Thought Leadership Defined (in a Useful Way)

By Bob Buday

With so many marketers exhorting companies to become thought leaders in their domains, many people in those firms are asking a simple question: “What is thought leadership? What are we talking about?”

Here’s how we define it: 

“Thought leadership is the prestige an individual or organization achieves after developing and marketing superior expertise that solves a significant problem.” 

As my colleague Tim Parker wrote three years ago, we’re not the first to define it. But thought leader is a person or firm whose expertise has a greater beneficial impact on the entities they are advising than the next firm.

In contructing this definition, we chose our terms carefully :

  • Prestige” – Your audience confers thought leadership status (or not) on your firm. You don't do it yourself. There are no self-appointed thought leaders.
  • Individual” and “organization” – It could be one or the other or both. But when the organization is perceived to be a thought leader, it must have individuals who are regarded as such. People who want your firm’s expertise want to talk to the people in your firm who have that expertise, not anyone else.
  • After” – You become recognized as a thought leader only after your advice has had a beneficial impact on your clients, not before. Before your clients will believe you possess superior expertise, you’ll have to prove it. And there is no better proof than the word of clients who have benefitted from your advice.
  • Developing” – It takes lots of experience (and, often, primary research) to become an expert. There are no shortcuts, no instant experts. It takes work.
  • Delivering” – You can’t just have an opinion. You need clients who have asked you to make your expertise work their organization. If you haven’t delivered your expertise somewhere, it’s untested, and therefore you can’t claim to be a thought leader. You can only claim to have a thought.
  • Marketing” – If you’re a leading expert, have the proof, but the world doesn’t know it, you’re only a thought leader in your head and with the clients you’ve helped. That means, you haven’t gained prestige, and thus aren’t a thought leader.
  • Superior expertise” – Superior means better than others. To demonstrate superiority, you should have client examples that show superior results.
  • That solves” – You can’t just be an expert in diagnosing a problem. Lots of people can do that. You need to show you can solve the problem. That's the payoff.
  • A significant problem” – If the problem isn’t significant, why would the market care? For example, if you claim to be an expert in getting Americans to be sports fans, I’d say that's not a significant problem. Gallup says 59% of Americans were sports fans in 2015, only one percentage point less than the number in 2000.

After this dissection of the term, you ask a different question: Is a commonly recognized definition of thought leadership important? We think so, because you can't practice what you can't define, and if you have a good definition it will help aspiring thought leaders raise their game, thereby helping their clients. That, of course, is the end game.

Developing Superior Expertise

I used three words in our definition to explain the process of thought leadership, the steps for becoming famous for some expertise: developing, delivering and marketing. The focus of most websites on thought leadership is on the marketing. They typically give the topic of how to develop superior expertise short shrift. And delivering expertise gets almost no attention at all.

Why do so few delve into how to develop great content? Perhaps it’s because most discussions on thought leadership are conducted by marketers. In my experience, many marketers believe the content they’re given is the content they have to work with, that they need to make the best of it. “Here’s our paper; please make it sing!” is a refrain I’ve often heard from consultants and other professionals as they hand their work to marketing. But rarely will an edit – minor or major – make the central idea appreciably better.

The “development” part of thought leadership content is about constructing a superior argument – on some problem in the world and a better way to solve it. And making a strong argument involves a lot of work. But none of that work involves writing prose. Developing a strong argument means gathering facts to prove some author’s hypothesis about a better way to solve some problem, and then analyzing why the solution works better than others.

If the author(s) have gathered those facts, that’s great. Rarely, however, do we see that happen beyond, say, hearing two or three often vague examples from client work. The most convincing arguments in thought leadership are born from primary research. And the primary research that yields the most convincing arguments about the merits of a new management practice (which is what much thought leadership content is about) is case study research: in-depth explorations on how one set of organizations handled some problem better than others, and what they did.

Marketing Your Smarts

When someone has developed superior and novel argument after collecting and analyzing lots of facts, whether from his or her client experience, primary case study research, or both, they have made your marketing task far easier and more enjoyable. The reason is that compelling thought leadership content is equivalent to having an irresistible product: the first iPhone back in 2007, a Porsche 911, and Facebook for all those who have become addicted to it.

Marketing great content is a joy. The opinion articles you submit to premier publications are accepted quickly. Conference presentations go over well with the audience; many ask for followup calls. PDFs are downloaded constantly from your website. Books become best sellers. Social media goes gaga.

Conversely, having to market poor or so-so content is akin to knocking on doors that refuse to open. For marketers, it becomes distasteful. Article submissions are rejected quickly (if they’re acknowledged at all). Pitches to conference organizers go nowhere. Books generate little interest. You realize you might as well self-publish that book. No one calls your firm after reading your white paper. 

Mediocre content creates misery for the marketing folks whose jobs depend on getting it into the marketplace, read, and responded to.

Now let's move onto the third process of thought leadership: delivering.

What Most Definitions of Thought Leadership Miss

Nearly all the definition we’ve read overlook the most important part of getting recognized for having certain expertise: the ability to deliver that expertise consistently well and at scale. “Delivering” is the most important part of our definition.

Most organizations I know see thought leadership as a marketing exercise – a great way to create awareness of, and demand for their expertise. And it is, when the content is compelling and the marketing programs command the right audience. However, companies that aspire to be thought leaders must scale up their expertise if the authors of their papers, studies, books, etc., are the only ones who can provide it. That doesn’t happen unless companies get as serious about thought leadership delivery as they are about thought leadership marketing.

So how do you get delivery right? Delivering superior expertise requires tools, methodology, internal training programs, and recruiting people who can master the expertise a firm has carved out. I wrote about this in a blog post awhile back, which you can read here. And I gave a presentation on it at a conference for knowledge management and marketing professionals in architecture and engineering firms. I explained the rise and fall of a firm I worked at before co-launching Bloom Group. That firm did great job of creating and marketing content that led to a blockbuster consulting service (business reengineering), a market that Gartner sized to be in the billions of dollars annually by the mid-1990s. Yet the firm did a poor job of scaling up the delivery of their reengineering consulting service. A result of this (and other factors), it went out of business by the end of the decade.

That firm provides indisputable testimony to the need to define thought leadership not just as a marketing discipline but also as a service innovation and delivery discipline.

Realizing the Limits of Any Definition

So, that's our definition of thought leadership. But I still feel the need to add the words of the late Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate in physics who helped probe the Challenger space disaster and worked on the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. “We cannot define anything precisely," Feynman wrote. "If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers, who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, ‘You don't know what you are talking about!’ The second one says, ‘What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?’ "

So, with our necessarily imprecise definition of thought leadership in hand, we look forward to hearing better and more precise ones. But they should improve the practice of thought leadership, or what’s the point? 

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