Reality Check

Understanding the potential of thought leadership

It’s ironic that the first cited usages of “Thought Leader” originate from two radical American thinkers—Ralph Waldo Emerson whose transcendentalist philosophy warned against the corrupting influence of institutions while promoting the inherent good in individuals and Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent American abolitionist who defined modern American Protestantism by the celebration of Christ’s love at the core of faith.

The two couldn’t have less in common.

Emerson was a pantheist heretic and Beecher, a fundamentalist Christian—but both have had a lasting impact on American history and culture. Contrast this with the fact that Wikipedia’s entry on “Thought Leader” describes the phrase as one of “corporate America’s most insufferable buzzwords and clichés.”


Evaluating contemporary corporate “thought leadership” in comparison to Emerson or Beecher renders this characterisation generous. So why has thought leadership fallen so far and what potential value is there in it for business and business leaders? The answer lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the real value of thought leadership and an unfortunate conflation of the term with content marketing. Let’s begin with the latter.

How do Thought Leadership and Content Marketing relate?

Many in the B2B marketing world believe thought leadership is synonymous with content marketing. When organisations decide they have an opportunity to become “Thought Leaders,” they immediately begin putting together a content marketing strategy. They develop content themes and topics, identify senior stakeholders in the business to become external advocates, set up an editorial function and establish KPIs for progress. If they are very sophisticated, they set up clear processes for content creation, distribution and tracking and take an omnichannel approach driven by their target audience’s behaviours, needs and motivations. None of this is thought leadership. Why? Because thought leadership is an outcome, not a mechanism. And content marketing is a process, not a thing.

Content is only thought leadership when the outcome matches the promise. Do your ideas inspire new and different action? Have you pushed the industry to evolve its point of view? Content marketing is a very well-established process for leveraging content to shift stakeholder behaviour in a way that adds value to your organisation. The temptation to conflate the two comes on the basis that content marketing is a definable, repeatable approach to output. Thought leadership is nebulous, unpredictable and fundamentally, almost impossible to define in advance. So yes, content marketing is critical (and an essential part of an accountable marketing organisation), but it doesn’t make you a thought leader.

Who can be a thought leader?

So we must ask—who has the potential to be a thought leader? That is to say, which organisations and/or individuals have the capacity to develop content that will deliver the outcomes we expect of thought leadership. In our perspective there are two broad drivers of thought leadership potential – organisational stature and the quality of ideas.

By organisational stature, we loosely mean the general reputation and or credibility your organisation has within your industry. Or—how likely are other industry players to listen to you and respect your perspective. The greater your organisational stature the likelier your content is to deliver thought leader outcomes, regardless of the quality of your ideas. Companies like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey are quintessential examples of organisations with great stature whose content pushes their respective industries’ thinking forward. Whilst organisations can build stature by way of improving their scale, reputation, credibility, and associations, lesser-known firms can still reach their heights by way of extremely high quality ideas.

What is a quality idea?  Joel Kurtzman, editor and chief of Strategy and Business magazine is sometimes cited as the coiner of the term. In 1994, he stated that “a thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

In other words, two factors drive quality in thought leadership: Originality (i.e. are they truly new or have they been expressed before?) and their Insight (i.e. do they reveal something relevant and surprising about society, the industry or its actors). Basically, high quality ideas are those which bring a new perspective grounded in relevant insight about the world with the power to push organisations to make better decisions in the future.  

Even smaller players are capable of producing great ideas. Wistia, a platform for hosting and measuring video content for businesses, is a good example of leveraging cut through incisive content to shift the dialogue. Consider the knowledge your organisation has, the value it brings to its customers, and the unique understanding that can elevate the both.

Crudely speaking, there’s inverse relationship between stature and quality of ideas in terms of thought leadership potential. The greater your stature, the less is required of your ideas and vice versa. What does this mean for your ability to be a thought leader?

Three clear steps to Thought Leadership

1. Take an honest assessment of your organisation and its leaders

Before investing time, effort and resources in a thought leadership programme, take the time to do an honest assessment of your organisations thought leadership potential. That is to say, truly understand your organisations stature and ability to shape the behaviours and opinions of stakeholders within your industry. And judge harshly the quality of the ideas you have against the economy of ideas you seek to disrupt. If, at the end of the day, the equation doesn’t add up to high thought leadership potential, refocus your efforts on something that will be more fruitful and re-evaluate in the future. A recent study by Longitude, a thought leadership consultancy, shows that among B2B companies surveyed, while most were increasing their spend on through leadership, “followers” or companies not truly behaving as thought leaders saw very few of the commercial benefits seen by the “thought leading brands.”

2. Establish the fundamentals

Although content marketing is not the same as thought leadership, a good content marketing strategy is path critical to the success of a thought leadership initiative. Without that strategy, no amount of reputational power or strong thinking will make it to the market. This means having a strong understanding of your audience and their needs, engaging and attractive content, a defined channel and distribution strategy and a realistic view of the goals you seek to meet and the technology and infrastructure to track how your content performs over time and across channels. Hubspot, a marketing automation provider, is renowned for not only having rich, value adding and engaging content, but also having a clear strategy and infrastructure to drive real value to their business through content marketing.

3. Engage the full organisation

Don’t make the mistake of thinking only your senior leaders can be the voice of your thought leadership. Often, the freshest insight emerges from more divergent points of view. Be certain that the full organisation is engaged and understands the ideas that the organisation is promoting. No broadcast channels can substitute from the feedback inherent in day-to-day client and prospect interactions. Swiss Re is a great example of applying their thought leadership throughout the client experience through a dedicated business development team tasked with identifying opportunities to applying their unique insight and expertise to specific client challenges. 

The key to changing thought leadership from a buzzword to a valuable tool in the marketing arsenal is by making sure your aspiration is to truly lead thoughts in the marketplace – not only creating and distributing content.