Building Corporate Thought Leadership

What is a Thought Leader?

Many companies say they want to be a thought leader or already think they are. But what exactly does the term mean? Glenn Llopis, a regular contributor to Forbes, defines thought leadership this way, “A thought leader is a person who identifies trends, common themes and patterns within a particular industry or functional area of expertise to help others identify new opportunities or solutions for growth.”

Brian Solis, principal analyst at the Altimeter Group, takes a more philosophical approach. He believes that thought leadership is based on thinking about people and how to provide them with value, helping them solve problems, and assisting them in achieving their aspirations and goals. “True thought leadership starts with empathy. Can you tell me the top ten problems your audience has at any given time? How about the top ten aspirations? Are you thinking through where your audience wants to be, compared with where the market is going?”

The process of establishing thought leadership, then, is about building trust as an authentic source of information and insights about the issues your customers care about. Thought leadership can also be a marketing and sales strategy that sets a company apart from the crowd by providing timely and useful insights for its marketplace.

Where to Begin a Thought Leadership Program?

In responding to this question, the Stern Strategy Group advocates beginning with “a clear vision, actionable strategy, strong voice and expert advisors to help you rise above the noise and be heard by those who matter most to your business.” In their excellent white paper titled, Thought Leadership: Your Organization’s Secret to Reputation Marketing, the Stern Group proposes that thought leadership begins with a big idea but centers on action to solve problems and “communicate your value with clarity, conviction, and consistency.”

They recommend these initial steps:

  • First develop your thought leadership strategy – your big idea, your voice.
  • What does the company stand for?  What are the vision and mission – what challenges are you trying to solve. This should be aspirational.
  • Who cares and why should they? Which are the communities that will help drive your mission forward?
  • What do you have to say that’s different? How do you add value and distinguish yourselves from your competitors?
  • What does your audience care about and want to hear?

6 Ways to Express Thought Leadership

Once the overall thought leadership strategy has been established, there are a host of assets that can be developed to support the strategy. All activities should be integrated and designed to reiterate the core messages of the company.

  1. Speaking engagements at industry events are an excellent way to disseminate your thought leadership and contribute to a market level conversation.
  2. Virtual events, such as video presentations and webinars provide the opportunity to showcase your thought leadership and engage with other industry leaders and researchers or customers who you have served.
  3. Research, original research is an effective way to set your company apart from your competitors, particularly if the research offers new insights or documents industry practices.
  4. Content distribution, whether it is long form white papers, research reports, or shorter infographics, quizzes, and other types of snack-able content, positions your company as a leader in the marketplace.
  5. Social marketing, is an essential component of your thought leadership strategy as it is a main distribution channel for an ongoing conversation with customers, practitioners, and other experts in your field.
  6. Sales playbooks that align your thought leadership directly to the needs of the marketplace give your sales team the tools they need to disseminate the company’s thought leadership on a one-to-one basis.

As with any other significant endeavor, a thought leadership program requires an investment of resources – both intellectual and financial. But a successful program will put you top of mind for your customers and prospects and will help position your company as an authentic expert in your field. 

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