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How Not to Think About Thought Leadership (and How to Do It Right)

by Haydn Shaughnessy  |  
February 20, 2012
  |  17,716 views

In this article, you'll learn...

  • Six steps for getting thought leadership right
  • Thought leadership pitfalls to avoid

Like content strategy, thought leadership is a relatively new option for companies that want to improve their visibility and connections online in ways that prompt sales leads to come to you.

But thought leadership is, much more than content strategy, subject to the Bill Joy rule, which says that most smart people in the world don't work for your company.

How, then, do you possibly develop a thought leadership strategy?

If you get your thought leadership strategy right, customers will see you as a go-to source of expertise, your new products or incremental improvements will find easier acceptance, you'll stand a good chance of bolstering product price (which is critical in many industries where commoditization is at work), and you'll attract talent more easily.

Inevitably, some companies will get it wrong, so in this article I will outline why that happens, how to avoid the major mistakes companies make, and what to do to excel in thought leadership.


Why Companies Get It Wrong

Take a look at Verizon's thought leadership strategy as a prime example of "getting it wrong." The major purpose of that strategy seems to be to elevate the status of the company's executives in the eyes of the buying public. Verizon's microsite for thought leadership showcases executive opinion across a range of topics, such as security, consumerization of information technology (IT), the Cloud, retail, and "everything as a service."

The challenge, however, is that Verizon executives can't hope to be thought leaders in all those (and several other) areas. Thinking they could lead in any area they wish is a legacy of old management thinking. And thinking that a regular supply of content is a leadership strategy is also an error in thought leadership strategy.


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Haydn Shaughnessy is a writer and adviser who specializes in understanding the personal, cultural, and strategic dynamics of change. He focuses his work on the social Web, the transition to social business, and the development of the Elastic Enterprise. His book on the Elastic Enterprise, written with Nick Vitalari, has just been published.

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  • by Alan Mangelsdorf Mon Feb 20, 2012 via web

    Haydn -- Great article! Your points are spot on and ones that marketers AND company execs should read. In #6 you hinted at one of the mistakes we see often in your "people congregate everywhere but at your site" comment -- which is whether or not to create a company blog. I cannot count the number of times we have had to counsel executives that blogs are NOT a Field of Dreams and they are NOT Kevin Costner. Having a blog does not mean anyone will listen. Rather, it's better to research the top handful of blogs that your market reads and participates in, and become a regular participant there.

  • by mdenise Mon Feb 20, 2012 via web

    Great article. When I first read about thought leadership, I knew that it is something that comes out naturally; something that a few gifted people in them. However, I agree with your 6 steps that a company can do to partake in thought leadership, especially the first one. Research is a key to all strategies and it's definitely an edge to know something your competitors might not still be aware of.

  • by Craig Badings Tue Feb 21, 2012 via web

    Thanks Haydn, I particularly like your first point - identify what you don't know. This raises a number of interesting issues. In particular, most thought leaders discover the more they deep dive on a topic the less they realise they know.

    It's why businesses who really understand and research particular topics/issues within their industry are often the innovators/thought leaders in those industries. They see what others don't and they are the ones identifying the issues before they arise.

    It is these insights that position these businesses as the experts in the field and that gains them that all important brand attribute - trust.

    Trust is the ultimate currency of thought leadership.

  • by Waynette Tubbs Tue Feb 21, 2012 via web

    Thanks Haydn, I really like the article. Content marketing, brand marketing and thought leadership are not new marketing tools - they are just the new sound bites in the social space. All of these marketing tools have been around for a very long time and - you're right - when used incorrectly, the audience is turned off.

    I disagree with you on two points: "Assuming the company has the smarts for thought leadership in-house" and "you need to look at what you create and ask how that relates to the knowledge problem in your industry." Let me explain. If an organization creates a product AND then goes out to research the knowledge problem in the community, there is little hope of selling the product. Likewise, if your organization creates a product without having in-house thought leaders who know the industry and its issues, you have little chance of having created the correct product - a winning product.

    I do agree with you that your organization doesn't have all of the necessary thought leadership in house. That in-house thought leadership must be complemented with external industry leaders who will validate the communication strategy you have outlined on your blog or community.

  • by Ron Ainsworth Tue Feb 21, 2012 via web

    Provocative article Haydn. Finding a better way and having others follow you down that path are two different things. Inventing the digital camera and letting it sit in their lab didn't make (unnamed company) a thought leader. Maybe they didn't even "lead themselves" as you say, though I'm sure they had excellent management. However somebody that didn't invent the CCD did provide the leadership that reframed the way the world takes and shares pictures.

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