How to ensure thought leadership is more than the blind leading the bored

What's on your mind?

The terms ‘thought leadership’ and ‘thought leader are bandied around a lot in public relations and marketing but what do they actually mean?

In my view, the price of the entry ticket to being a thought leader is getting lower every day and any clown with a mobile device and a list of five things on their mind can call themselves one. Less and less it’s about true thought leadership and more and more it’s about algorithm-led topic generation and search engine optimisation – the blind leading the bored.

So here’s my guide to classical thought leadership. What brought this on was a fascinating client conversation I had last Thursday with a 30-year expert in road-paving – I’ll call him Dr Asphalt.

When talking with the good Dr – I still owe him the notes – it really brought the roads alive for me.

This summer, when the family wagon is slogging up that saddle road between Napier and Gisborne I’ll know not to say “gee you guys, look at the tar – it’s melting”.

In fact, I’ll say, to the undoubted fascination of the whole family, “New Zealand hasn’t used tar on the road since the 1950s – it was far too unhealthy and it’s all bitumen these days!”

Pausing only to swerve around a dead possum, I’ll continue, “It also has RAP in it!”

On hearing the word RAP, my 14-year-old son will look up briefly from his mobile phone – and I’ll slay him with the rapier-like wit for which my long car journeys are known – ‘Recycled Asphalt Product’.

At the outset of my conversation with Dr Asphalt, I did not know one end of an emulsion mixer from another – I simply began with the question “what’s on your mind?” It’s my intention that once my work is done you’ll be able to read the answers for yourself in a newspaper this summer, or tell your friends you heard “this really interesting asphalt dude” on the radio. No, really, it will happen.

What is thought leadership?

It’s presenting a compelling point of view and/or strong evidence of expert knowledge that attracts customers and clients towards you, debate with you, or to engender positive change in the sector.

How does it work?

First you need to decide the areas where you are or want to be the ‘expert’ and have the credibility to lead your sector in new directions. Then you assemble a strong case. This can be done by writing a white paper or commissioning expert research. This is often launched by hosting clients and customers and media at a launch event, or by speaking at a major conference.

Typically, we will find one person to be the face of the new insight and be the media and industry spokesperson on it. You can get even more value from the findings by posting them out to customers and clients, hosting them on your website and spreading the word through social media.

Six tips for success:

  1. Know your stuff – expert knowledge is essential to credibility, otherwise it is just fluff and will actually be counter-productive – you can and will be caught out if you are bluffing. Bullshit artists need not apply.
  2. Think outside the box. A common mistake is to repeatedly deliver the same, safe messaging. To get noticed, you need to tell customers and prospects something they don’t already know.
  3. Make it useful. Content must propose actionable, commercially relevant and compelling new points of view. It must make a meaningful difference to your targeted audience so that it changes the way they think, feel or behave about an issue.
  4. Use third party experts for extra evidence and credibility. The use of academics, global experts, market researchers, industry benchmarking organisations or economists can add depth and credibility to what you have to say.
  5. Target your message. Target your content to reach the relevant audience, not necessarily a large audience.
  6. Keep up the momentum. Being recognised as a leader in particular areas takes time. If you’re just a one-shot wonder, you won’t own the mantel in the subject matters important to you.

Bonus observation:

Thought leadership actually takes a bit of guts. You have to put in a lot of hard yards up front to acquire and hire the expert knowledge, package it up and push it out. Sometimes it can fizzle, and sometimes it can fly. I think back to some of the early morning times in the green room at CNBC and BBC in Singapore when my clients were preparing to talk on travel trends in Asia. Never have topics such as the rise of sports tourism, eco-travel and the silver-haired nomad meant so much to so many business people eating such large breakfasts in their hotel rooms.

So here’s the bonus observation – to make an omelette you’ve got to break a few legs.

Surprise people, come at it differently and really let people know, what’s on your mind?