The term thought leadership can be thrown out there loosely and sometimes it makes people groan. Understandably so, as more people like to claim that title without any backup or really just using the word too much in general.
And while it may be a somewhat overused term to hear, thought leadership is still important today than ever before and it also matters to your business.
Below will cover the general definition, what it actually means to be a “true” thought leader, and how it has evolved today.
Thought Leadership Definition
The term thought leadership has begun to occur so frequently over the past 7-8 years that it’s coming to mean many things.
Initially, the concept began as the natural outgrowth of educative marketing—the concept of developing relationships with prospective customers by engaging them with non-promotional and industry oriented conversations.
In short, value-added information, coming from an expert source point of view. Next, thought leaders forged their way into the public relations and journalism arena, becoming the go-to sources for research, insight, and interpretation of the latest news and industry trends.
And finally, successful thought leaders have achieved the Holy Grail of marketing and public relations:
When a customer is ready to step up and make a purchase, having been educated and nurtured in the area of need and interest, they turn to their most trusted source: the thought leader individual or organization who has guided the listener and participant along the path of understanding, with no hype or promotion and with no strings attached.
Yes, thought leadership is an effective way to build reputation, awareness, and even SEO power and personal brand. But all of these things can (and should) be achieved through classic content marketing as well.
So What is True Thought Leadership?
True thought leadership is a much rarer thing. As expressed by Marketo co-founder Jon Miller, true thought leadership is about providing ideas that require attention, that offer guidance and clarity, and that can lead people in surprising and unexpected directions.
For example, Seth Godin, who epitomizes the concept of true thought leadership, began his career as a journalist.
As time progressed, his role evolved. Instead of reporting and analyzing the news, he began to create it. He wrote and spoke about ideas that were innovative and provocative, that demanded thoughtfulness and provided education. Ideas that became a precursor for change.
Functionally, true thought leadership is comprised of the following actions:
- Authorship. In every case, thought leaders write. Whether by themselves, or (in almost every case) with the help of collaborators and assisting experts, thought leaders are active in content creation They are columnists, bloggers, and authors of reports, in-depth articles, and full-length books. For example, digital marketing master Neil Patel writes not only on his own site but is a guest on numerous publications. Majority of these articles promote, but all are also designed to educate and guide best practice thinking on critical issues in the space of digital marketing. He is seen as a go-to leader in marketing.
- Authentic PR. Yes, thought leaders engage in PR. For the most part, this is not the old school PR of hype and promotion. True thought leaders engage fully in the world of authentic PR—they are the that appear in interviews, on podcasts, videos, and as the interview guests on broadcast programs and news.
- Speaking. Thought leaders present. Many are highly paid keynote speakers. Many speak and present through webinars, webcasts, or broadcast programs. As they speak, they teach and inspire. Their ideas are compelling. Their audiences come away not necessarily entertained, but highly enriched and are educated and motivated towards specific and measurable business and personal change.
How Thought Leadership Has Evolved
The above really dives into the traditional idea of thought leadership, but it for sure is still accurate today. However, just like most concepts, thought leadership is evolving and more people can be seen as leaders in their space thanks to social media growth.
Of course, not everyone will be interested in actually being a thought leader or may object at the idea of being called that, but a lot of times people can be seen as one even if they personally don’t identify as such.
Let me explain.
Because of social media and content marketing, more people have a chance to be positioned as a thought leader online.
Now, being a creator of high-level content that educates and informs still holds value, but now your company’s employees or brand advocates can be seen as unique thought leaders to their social audiences as well.
However, this will only hold true if a few things are present at your company:
- A solid content marketing strategy that includes educational company content and a mix of trusted third-party resources.
- Your company has a social business mindset and encourages employees to share content to their social networks with their own insights.
- And lastly, your company provides a culture that encourages growth, participation, and employee activation.
Employees who share content and engage in social media, will help grow their knowledge, create a personal brand, increase their career opportunities, and it benefits their company as well (think web traffic, brand awareness, leads).
Plus, employees social audiences will see them as the go-to resource and knowledge center, even if an article was not directly written by them. But by providing value and commentary to the social posts, that alone can build a thought leadership presence in the eye of their networks.
Have you considered harnessing the power of your greatest resource—your employees—to accelerate your social media strategy? Learn how to transform employees into thought leaders.
In summary, true thought leaders are expert communicators of the highest classification. They have reputations that are easily findable in web search and are both thorough and accurate. In the areas they are expert in, they are a “part of the conversation,” regionally, by industry, and even worldwide.
True thought leaders are present in the online communities where their audiences live. Many are involved in the major social media programs. But all are at least accessible and visible to the audiences who can benefit from their expertise.
Their visual image is a positive representation of the individual and their message. Not all thought leaders are style mavens nor do they necessarily possess great beauty. But they have learned to present themselves in a way that reflects their personal and professional personality and style. They have learned to put their best foot forward within their unique and personal brand.
Most importantly, true thought leaders are experts in the creation of social influence, market and industry understanding, and perception, and in marshaling that perception toward specific actions and change.