Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz Allen Hamilton magazine Strategy & Business first coined the term “thought leadership” in 1994. I wonder if he knew what he was starting? It’s nearly impossible to find a B2B focused marketing plan that doesn’t include it as an objective, but in my experience - and maybe yours - the term is widely and wildly misused.
It’s not just the rash of so-called thought leadership programmes that are no more than a clumsily disguised piece of product propaganda. Those are easy enough to spot and discard, and do not do any credit to the author’s reputation or that of the organisation they represent. There are, after all, only so many ways of slapping lipstick on a pig.
Thought Leadership Must Trouble the Reader
No, I’m referring to programmes that genuinely seek to educate and inform, but which achieve nothing more than reinforcing the reader’s existing view of the world. You see, the trouble with most “thought leadership” is that it fails to trouble the reader. And if we haven’t succeeded in troubling the reader, what’s the point of reaching out in the first place?
Don’t get me wrong. There’s clearly a place in your marketing activities for factual information in a variety of forms that educate and inform the reader and that are interesting enough to get read. But please don’t represent these items as “thought leadership” programmes unless they genuinely cause the reader to think differently.
Sharing Compelling Commercial Insight
The folks at the CEB refer to this process as developing “commercial insight”, and they go on to define it as “compelling, defensible perspectives that could materially impact the audience’s performance and which directly lead back to the vendor’s unique capabilities”.
So, as well as educating and informing the audience, vendors wishing to create truly effective thought leadership programmes must achieve four additional things:
- Trouble the reader
- Offer a fresh perspective
- Lead towards your unique capabilities
- Persuade the reader of the need to take action
But that’s not all: the best thought leadership programmes entertain and engage the audience. They get them involved in the dialogue. They employ a variety of different media. They are capable of surprising their audience and provoking them to take on a fresh perspective. And, yes, at some stage they intentionally make them uncomfortable with the status quo.
Taking Your Audience on a Journey
There’s a sequence to this process: the first thing you need to do is to build empathy with the reader and have them accept you as a trusted source of advice and opinion. But you mustn’t stop there. Next, you need to showcase an under-appreciated issue - it could be something they hadn’t previously considered, or one where they hadn’t been fully aware of the impact.
Then, you need to scope the size of the problem - the stronger the evidence you can point to, the better. But once again, you mustn’t stop there - you need to help them to personalise the pain. And you need to do it by enabling them to “join the dots” and visualise the full impact on their role and their organisation of not addressing the issue.
Then - and only then - should you offer them a way forward. Please resist the temptation to spoil it all by pitching your product. It’s far better, far more effective, and far more memorable to show how your fresh thinking has resulted in an entirely new approach to solving the problem - and to stimulate your audience to want to learn more.
Help them Recognise the Need for Change
Follow this formula, and your thought leadership efforts will truly have helped your audience to think differently, to recognise the need for change, and to see your organisation as the people that are best placed to help them navigate the way forward.