What is Thought Leadership?

June 13, 2012 by

What is thought leadership? It’s a question that I recently asked myself after reading about Michigan’s Lake Superior State University’s annual list of overused words and phrases that students deem worthy of banishment from the English language. Among the offenders in 2011 were some tried-and-true favorites (ginormous and man cave to name a couple), as well as relative newcomers to our daily vernacular like occupy (as in Zuccotti Park) and the new normal, a darling of Wall Street since the financial crisis.

All in all it’s not a bad list, but it seems to me that our friends at LSSU missed an obvious target. I’m talking about 17 letters that can be combined to form what has become a ubiquitous and, frankly, increasingly cliché term: thought leadership.

Among content marketers, few words are so widely batted around or have generated greater buzz. As more and more people proclaim their content to be thought leadership, the term’s meaning has become diluted. These days, anyone with an opinion and a pulse can claim to be a thought leader, requiring little more than an internet connection to start publishing their so-called thought leadership.

No más!

It’s time to take a more critical look and ask what is thought leadership? Maybe we need the thought leadership equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval: a set of criteria to separate what’s often passed off as thought leadership from the real deal. The minimum requirements for earning that seal of approval would include ensuring that your content meets a few criteria:

It offers bold ideas that are new and noteworthy

To drive thought leadership, content either needs to put forth new ideas or provide fresh insights into old ones. Simply regurgitating what others have already written or said, while sometimes useful in its own right, isn’t a recipe for success. Don’t have anything new to say? Then sit tight until you do and remember that sometimes less is more. Producing one piece of thought leadership content that really says something innovative and bold is a much better strategy than publishing a dozen pieces that don’t say anything at all.

One of my favorite examples of a real thought leader who provides bold ideas is Bob Reynolds, the president and CEO of Putnam Investments. Mr. Reynolds does an admirable job, consistently producing insightful and provocative articles in his blog, “The Retirement Savings Challenge.

It takes a stand and presents a clear point of view

Leaders shouldn’t sit on the fence, so make sure that your content offers a definitive point of view. Putting a stake in the ground can mean taking risks, but if all your content does is toe the line, it doesn’t qualify as thought leadership. This is often a particular challenge for big corporations. Concerned that they might alienate a part of their customer base, some corporations shy away from taking a stand. Unfortunately, doing so turns their content into factual reporting, rather than providing insightful thought leadership.

It reflects high-quality (preferably original) research

Sometimes content that’s floated around as thought leadership can come across like a high school term paper. You can help avoid that pitfall by making sure that you’re using the best sources and respected research. Use online tools like LexisNexis to direct you to high-quality news articles and industry reports, rather than turning to the likes of Wikipedia or Yahoo News (both are fine resources, but not ones that you should be citing in your thought leadership efforts). Ideally, your content will also reflect your own research (conducted in-house or commissioned through a third party), which will help guarantee that you really do have something unique to say.

It hinges on its credibility

Your thought leadership efforts will fall flat if your content isn’t credible. Help ensure that all of your work is accurate and logical by thoroughly fact-checking it. You can also raise the caliber of your content by collaborating with people who are well known and respected in your industry. One way to do this is by soliciting influencers or subject matter experts to write a foreword to your next white paper or provide quotes for your next report. If you don’t have access to anyone who fits the bill, you can build up your own credibility by looking for opportunities to contribute content to other places and building a name for yourself over time.

It’s also important to remember that no one is an expert in everything. Stick to creating content that falls into your sweet spot, rather than trying to pontificate on subject matter that’s beyond your realm of expertise. For example, in his blog for Putnam, Bob Reynolds can get very political. When he does, however, his posts are limited to news from Capital Hill that pertains to retirement savings issues, not U.S. foreign policy or gun control.

It looks to the future

The best thought leadership efforts don’t just look at present situations, but also help forecast the future. If your content offers informed predictions about how things will be at some point in the future, it’s going to stand out. See if there are ways that you can use current data to forecast future trends or make other predictions that your readers will find useful.

So tell me, do your thought leadership efforts pass the test, or are we making a ginormous mistake by not retiring this overused phrase?

If you liked this post, check out some of the others in my content marketing blog, including this series on building a content factory and this series on creating kick-ass content.

 Note: This post is adapted from one that I originally wrote for the Content Marketing Institute’s Blog in May 2012.

  • PrasadJ

    It’s really a good blog… keep on writing.

    • Kevin Cain

      Thanks for the kind words!

  • Jonathan Kranz

    Real thought leadership also takes some….chutzpah. Too much of what’s pimped out there as “thought leadership” is really “me too!” genuflection to more widely known thinkers/speakers. It’s the rare person who has the courage to stand by ideas that don’t just go with the flow, that stand out and create some intellectual (and therefore social) friction.

    • Kevin Cain

      I couldn’t agree more, Jonathan. What are some of your favorite examples of real B2B thought leadership?

      • Jonathan Kranz

        Here’s one: Robert Slee of Midas Nation — http://www.midasnation.com/index.php. I don’t always agree with his posts (heck, I don’t always understand them, either — one could say the former is related to the latter), but this guy isn’t afraid to stick his neck out on some very controversial financial/business positions.

        In marketing, I like Andrew Davis. He’s one of the few people talking about social media beyond just racking up numbers of followers; he encourages more complex ideas about identifying influential targets and using consumer feedback to influence tactical considerations.

        • Kevin Cain

          These are great. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.avitage.com/ Jim Burns

    Thought leadership can, and probably should be, a separate function from content marketing. Thought leadership efforts are mostly about refining and developing “big ideas”. Marketing builds content to address demand management, product launch, and sales enablement activities, among others. Buyer relevant content is the mantra here. Different objective, skills and process are involved. We just completed a blog on the differences, and how the “hand-off” from
    research oriented TL efforts to marketing teams that create content
    extensions to serve specific marketing purposes can improve. Link to post: http://ow.ly/bCymx

    • Kevin Cain

      Thanks for your comments, Jim, and for sharing your post. I’m not sure that I agree with you about having thought leadership be a separate function from content marketing because in my view, good thought leadership should be buyer centric. It doesn’t have to be one size fits all (though it often may be).

  • Craig Badings

    Spot on Kevin. I agree that you can’t separate content marketing from thought leadership – they go hand in glove. Good content curation can also support thought leadership but I’m always wary of those company’s that claim thought leadership off the back of curated content alone.

    • kevincain

      And rightfully so, Craig. Content curation alone doesn’t equate to thought leadership in my book. That’s just recycling. Thanks for checking out my post.

  • http://twitter.com/William_Speaks William OP

    What I have trouble with is a job description that says the incumbent “will be a thought leader”…

  • Erica Jacobs

    Call it whatever you want — the discipline of thought leadership is too important to remove from the lexicon. We have a lot of problems to solve globally, and true thought leadership is required more than ever. As marketers, our job is to help midwife true thought leadership and clearly define the practice, as you are doing here. Thanks for your take on what distinguishes the real thing.

    As a speechwriter and communications counselor, I agree that bold ideas, and courage, are key ingredients. Also, the ideas/platform have to be organic to the executive or organization — not a PR add-on. That’s when the magic happens.

    PS – Why are we letting college students determine such important vocabulary questions? We should only let Thought Leaders do that ;)

    • kevincain

      Thanks for checking out this post, Erica. You’re absolutely right, thought leadership is more important now than ever, we just need to make sure what people call thought leadership actually is thought leadership.

  • BluesBro

    To me the thought leader is the one who promotes thought in others. It’s not about having the best ideas, because that is always subjective, but getting people to think who otherwise might not be bothering, in positive directions that are helpful and relevant, is leadership.