CEO of Idea Grove, a unified PR and marketing agency, and author of the upcoming book “Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.”
I think thought leadership has become one of the most overused phrases in public relations and content marketing. We are at the point now that people introduce this term into discussions simply to sound relevant.
Once upon a time in technology marketing, thought leadership was, in its purest form, a third leg of the stool in a company’s public relations strategy. Great PR programs were comprised of executive positioning, product promotion and thought leadership. Thought leadership was meant to provide a directional agenda for the industry, giving customers a guidepost for addressing what they care about free from the constraints of a product or sales pitch. This pure approach is probably why it aligned so well with PR rather than traditional marketing.
Since the advent of content marketing, the term thought leadership has been co-opted to refer to all kinds of content produced by a company. I often sit in meetings with tech vendors who want to call just about everything thought leadership, even when the centerpiece of the discussion is a technology invented by them, patented by them, and baked into a product they sell and make money on every day.
That’s not thought leadership. It’s sales collateral attached to a buzzword.
So, how do we get back to thought leadership that actually leads?
Separate Thought Leadership From Sales
Thought leadership should be completely independent of products, technologies or corporate speak. It should be centered around a point of view, a perspective or an opinion about something happening in a particular industry. It should be first and foremost a catalyst for discussion and shouldn’t end with someone handing out a collateral piece lined with product SKUs. It should end with a call to action for the industry to do something different that will positively impact the lives of technology buyers and end-user consumers.
Many companies today seem to be falling into a pattern of “thought followship,” in which a large percentage of the content they create is a regurgitation of material already done very well by a competitor. To truly be a thought leader, you have to identify emerging topics that haven’t been written about yet or create an original idea about an existing topic that others are talking about already.
Infuse Thought Leadership With Vision
Many sources say that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “thought leader” dates back to 1887, when Henry Ward Beecher was described as “one of the great thought-leaders in America.” Beecher was a 19th-century minister, social reformer and speaker who supported women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. He talked about change and a vision for the future.
I think today’s technology thought leaders have something in common with Beecher. They too have a vision for the future and a map for how people can get there. They don’t intertwine selling things with thoughts and discourse. They don’t overengineer large platforms or campaigns with a hidden agenda to sell more tech gear.
They understand that thought leadership in and of itself has huge value to the technology industry and to customers. But they focus their thought leadership on the definition of ideas and conversation.
So the next time you want to talk about or engage in thought leadership, remember its intended purpose is to lead discussions about customer and industry pain points — not to push products or solutions.