Sandra Stewart | August 5, 2020
“What is thought leadership?” a prospective client asked the other day. Good question! There’s often of a whiff of pretension emanating from work tagged with this mockable term. We seem to be stuck with it, however, so let’s give it substance.
Thinkshift defines thought leadership simply as original expert thinking on problems and possibilities. It can be practical or visionary, but it always aims to advance your field (not just your enterprise) by challenging tired dogma, inspiring action, sparking new ideas or spurring others forward.
Writing or speaking that hits this mark can be a powerful brand builder. In the 2020 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study—based on a survey of 3,275 executives across a range of industries, company sizes and countries—89% of decision makers said quality thought leadership enhances their perception of a brand, and 49% said it influences their purchasing decisions, resulting in RFP invitations, sales, pricing premiums and cross-selling.
There’s a catch, though: only 15% of those surveyed rated the quality of most thought leadership pieces they read as very good or excellent, and 38% said they sometimes lose respect for a company after reading its thought leadership, leading them to remove a potential vendor or partner from consideration. Ouch. Those wince-inducing stats reflect a surfeit of “thought leadership” that makes a transparent sales pitch, offers superficial insights or parrots what everyone else is saying—sometimes all three.
We’ve identified four characteristics of thought leadership that impresses:
1. A fresh perspective
Building on the thinking of others is a contribution; simply repeating it brands you as a follower, not a leader.
Example: Fish 2.0 founder Monica Jain made a splash with an article envisioning a sustainable seafood future, which countered a prevailing narrative of doom (and spawned her follow-on industry update as well as several pieces exploring key trends).
2. A clear point of view
Articles and talks that lack the spine of a strong opinion merge unmemorably into the vast content blob—when you speak unobjectionably to everyone, you register with no one. The more provocative the view, the better.
The best work also has an emotional core. When we develop thought leadership we always ask clients what in their world gets them fired up, inspired or outraged. That’s the natural path to power and clarity, and it supplies a persuasive intensity that shines through no matter what the topic.
3. Utility to others
People whose starting point for thought leadership is “How can we turn our sales pitch into an article?” are doing it wrong. The right stuff begins with an informed view on where the sector is headed, an analysis of market opportunities, research findings, insights on effective strategies or a values-based call to action.
Example: Nia Impact Capital CEO Kristin Hull analyzed structural barriers facing women in finance for Think Advisor, and provided ways to address them.
True thought leaders share their knowledge unstintingly. They also ask questions, respond to feedback and exchange ideas.
Example: In a commentary for Nonprofit Quarterly, Multiplier Executive Director Laura Deaton described how new approaches to supporting fledgling nonprofits could accelerate solutions to global problems.
When embarking on a thought leadership strategy, keep in mind that it takes time to bear fruit. The Edelman-LinkedIn study found that the most successful practitioners had been at it the longest—not surprising, but worth noting in the era of instant gratification. We’ve found that it takes a year or more to start getting traction.
Much as we love it as a strategy, thought leadership isn’t for everyone. If you have the thinkers, resources and commitment, it’s a tangible boost to brand value. If you don’t, it’s like pushing a boulder uphill—one that may roll back over you.