Why It’s Time to Put the “Leader” Back in Thought Leadership

Back in 2013, Forbes included “thought leadership” in its compilation of the most annoying business slang. The author basically said thought leadership was a snobbish term for “expertise.”

I can’t argue about thought leadership being an overused term. But equating it with expertise is a gross oversimplification.

The fact is, thought leadership can still be a powerful marketing tool, especially when it comes from the top. The CEO. The president. The executive director. The managing partner. A senior vice president.

More on that in a minute.

What Is Thought Leadership?

Here’s my definition:

Thought leadership is the sharing of insights, information, and/or innovative ideas that reflect the knowledge, perspective, and unique voice of an authority figure in a particular field.

In other words, it goes deeper than expertise. It has to be shared and have value. It has to be distinguishable from others and come from people who know what they’re talking about.

How Thought Leadership Went Off the Rails

One reason thought leadership devolved into slang is that it became watered-down. Anyone could publish and share content with little effort or investment. Just recycle other people’s ideas or go off on a half-baked rant with no factual basis.

You didn’t even need a website. Just post on social media.

As a result, businesses churned out self-serving, self-promotional drivel stuffed with keywords and sales pitches, all dressed up as “thought leadership.” This caused marketers to shy away from thought leadership content.

But here’s the thing. Business decision-makers still see value in thought leadership. Real thought leadership.

According to the 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, 58 percent of decision-makers consumed thought leadership content for at least one hour per week in 2018, compared to 50 percent in 2017. The largest increase came from those who spent at least four hours per week consuming thought leadership (12 percent to 21 percent).

55 percent used thought leadership to evaluate potential partners and vendors. 92 percent said it increased their respect for an organization. 75 percent said they’ll follow an author or organization based on thought leadership.

The Disconnect in the Perceived Value of Thought Leadership

The research also revealed a disconnect in how business decision-makers and marketers view thought leadership content. More specifically, buyers value thought leadership a lot more than sellers and content creators.

• 87 percent of decision-makers said thought leadership content increases trust, compared to 49 percent of content creators.
• 89 percent of decision-makers said it enhances a brand’s reputation, compared to 55 percent of content creators.
• 58 percent of decision-makers said they chose to do business with an organization based on thought leadership. 26 percent of sellers said they believe thought leadership is directly responsible for closing business.
• 61 percent of decision-makers are more willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that articulates a clear vision through thought leadership. 14 percent of sellers believe thought leadership allows them to charge more than competitors who create inferior content or no content at all.

Unfortunately, both sides agree on the overall quality of thought leadership content, or lack thereof. Just 18 percent of decision-makers and 25 percent of content creators rate the content they consume as “excellent or very good.”

The good news is, if most of the content out there is less than stellar or downright poor, there’s a tremendous opportunity for organizations that commit to true thought leadership.

How to Create Thought Leadership Content that Works

Put the “leader” back in thought leadership.

Thought leadership should come from the leaders mentioned at the beginning of this article, not the person who draws the short straw when the marketing folks say you need fresh content.

Put the weight of a senior executive’s name and title behind your content. This instantly gives your content more credibility and makes it more likely to grab the attention of decision-makers.

That doesn’t mean senior executives need to spend an entire day writing an article. But they do need to contribute more than a by-line. They need to:

• Make thought leadership a priority.
• Think about what insights would be helpful to the reader.
• Be prepared to share relatable stories that support the topic.
• Be willing to take a stand on certain issues.

That’s what leaders do.

As for the actual writing, a good content writer and interviewer can extract the right information, capture passion, vision and voice, and tell a story in a way that’s relevant to the target audience. This will make it easier for executives to commit to developing fresh content consistently over the long haul.

In addition to generating leads, closing sales, and building trust, thought leadership can help executives land speaking engagements and score media interviews. It can raise their profile and the brand’s profile.

When you develop the right content, focus on helping and not selling, and get your content in front of the right people, your senior executive will be recognized as… wait for it… a thought leader.

To be clear, I would never suggest doing away with SEO strategies, and there’s a place for promotion. However, the top goals of thought leadership are providing value, offering a unique perspective, and positioning the executive and organization as experts in their field. This can be done in addition to SEO and promotion.

Final Thoughts

Thought leadership content that delivers the greatest impact comes from the top. Get buy-in from the C-suite and make thought leadership an organizational priority. Publish true thought leadership content on your website and LinkedIn. Email it to a targeted list. Showcase it in your newsletter.

That’s how you put the “leader” back in thought leadership. And that’s how you turn content from another box to be checked into a brand-enhancing, trust-building, lead-generating, revenue-producing machine.

Scott McKelvey Copywriting & Marketing can help you develop true thought leadership content that connects with your ideal client. Let’s talk.