Opinion

How to become a thought leader

4 min read

20 December 2013

It’s one of the most over-used and misunderstood terms in the PR and marketing handbook – so much so that it’s almost a cliché. Thought leadership. A term that we all think we understand, try to execute, but which rarely achieves lift-off.

It’s a bit like trying to describe an elephant. We all know what it looks like, but it’s not easy to define succinctly.

Wikipedia defines a thought leader as “an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialised field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.”

A recent article in Forbes magazine described it as “an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.”

I’m not sure that either definition entirely sums up the complexity of thought leadership because it’s also about cultivating brand and corporate values that, of themselves, are hugely important but which may be largely intangible.

What is central, however, is that thought leaders are not shy to come forward. Whether as companies or individuals, thought leaders engage with their markets, to educate, start discussions, or offer insight – but always with compelling content that everyone in their markets, including competitors, will want to read.

That means stepping away from the bland product press release, blog or Tweet. It means defining issues in the marketplace on which you can comment – lucidly, provocatively (if need be) but, most of all, cogently. Irrelevance or waffle not allowed.

A lot of companies and their advisors pay significant attention to thought leadership, without truly grasping the fact that it’s usually always a slow-burn. You don’t become a thought leader overnight. If you do, it’s generally for the wrong reasons.

It’s about engagement with everyone in your markets, and saying things that are useful to them. Things that give them pause for thought. New ideas boldly expressed and well researched. Inspiring or educational content that will lodge in potential customers’ minds: raising profile, creating trust – and nudging them into the sales cycle.

To be successful, it’s crucial to speak from a position of strength – there’s no advantage in trying to be a thought leader on apples if your expertise is oranges. Nor is it about pushing out sales messages: it’s about attracting people into your sphere of influence because they’re interested in what you have to say.

A lot of companies play at thought leadership, and as a result rarely become respected commentators. They make the mistake of writing from a corporate standpoint, rather than from their industry. In a way, thought leadership is therefore communications philanthropy.

It’s about giving your valuable insights away for free; promoting you or your company for what it knows, rather than what it does. If you’re uneasy with that, don’t bother.
It goes back to have a joined-up content management strategy and an integrated marketing/PR plan: with all the usual other push and pull strategies to sell product or services. 

Thought leadership should sit above that, demonstrating an intellectual mastery of the market: a company to be trusted because it understands and is willing to share that understanding.   

It’s about positioning and corporate value; becoming known for what you say as well as what you do: a win-win strategy, but only if you get it right.

Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott.

Image source