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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image of Haydn Shaughnessy

Haydn Shaughnessy is a co-founder of Flow Academy and a best-selling co-author of Transformation Sprint, 12 Steps to FLOW, and Flow: A Handbook for Changemakers.

Twitter: Haydn Shaughnessy