Thought Leadership in 2019 – Why and Who?

A lot of people cringe when they hear mention of ‘thought leadership’.

The term itself has a bit of a reputation for being disingenuous within the business community and yet many thought leaders around the world are respected and put on a pedestal for their achievements in gaining exposure through this marketing tool and being vocal about what they think.

I’m sure you can name a handful of people you consider to be a thought leader, tell me what they are known for, know a random piece of information about them and recite the brand or business they represent.

What I just described is the epitome of brand awareness, but that level of recognition doesn’t happen overnight.

I’m working with a couple of clients who have executives and consultants who want to position themselves as thought leaders, so I have been thinking about the term ‘Thought Leader’ more, and why and how someone might include it in their marketing mix.

While the Richard Branson’s and Gary Vee’s of the world are among the more well-known thought leaders, in my discovery, thought leadership as a marketing function takes place in many forms. It might surprise you to read this and identify yourself as someone I would consider to be a thought leader. Business managers and executives often engage in thought leadership tactics every day without realising it. Releasing blog content, internal communications, making comment in media, publishing posts on LinkedIn and other social channels are all contributions to thought leadership.

Just like many things in life – just because something is accessible, doesn’t always mean you should use it. Any marketing tactic follows the same principal. Your strategy should include criteria that allows you to choose the best tactics for your business, not just take advantage of something because it’s within reach.  

The following are some questions that I’ve come up with to brush the surface of this expansive topic with clients. If you are considering thought leadership and how it could be used within your business, you may consider asking yourself these to firstly, identify if it can be used appropriately within your marketing strategy and secondly, if you are the right person to take on the responsibly.

What purpose does thought leadership play in your overarching marketing strategy?

Strategic marketing is intentional marketing – having a purpose behind what you are doing to achieve a goal. I like to think of marketing as problem solving for businesses, providing a strategy to get the business to the place where they want to be. This often means collaborating with different departments to reach a desired outcome.

When I meet with a business for the first time, they are often looking to engage a marketing professional to develop an acquisition strategy for new business. The truth is, strategic marketing can solve so many more problems than just gaining more leads and thought leadership is no exception. Below are a few ways I have considered thought leadership to play a role in the businesses I have been working with.

Employer Branding and Customer Branding

Thought Leadership can be used as a tool to demonstrate your employer brand. It’s important to note, employer branding is different from your consumer brand. In the book ‘The Talent Magnet’, Richard Evans writes that “the values that a customer holds will often be very different to the values that a potential employee holds.” Attracting top talent has been noted in various publications as one of the top priorities for businesses all over the world in the past decade. Talent is moving around more and organisations are finding it harder to retain good people which puts pressure on financial resources and brand equity. Having a strong employer brand can help your business stand out and attract a larger pool of better-quality candidates. Your thoughts as a leader, ideas and leadership style can all be used to attract better quality talent that aligns with your company culture.

In Sprout Social’s recent report The Evolution of Transparency, almost one in five individuals (18%) would see a CEO’s transparency on social as a reason to consider career opportunities at that company in the future. The role thought leadership can play here is evident in this research, people want to hear directly from the mouth of those in leadership positions. Employees or potential employees want to hear a different narrative to customers because they have different problems to solve.

If you simply hold your customer brand up to an employment market, it will fail in many ways.”  – Richard Evans

In the same report, 32% of consumers say that a CEO’s transparency on social would inspire them to purchase more from that business. This statistic demonstrates how thought leadership can be used in a variety of ways, to solve a variety of problems.

Personal Branding

Many businesses have a ‘face’. When we think of Telsa, we think Elon Musk, Playboy had Hugh Hefner, Huffington Post has Arianna Huffington, more locally, marketing agencies like Vicinity has Dave Eddy. Thought leadership can be used to position and enhance your personal brand and provide exposure in the right places with value-based messaging and bring an authentic, personified element to your organisation – one worth connecting with. Research suggests that having a face to your organisation can make people feel safer engaging with you, particularly for service-based businesses where the products are intangible.

If you are a CEO or Executive, your personal brand will want to work with your organisation’s brand to enhance it. In the 2018 Sprout Social report The Evolution of Transparency, more than half of consumers want CEOs to have a personal presence on social media, such as their own Twitter handles or Instagram accounts. 63% respondents from the same survey say CEOs who have their own social profiles are better representatives for their companies than CEOs who do not.

If you’re an employee, having a strong personal brand can make you stand out in a crowded job market and put you in a position with more leverage. Thought leadership is a good way to position yourself and may help you find a job where the culture and values are more aligned to your own. Proactive recruiters and talent acquisition teams scour the internet and use sophisticated software to find out information about candidates every day. Thought leadership is one approach to manage the narrative about yourself and what people know about you.

Do people shut up and listen to what you have to say?

In other words, in your current professional and personal circles, how influential are you? Are there certain circles where you are more influential? Why is that?

It’s important to assess this from both a professional and personal perspective.

As well as having charisma and the ability to articulate your ideas effectively, identifying your level of influence and respectability can also indicate if you should pursue thought leadership as a way to better market yourself and your business to others.

In Robert B Cialdini’s book Influence – the phycology of persuasion, he identifies six weapons of influence.

  • Reciprocation: The Old Give and Take… and Take
  • Commitment and Consistency: Hobgoblins of the Mind
  • Social Proof: Truths are Us
  • Liking: The Friendly Thief
  • Authority: Directed Deference
  • Scarcity: The Rule of the Few

This book provides a really interesting perspective on marketing and selling your ideas as an authority. Although anecdotal, it could be a powerful tool for those looking into thought leadership, or if you have fallen into it accidentally.

You could research some of your favourite thought leaders and how they present themselves and their ideas. How did they begin the path they have chosen?

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I have a lot of respect for leaders who are democratic in their approach to decision making. This is a personal preference because of the way that I work. Their rationale is to consult a variety of professionals and seek advice, research and gain information before making the big decisions or forming opinions. Not all leaders use this approach and that’s ok too.

It can be very comfortable to grow in our own bubbles but to enhance, discover and forge new territory requires taking a step out of our comfort zone. Speaking, listening to and reading about people and information that inspires us will help form ideas and opinions.

I enjoy MIT Leadership Centre’s Hal Grehersen’s perspective on this.

Too many leaders get their information catered — picked, prepared, and plated for them in the way they’ve already indicated they’ll find palatable. To fight back, they need to get out into the field, gathering raw stuff on their own.” – Hal Grehersen

If you want people to listen to you, you must have something valid to say. This seems like a no brainer and yet there is a lot of white noise floating around the internet. A groundbreaking statement or vision doesn’t have to be elaborate, just well considered and this will come from getting out from behind the desk and learning something new.  

Are you secure enough in yourself to be scrutinised by others?

Your mental health is your number one priority. Once you decide to go down the path of thought leadership you are going to start to create a community of followers but there will also be people you don’t agree with you. It’s important to expect that people have different ways of articulating how they feel. Thought leaders need to know when to stop and listen, and when to throw caution to the wind in the context of both their business and society as a whole. Historically speaking, it has been the unconventional visionaries that have made the most public impact but they have often suffered scrutiny for their bravery. Be aware that your response will be viewed, heard and judged just as much as your initial views.

We were given two hands, one to help ourselves and one to help others.” – Audrey Hepburn