders are innovators who want to inspire real change and solve real problems; gaining an enhanced reputation for doing it is just the cherry on top.
Mary Nguyen is a marketing expert at Hutch Media and Management, an Australian-based agency that specializes in nationwide public relations and marketing campaigns for overseas businesses wanting to break into a local market.