For many in marketing and communications, the term ‘thought leadership’ has become one of those hash-taggable buzzwords. For some, it even elicits an eye roll and shake of the head. 

Yet there are a multitude of benefits to thought leadership. Done well, thought leadership can make up a critical component of a company’s earned and owned communications marketing strategy. 

Indeed, with the arrival of COVID-19 and its impact on the global economy, many look to thought leaders for their insights and wisdom on how businesses must adapt if they hope to navigate the challenging times.

What is thought leadership and why is it important? 

In 1994, Joe Kurtzman coined the term “thought leader” to describe individuals who had ideas thatmerited attention.’ He viewed thought leaders as experts in their fields who demonstrated a deeper understanding of their industries and their clients. They expertly unite passion and knowledge to build brand reputation and credibility. 

The business world has since embraced the term, and along the way expanded it.  Thought leadership has developed into a strategy that is rooted in a single individual’s effort to offer instruction and insight to an identifiable target audience in hopes of helping and influencing them. 

Defining thought leadership exclusively by its awareness-building qualities, however, drastically underestimates its impact. A 2019 study from Edelman and LinkedIn reveals that thought leadership is far more than a buzzword. It is a crucial element of business growth and opportunity acquisition. Thought leadership actually generates leads and attracts the attention of decision makers. 

Once exposed to thought leadership, over 88% of business decision makers and 89% of C-suite executives said that their “respect and admiration for the organization increased.” Edelman’s study also reveals that decision makers were much more willing to pay a premium to work with a business that demonstrates thought leadership. Trust building, increased pricing power, sales, profitability, and revenue generation are therefore seen as valuable consequences of a successful thought leadership strategy. 

Edelman strikes a note of caution, however. When thought leadership is poorly executed, you can actually lose out on valuable business opportunities. Over 30% of both business decision makers and C-suite executives cited poor thought leadership as a contributor to their decision not to give the company business. 

How to become a successful thought leader 

Businesses leaders and their marketing team must approach thought leadership with intention and dedication if they hope to implement a successful thought leadership strategy for their company. Hubspot describes thought leadership strategy as a combination of goal setting, brainstorming, competitor analysis, content creation, and result measurement. We couldn’t agree more. Below we offer a few tips to ensure that your individual and company brand benefit from thought leadership. 

Choose your audience

Thought leadership works best when there is a target audience. Research yours, find out what inspires them and develop content that caters to their needs. People seek leadership to be inspired, guided, and for issue resolution. In order for your content to be relevant you need to know your audiences’ struggles and the points where they need guidance. 

Thought leadership content should be specific, accessible, and authentic. In order to build trust, your expertise and passion needs to connect with the audience. Over-generalized content reduces intimacy, which is a building block for trust. 

Know your competition

Thought leaders are business professionals with an innate ability to cut through the noise of everyday marketing. But in order to do that you and your business need to know what noise to cut through. As HubSpot suggests, look at the gaps in your competitors’ content and strategy and develop content to fill them. Learning from, and then trying to better, your competition is a tried-and-true method for positioning your own company as a leader in your industry. 

Have a content and distribution strategy 

Thought leaders have a recognizable presence by virtue of their experience and knowledge. But, to attain a true thought leadership status, you have to put yourself out there for the world to see. The best way to do that is to diversify the type of content you create and broadcast it in various ways. Sticking only to a blog or single outlet will limit your reach. Video content is especially valuable for thought leaders given that it travels well across platforms and often feels more personal than written content. 

You will also want to stay on the minds of your target audience by addressing the kinds of topics they are hungry for. The best way to do that is to produce content on a regular basis. The best way to do that is to create an editorial calendar at least three months in advance and stick to it. (For a nice primer on the benefits of an editorial calendar, check out the 5 reasons your brand’s blog needs an editorial calendar posted on the PR over Coffee blog.)

Keep it authentic

Content about you and your business should avoid being overly self-promotional. The best thought leaders use their knowledge and compelling arguments to earn the trust and admiration of their target audience. In other words, there’s simply no need to ‘sell your value’ if your content is inherently valuable. 

Ads and promotions quickly turn thought leadership from inspirational and instructional into annoying and delete-worthy. Make it personal, tell your story, and remember that the best insight comes from experience. Emily Tisch Sussman, Campaign Director for The Center For American Progress, and notable thought leader tells Medium that, “The best way to be an authentic thought leader is to demonstrate that you are not above the actual work of making change.” 

What better time to demonstrate your work for change than during a crisis? That leads us to our final tip: Don’t be afraid to pivot.

Don’t be afraid to pivot

The economic fall-out of Covid-19 has created obstacles for many businesses but it has also been a catalysing moment for thought leadership. We have seen a lot of companies pivot not only to survive the sudden economic downturn, but also to help others. Anheuser-Busch is now manufacturing hand sanitizer, Louis Vuitton is making masks, and Airbnb is housing healthcare workers. These are all examples of market leadership where businesses are leading other businesses in a transition to the “new normal.” 

The same approach can and should be done for thought leadership. Thought leaders should not be afraid to pivot their marketing narrative to address the enormous challenges faced by businesses and communities across the globe. Given their years of deep experience, thought leaders are perfect voices to articulate the collective feelings of like-minded professionals in their respective industries. They are also the perfect visionaries to show us ways to see around and beyond the challenges faced by all today. 

Bottom-line, there is never a bad time to put forth the immense professional effort and patient brand building it takes to build a successful thought leadership strategy. It’s in times like these we can see how valuable our thought leaders truly are when it comes to helping put our troubling times into perspective.

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About Mary Jenkins: Mary is a marketing and communications intern for Swyft, which has been listed as one of the best PR firms in Austin and a top digital marketing agency in Denver since its founding in 2011. Swyft has satellite offices where it offers PR in San Francisco and Houston.

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