The term thought leadership gets thrown around a lot, but so much of what people consider thought leadership isn’t. At best, it’s barely disguised product collateral, and if you’re looking to use content to build trust with an audience that’s not what you need.
High-quality thought leadership isn’t about you or what your products can do for those who use them. It’s about something bigger. It’s about building trust with the reader and creating affinity for your brand. How do you know if you’re creating high-quality thought leadership? It’s going to have some or all of these 26 traits.
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Your thought leadership needs to be built on both your expertise and your experience. Your expertise comes from the products you sell and the markets you serve. It's based on the kinds of technology you create, the problems you solve, and the people you work with. Your experience comes from the resume of the person sharing that thought leadership. Can it come from someone in marketing? Sure. Is it better and more authentic coming from someone with a resume that gives them the gravitas to be offering these thoughts and this leadership? Absolutely.
Creating bold thought leadership can be as simple as losing the qualifiers in your language. Instead of couching your thoughts with "may" and "could" use words like "will" instead. We tend to measure our language to avoid being seen as wrong. It's OK to be wrong sometimes. You'll get credit for the effort.
If you just say the same thing everyone else is saying, then that’s not thought leadership. You need to be offering ideas that others aren’t and having original thought. You can build off the thought leadership of others, but you can’t parrot it. Differentiated thought leadership starts with market research and identifying what your competitors and the industry influencers are saying and then finding gaps in the conversation that you’re positioned to fill.
Have you ever come to the end of a blog post, whitepaper, or webinar and thought “What was that about?” I think we’ve all had that frustration. It’s likely that wasn’t the writer or presenter’s intent. How do you make sure your thought leadership is clear? Don’t try to put too many ideas into one thought. You jumble the message that way. If you can’t explain your position in one sentence—or without a lot of explanation and setup—then it’s probably not clear.
Thought leadership doesn’t have to be boring. In the B2B tech world, we associate thought leadership with things like whitepapers. And while whitepapers definitely have their place and don’t have to be boring, we need to remember that thought leadership can be anything we want it to be. And, more than anything else, we want to make it engaging. So don’t be afraid to break out of those traditional formats and use the new tools and mediums at our disposal and think about different ways of communicating with your audiences.
Yes, thought leadership is opinion, but it’s opinion based on facts. It’s extrapolating. It’s taking the evidence you have in front of you and using it to put forward a new idea. If you’re creating thought leadership that’s not based on some kind of provable research (yours or someone else’s) you may earn some attention for a while, but it’s not attention that will last. But build on the data that’s readily available to offer a new thought and you become a trusted resource inside of your industry.
It’s OK to build your thought leadership on the back of people who’ve come before, to take one of their ideas and extrapolate it out father or to twist it slightly for a more modern world. But when you do, always acknowledge it. Recognize that you’re taking someone else’s idea, seeing the value in it, and then building on top of that.
As a B2B Tech leader, you need to create thought leadership that does something positive for someone else. It should give them an action to take. Or give them an insight that they can then use to shape their tactics or inform their strategies. It should help them do more, do better, or just do different.
Good thought leadership makes sense. Someone reads it or sees it and says, “Yes, I understand that.” It doesn’t require a lengthy explanation or a lot of set up. The thoughts themselves live on their own and feel natural, not as a contrived way to talk more about your products.
My favorite Newton’s Law is “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” Something similar is true about thought leadership. Thought leadership is most effective when we can compare our action with inaction. So when we tell the reader what action they should take or give them some kind of thoughtful takeaway, it should also be clear to them the consequences of not acting.
Good thought leadership lights a fire inside the reader’s or viewer’s gut. It inspires change. It makes you want to move. It’s kinetic. So, if you’re creating thought leadership that doesn’t inspire you, just think about how it’s going to strike the person reading it or watching it.
Thought leadership shouldn’t feel like a jacket that’s just a bit too small. It still might look good from the outside, but once it’s on it feels a bit tight and constraining. When you’re creating thought leadership you should focus on something that feels authentic. But you also want to make sure it is adaptable enough to frame a number of different subjects through your unique lens. That means you might need to take your position and figure out how to level it up a notch or two to make it more broadly applicable. It’s going to make creating ongoing content easier and it’s going to make any pitches to the press more appealing.
