The phrase thought leadership has been bandied about for a long time. People embrace it and dismiss it with equal intensity. Marketers have commandeered the term in recent decades, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used as far back as 1887 to describe a New York clergyman who supported the abolition of slavery.
Today, thought leadership is about value exchange. Experts share insights with the goal of becoming the voice their audience seeks out on a particular topic or area. The exchange is broader than a one-way conversation, or even a two-way conversation. It’s about being the go-to source on a certain subject.
When there’s a political shake-up, who do you trust to give you not only the facts, but also an opinion you value? Similarly, where do you go when big news happens in your own industry? Whose insights do you seek out about the latest challenges and trends in your business?
The ROI of Thought Leadership
The benefits of thought leadership to an audience are clear: They get access to insights, analysis, and inspiration. But what do the experts and their organizations get as part of the value exchange? Few are interested in being thought leaders for the fun of it, but becoming an authority offers the chance to capture attention, a scarce thing in the market today. And with that attention comes the opportunity to engage—and if you get that right, the chance to accelerate the buyer’s journey for your customers, and increase your readership, brand affinity, and sales.
The return on investment for thought leadership isn’t simple to measure, and it doesn’t happen in the short term. Increasing engagement and influence takes time. That said, individuals or organizations can benefit from thought leadership content marketing in many ways. For example, they can…
Build credibility by positioning and elevating themselves in the minds of an audience.
- Who’s doing it? Consumers look to their peers and influencers for advice. Take Warren Buffett, who has developed credibility as a clairvoyant and wise investor. He has an uncanny ability to gauge financial markets and developments. Combined with his huge success, that has made Berkshire Hathaway one of America’s most valuable public companies and his annual letter to shareholders a highly anticipated event. Besides, who can resist pearls of wisdom from the always-quotable Oracle of Omaha? Such as, “I try to buy stock in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them. Because sooner or later, one will.”
Build awareness and develop brand preference.
- Who’s doing it? IBM has continually been able to reinvent itself and build awareness about its latest endeavors. Who can forget IBM’s Watson beating Jeopardy champs on the quiz show in 2011? What launched as a publicity stunt morphed into awareness of IBM as the forerunner in artificial intelligence. Today IBM’s AI thought leadership takes many forms: The company publishes research on digital intelligence, hosts conferences such as IBM Connect, and promotes its own thought leaders, such as Dr. Guruduth Banavar (@banavar), IBM’s chief science officer.
Create sales opportunities.
- Who’s doing it? Lots of companies, but it’s hard to get data about their results. However, a recent LinkedIn webinar connected content directly to ROI, and these techniques can be applied to thought leadership content as well. Digital strategist Peter Weinberg explained that LinkedIn offers a guide, called “The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to LinkedIn,” behind a gate. The company promotes it with non-gated assets, such as podcasts, which drive traffic to the core asset; then they get prospects’ information from the required form and funnel leads into their marketing automation system, where they can track revenue from those leads. Based on that data, they know that this popular piece of content has been the No. 1 driver of sales for three years running, directly linking an individual asset to sales.
Use content to reinforce a company position as an innovative category leader.
- Who’s doing it? Deloitte creates strong thought-leadership content that showcases big-picture thinking and backs it up with data. Examples include the company’s trends and research content, such as the “Deloitte 2017 Survey of US Health System CEOs.” The company also has timely perspective pieces, such as “How Artificial Intelligence Could Transform Government”; a “think and do” tank called the Deloitte Center for Government Insights, launched in October 2016; and independent content creation centers like the Deloitte University Press.
4 Things That Are Not Thought Leadership
- Being a shill for your company or the products you’re selling.
- Trying to boil the ocean. You can’t be an expert about every topic. It’s about picking your focus and sticking to it.
- Writing blog posts. Don’t equate having a blog and contributing to it regularly with sharing original thinking on a subject. A blogger can be a thought leader, but a blog doesn’t make it so.
- A massive Twitter following. Sure, you need people to hear your message, but what message are you sharing? @JustinBieber has more than 92 million Twitter followers, but no one “beliebs” he’s a thought leader.
What are you doing to engage and build trust with your audience?