The Gist

  • Thoughtful provocation. Thought leaders challenge the status quo, encouraging others to think differently and critically about issues.
  • Valuable uniqueness. Genuine thought leadership offers fresh perspectives and solutions, standing out from repetitive, cookie-cutter content.
  • Expertise matters. Effective thought leadership comes from individuals with deep knowledge and experience, providing authority and credibility in their arguments.

Who do you consider to be today’s "thought leaders" in your category? What sets them apart? Why do you pay attention to them?

I’ll hazard a guess that a) they make you think, even if you disagree or b) they are bold enough to call out "the way things are done."

While so many companies aspire to thought leader status, the real deal is all too rare. But this is the whole point: We cannot all be leaders. 

What we do see a lot of is educational content. It’s useful stuff. It has value. But it tends to regurgitate what’s been said before — it’s the domain of "best practice." As such, it never challenges the status quo beyond trying to fix what’s broken.

To take the manufacturing industry as an example, pieces touting the importance of building resilience in the manufacturing process, or of embracing sustainability in the supply chain, or of adopting new technologies, are ten-a-penny. And there’s similar cookie-cutter content in every other sector.

Most fail to say anything provocative or new. As such, most fall into the same-old-same-old that gets ignored at the click of a mouse.

Let's Try Some Real Thought Leadership

Real thought leadership, in contrast, can be transformative for a brand.

Almost half (48%) of marketers and industry experts surveyed by Semrush claimed thought leadership content drives sales and leads. A survey of companies by Orbit Media found that 62% had more client leads from thought leadership activity. And 61% of decision makers surveyed by LinkedIn and Edelman said the thought leadership they consumed is more effective at demonstrating the potential value of a product compared to product-oriented marketing.

In short, thought leadership works. 

Done well, it can help you to stand out against competitors. You’ll become known as someone to pay attention to, someone increasingly sought out for their opinions in the industry — someone customers turn to for help. 

Where to Start With Thought Leadership: Take a Stand

The best thought leadership takes a stand. It is happy to alienate some people in order to be noticed by many others.

Often, this means picking an enemy. So first, consider what genuinely annoys you. Is there a problem that plagues your customers, which everyone seems to shrug and accept, or a particular way of working in your industry that irks you?

What about a common myth you want to shatter or a widespread promise to customers you think rings hollow?

This is not about being shocking or controversial for the sake of it. Your argument needs to be well thought through and offer a vision for a different, better way forward for the sector (which you can play a part in creating).

Sourcing your own primary research, which will give you the hard data to substantiate your argument, is a worthy investment. It will make your claims more compelling and can be repurposed for multiple pieces of marketing content.

Related Article: Lighting the Way: Rethinking CX Leadership

Learning Opportunities

The Thought Leadership Framework: Evolve, Invert, Subvert

Once you have your core areas of focus, a framework you can explore is evolve, invert, subvert. 

First, take a trend in your industry and evolve it to its logical conclusion. Let’s go back to the manufacturing industry example. We could take something like the move to more distributed supply chains. Right now, this often means engaging new suppliers in India and Vietnam in addition to those in China. But what would be the impact of a truly distributed approach that spans many countries and time zones?

Second, explore an idea that’s deep in the status quo and invert it. So, for example, while many in manufacturing claim that progress will be powered by easier access to more data in their enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, what if we focused on just five key metrics and showed that these power the vast majority of real-world success?

Third, we could take a current idea that has widespread acceptance and subvert it. So, while the world of manufacturing is focused on digital transformation, we could focus on the fact that 87.5% of these initiatives either underperform or fail outright and highlight the activities that make a real, tangible difference.

Related Article: My Top 3 Lessons Learned as a CX Leader

Thought Leaders Are People, Not Companies

Fear of rocking the boat isn’t the only reason many companies take a timid approach to thought leadership. More often than not the problem also lies with who’s writing it. 

The best thought leadership starts with ideas from experts: CEOs, analysts and engineers — and others with technical knowledge — are a good place to start. Access to subject matter experts will help your (ghost)writers deepen their understanding and tackle angles more persuasively. 

These are also the people who can be in the best position to be contrarian and do so with authority.

Taking a controversial stand or railing against "the way things are done" is a strategy that, done properly, should ruffle some feathers. But remember, those turned off by your approach likely won’t have been the people you were targeting anyway.

And if you can make potential customers as well as your industry peers sit up, take notice and relate to what you’re saying, it’s more than worth it. 

Amid a sea of mediocre content, thought leadership that dares to go against the grain is a breath of fresh air. Those brave enough to stick their head above the parapet will be rewarded.

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