What Is Thought Leadership?

(This is an update to a previous article that had a more ranty and probably less helpful tone.)

Thought leadership is a long game, played in a spirit of service, focused on the market-facing question(s), transformation, or optimization you decide to own, and "won" by making your market into ever-more effective thinkers, deciders, and implementers.

Thought leadership requires four ingredients:

  1. A thought leadership agenda
  2. Valuable experience and/or primary research
  3. A point of view
  4. A layered content creation and publishing plan

A brief exploration of each ingredient will help you understand why thought leadership is more than just thoughtful or useful content marketing.

1: A Thought Leadership Agenda

A thought leadership agenda springs from the belief that your market has been tolerating something unnecessarily, combined with your desire to do something about it at a scale bigger than one client engagement at a time. Your thought leadership agenda defines a focus (what thing has your market been tolerating?) and proposes a solution (what should they do about it?).

Thought leadership can cultivate immediate business opportunity, but it is not even close to the most efficient way to do so. Instead, it is an act of empathy and service that can generate exceptional future business opportunity as a by-product. You cannot pursue the business results that thought leadership often creates without the required inputs of empathy and service unless you are OK with being seen as an opportunistic grifter. No matter how much thought leadership work you do in service of your market, you do not get to use the label "thought leader" in reference to yourself unless you want to appear like a tactless bozo.

Seeing a market putting up with something suboptimal (empathy) and figuring out what to do about it (service) will lead you to take "ownership" of:

  • One or more questions your market struggles to answer
  • A transformation that companies in your market can undergo
  • An optimization that companies in your market can pursue

These three elements of a thought leadership agenda aren't mutually exclusive. Most TL agendas will emphasize one of these three, but some agendas will have room for more than just one.

Pursuing a thought leadership agenda is an infinite game, so the agenda will remain relatively stable over years or even decades. At the same time, the larger context it exists within will change, which will force the agenda to evolve at least the tactics it uses.

Ownership of a market-facing question, transformation, or optimization means that you take personal responsibility for effecting change at the level of your market. Your method for effecting this change may involve one or more of the following:

  • An inspiring invitation to change
  • Creating and distributing know-how to facilitate the change
  • Motivation to begin or persist in the change
  • Stories or narratives that support the change
  • Social infrastructure to support the change

Your firm's attributes will influence what methods you use to pursue a thought leadership agenda, and no method is inherently superior. Some methods don't seem like they involve sharing your thinking (ex: social infrastructure), yet they can just as powerfully support a thought leadership agenda as those that do, proving that thought leadership doesn't happen only on stage, in a book, or underneath a prestigious masthead.

2: Experience Or Research

What should your market do about the problem they have been tolerating? Your answer to this question comes from your experience or primary research, or some combination of both. There's an outside chance you could invent an effective solution from whole cloth with no relevant experience or research, but most markets will reject such a solution unless they are especially uncritical or desperate.

Your previous experience is especially valuable if it's associated with companies that others admire; well-designed primary research is valuable in reducing the haze of uncertainty that surrounds some questions. Both are made more valuable with robust, clear argument offered to the market with persistence and consistency.

3: A Point Of View

A firm's point of view is an intentional self-awareness that creates clarity and consistency. The firm's clarity is flows from answers to these questions:

  • Is our thought leadership agenda about radical transformation, progressive optimization, or something in between?
  • Do we advise clients based on data, our own experience, or both?
  • Is our status that of the pedigreed insider, the expert outsider, or somewhere in between?

The firm's consistency is found in the style with which the firm argues for change; supportive, warm, disruptive, blunt, or some fusion thereof.

These 4 elements define "where the firm is coming from". POV also includes what change the firm is arguing for. The previously-mentioned ownership of a market-facing question, transformation, or optimization defines what this argument for change will look like.

Your firm's POV is clarity about where it's coming from, consistency in style, and clarity about what change it is arguing for. Repeated over time, a firm's POV becomes its distinctive voice in the market -- its "personality".

4: A Layered Content Plan

It is possible to deliver thought leadership to your market one 1:1 conversation at a time, or in the context of a small community. But most thought leadership will seek wider or faster impact by using published content to reach more people at once.

When it comes to content, you'll think in terms of 2 layers:

  1. Frequent short-form chunks of content that both address questions/problems (meeting the market where it's at in terms of language, thinking, and sophistication thereof) and gesture at the firm's POV and deeper treatments of these questions.
  2. Less frequent long-form chunks of content that deliver research findings or prove technical depth, diagnostic/advisory chops, or implementation excellence, with coherence among these coming from the firm's POV.

You can add more layers, of course, and layers are not the same thing as media/channels. Think of them like the parts of a drum track -- high hat on the 16th notes, bass drum on the quarter notes.

Thought Leadership vs. Content Marketing vs. Lead Generation

It's OK to think of thought leadership as "premium content marketing", but the foreground presence of a distinctive point of view and the background presence of a thought leadership agenda are two vital elements that distinguish the most impactful thought leadership content from content marketing. Deep experience is helpful, but the combination of owning a question and investing in research can substitute for or even exceed the value of deep experience.

Content marketing will tend to support a lead generation agenda rather than the thought leadership agenda I've described above. Lead generation is a critical business activity and I'm not insulting it when I say lead generation lacks the medium or long-term focus and generosity of true thought leadership. Lead generation works to efficiently generate new business opportunity; thought leadership works to efficiently help your market become ever-more effective thinkers, deciders, and implementers. Lead generation's efficiency will be thought leadership's inefficiency and vice versa.

Again, Philip, How Do We Succeed Or Win At Thought Leadership?

Thought leadership is an Infinite game, so you don't win or lose. You can make varying levels of progress, though. And because thought leadership is a considerable investment, it makes sense to measure progress, which you can do by assessing or measuring:

  • Market recognition of branded IP or ideas/questions you decide to own.
  • Market sophistication around the questions/ideas you are focused on.
  • Market adoption of branded IP/frameworks/concepts/terminology. (ex: Gini Dietrich's PESO model: /podcast/tsme-152-gini-dietrich/)
  • Metrics that measure discovery, sharing, and/or consumption of content, list growth, etc.
  • Buy-in to thought leadership, demonstrated primarily by prospect behavior in sales conversations.

To recap: thought leadership is a long game, played in a spirit of service, constrained to the questions/transformation/optimization you decide to own, and "won" by making your market into ever-more effective thinkers, deciders, and implementers.

Sales-ey Stuff

If you'd like coaching for yourself or your team to help apply the thinking I've shared above, please email me: philip@philipmorganconsulting.com

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