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

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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.

Thought leadership has to do exactly that: lead. It has to set the stage for others to follow. Thought leadership does not have to come in the form of an essay, interview, or whitepaper. Apple, for example, is a thought leader in interface usability and in business adjacency strategy. The company's leadership is visible in its very products and in the ease with which it moves into new markets.

That underscores a core attribute of thought leadership: It has to feed into product strategy. In fact, thought leadership and products are iterative.

Telecom giant Ericsson's approach to thought leadership is similar to Verizon's: Make your executives or senior researchers look smart. Ericsson, however, is also pursuing a singular vision.

The company talks about what it calls "The Networked Society":

"Think of this as a framework to help shape the journey. We're sharing the ideas, initiatives, and experiences of a 135-year-old communications company. But we need you to lend your voice—because by working together, we can make the most of opportunities that lie ahead.

When one person connects their life changes. With everything connected our world changes."

I'm interested to see whether that will work. Though the connected world provides huge potential, the idea of a "networked society" seems old hat already.

Expressing too much scepticism as this effort begins its roll out would be unfair—but it feels like a campaign, a rebrand.

Finally, Nokia: prior to its partnership with Microsoft, it ran a thought leader site, Nokia Ideas, that used doyens of Silicon Valley to associate the brand with thought-leading ideas. The Economist does something similar now, which is fine for a content champion like The Economist to do. Nokia was right to step outside its own walls, but wrong to project the notion that it had bought into an association with thought leaders.

Avoid These Major Mistakes

Thought leadership has to lead in some tangible way, and it has to relate closely to what your company sells. And in such an ever-changing world, thought leadership has to address what you are changing or how you are leading a critical element of change. Without those qualities, ask yourself what your strategy actually leads.

The following are major thought leadership mistakes that companies make.

  • Assuming the company has the smarts for thought leadership in-house
  • Relying too heavily on branded thought leaders
  • Basing thought leadership on campaigns
  • Relying on advertising analogies and brand advertising techniques
  • Expecting that an audience will come to the company
  • Mistaking slogans for concepts

Six Steps to Getting It Right

1. Identify what you don't know

The most important question to answer in a thought leadership strategy is not What do we know? Quite the opposite. You have to ask, What don't we know? What don't we (and the people in our industry) know that we should? What don't our customers know? What knowledge problem can we solve?

The only way to solve a knowledge problem is to do research. Crafting thought-leading research to solve your industry's knowledge problem is good marketing and good product development—all in one.

2. Determine where ideas fit

A parallel step is to ask Where do ideas fit within our corporate culture? The most important part of your thought leadership should be distilled into your products. To achieve thought leadership, you need to look at what you create and ask how that relates to the knowledge problem in your industry. Almost certainly, you will have some kind of innovation platform or finely tuned design program if you are a thought leader. If you don't, ask yourself, Where are the ideas coming from?

3. Reframe knowledge

Sometimes, the breakthrough can be the development of a new concept. New concepts often arise when two disciplines come together in what some experts call "synthetic" thought—synthesis. Many companies operate with a single-coherence framework—one that explains the world outside the walls in terms of the company's mission.

Introducing incoherence via interdisciplinary thinking gives you an opportunity to reframe. If you want to lead, you need to reframe—as Ericsson is doing. Amazon, a leader, constantly reframes its products and identity (e.g., from selling books to selling everything, from retail to the Cloud, from the Cloud to devices, from devices to publisher).

4. Show product leadership

A thought leadership program won't disguise product shortcomings. Somewhere in your labs or product programs is the knowledge that you need to socialize with the world in a new way. But you almost certainly need to do two things. First, find out more about the potential evolution of your many markets (back to step No. 1). Second, use that information to reframe your product road maps. If what you find out doesn't surprise you sufficiently enough to force a strategic rethink, you haven't even led yourself.

5. Create a road map

The thought leader strategy should create a road map for your sector, industry, or customers. You have to lead people somewhere. You are selling leadership. You don't need to reveal the road map... but if you don't have one, you have no agility in a competitive environment.

6. Spread the message

You can be ultra-smart and do all the right things... only to spoil it by trying to sell your ideas at big conference platforms and via press advertising. The Web audience listens to that megaphone approach only so much. The audience is not immune to that approach, but the idea is to engage people; and, as we now know, people congregate everywhere but at your site.

You can develop a great content strategy to bring more people to you, but you need to know how to socialize your message via the interlocking networks that make up your sector's information ecosystem. That is the best reason for using tools that map that information activity. Tools such as eCairn tell you the shape of the ecosystem you want to influence. But remember, you don't just want to influence, you want to lead.


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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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