Want to know where you can find a lot of “thought leaders” (using the most basic definition of the term)? College campuses. But it’s the rare academic who creates thought leadership that’s marketable, something that’s easily consumed and easily applied by a broader audience. You must keep that audience in mind when you’re developing your thought leadership platform, because if it isn’t marketable then it can’t be effective.
Forgettable thought leadership is ineffective thought leadership, if indeed it is thought leadership at all. If what you say isn’t notable, it won’t make someone sit up and take notice of either you or your brand. It’s time to dial it up. And keep in mind that it’s your thoughts that should grab their attention, not your presentation. Bright and brash may get attention, but it won’t keep it. Notable content will.
This is one should go without saying, but it doesn’t. So many people parrot what someone else is already saying and call it thought leadership. You can’t do that. Thought leadership needs to be original. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to perform expensive surveys to gather original data, although I don’t know anyone who would balk at that idea. You can draw new conclusions from research and work others have done. The main thing is to have original thought.
Thought leadership isn’t necessarily about a single idea, even if it is a brilliant one. It’s often several smaller ideas that coalesce into something bigger. That bigger idea then becomes not just a plank but a thought leadership platform, which you can then apply to a lot of areas.
Every industry has those bits of conventional wisdom everyone accepts as truth. Good thought leadership will challenge that wisdom, asking, “Is this accurate?”, “Is this still true?” Maybe it is, but often it’s not—or at least it’s likely changed. If you can authentically offer a whole new idea or a new twist on the accepted wisdom, do it.
Thought leadership as a marketing tool only works if it feels familiar to the person consuming it. They need to see how it applies to their life and relates to their business. And with some of the digital tools we have now, we can test whether or not your thought leadership is effective. By noting the reactions to your content then fine-tuning the wording or visuals, you can create thought leadership that will be impactful for both the consumer and your business.
Long-winded thought leadership is tough to consume. It’s also tough to remember. Think of phrases like “Start with Why” or “The medium is the message.” They’re short. They have punch. They’re memorable, but they also allowed for the leaders who came up with the ideas to build out substantial thought leadership platforms. And they provided something for others to build from.
You’d think it would go without saying that thought leadership should be, well, thoughtful. However, given what many people try to pass off as thought leadership is evidence otherwise. So, what does thoughtful thought leadership look like? It’s two things. First, it communicates an idea that isn’t obvious. If you just repeat something we all know or can see, you aren’t offering thought leadership. Second, it isn’t self-serving. It’s genuine and helpful. It isn’t lead gen.
What you look for in a leader is clear direction. You want to know where this person stands and what they think. Consumers of content expect the same of thought leaders. What they say can leave no ambiguity about what they think, where they believe the industry should go, or what the next steps are to get there.
Your thought leadership needs to be able to stand up to scrutiny. We are a society of cranks, and there’s always going to be someone who wants to prove you wrong. Your thought leadership needs to be able to stand up to someone slinging arrows. Take the time to test it out internally. Make sure you poke all the holes you can into it before it sees the light of day.
While you want to make sure you have your thought leadership ducks in a row, no one can be right absolutely all the time. Being wrong is an indicator that you’ve been bold, that you have conviction, that you took a stand. Being a bold thought leader means you’ll sometimes be wrong—and that’s OK.
It was either this or xylophonic, but hear us out. Xeriscaping is drought-resistant gardening. Your thought leadership needs to be drought resistant as well. It needs to be able to stand up to challenges, and the biggest challenge to thought leadership is the strawman. Too often companies create what they think is thought leadership, but it’s really just a long-winded justification for pitching their product. That really isn’t thought leadership, and today’s content consumer is smart enough to see through it.
This is all about who owns the thought leadership. Even if you have an SME with the experience and expertise to become a thought leader, you can’t tell them what to say. You can work with them to develop a platform, but at the end of the day you have to look at them and say “Here. It’s yours,” and then be OK with them owning it. If you can’t do that then you risk creating something that will come across as inauthentic and ultimately fail to accomplish the goals you set out for it.
We wrap up this list with the only quality that doesn’t describe your thought leadership but instead describes your approach to it. Successful thought leadership has to be authentic. It has to be bold. It has to be clear. It has to be all of the things that we describe on this list of ABCs. But if it doesn’t excite you, and make you eager to share it, then there’s little point in taking the time to create it. So, before you spend the time it takes—and it does take significant time—to create thought leadership, make sure it’s something you can get zealous about.
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