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Thought leaders. B2B marketers are obsessed with them. Some business leaders want to be them. Customers want to know them. But who – or what – are they? 

Thought leadership is a powerful medium to build authority and trust, which in turn influences B2B decision-making and helps drive sales. The most prolific thought leaders typically wield a combination of unconventional thinking, strong opinions, authenticity, influence and a drive to challenge the status quo. But despite these commonalities, there are some important distinctions to be made between different types of thought leader. Let’s take a closer look at what defines thought leadership, how to identify the distinctive types of thought leaders and perhaps most importantly, the role they can play in influencing the B2B buyer journey.  


What sets thought leaders apart?

Picture a thought leader. Perhaps it’s someone you follow on social media or religiously listen to their podcast. What is it that makes them stand out? For many, it’s their ability to create and communicate authentic, original ideas that are founded in insight to solve a problem or redefine a new way of doing things. The other defining feature that’s almost guaranteed to attract a loyal following, is the ability to codify expertise into tools, processes and frameworks that inspire others to learn and apply these to achieve their own success.  

If you’re looking to harness the power of thought leadership in your B2B marketing strategy, it’s important to get the distinction right between the different types of thought leader. While the high-profile appeal of thought leaders (or key opinion leaders) cannot be denied, B2B marketers could be missing a trick by not engaging with subject matter experts and influencers. But to do so effectively, it’s important to understand the differences between them.  

Subject matter experts are highly knowledgeable or skilled in a specific area, valued for their in-depth knowledge and understanding of often complex and technical details which can be leveraged to solve specific customer challenges. These subject matter experts are frequently found in R&D departments, innovation and product development roles and they can play a key role in knowledge sharing internally and externally through expert-led content. Compared to thought leaders, subject matter experts often have a limited organic following or audience, which means they are more likely to share their knowledge reactively and internally or directly with customers – championing industry best practice when others seek their insights or invite them to contribute via platforms such as conferences, podcasts, or customer meetings.  

In contrast, many influencers may have little expertise or authority despite their large social media following. Unlike thought leaders, influencers are more likely to be curators of ideas rather than creating them. Influencers are valuable in helping brands generate greater awareness for products or services via content creation, sharing recommendations and audience engagement. Generally speaking, influencers don’t tend to have the in-depth knowledge or expertise that subject matter experts and thought leaders do, but they can be a powerful way to create user-generated content and raise awareness.

Thought leaders are unique because they enjoy the best of both worlds. They use their areas of expertise and influence to organically market themselves through well-established frameworks and channels, including websites, podcasts and online communities. They also help businesses grow their reach, customer trust and sales by sharing their expert opinions or endorsements and lending their authority to the brands they represent. By sharing perspectives that resonate deeply with their audiences, thought leaders inspire others to want to learn more or even emulate their qualities.  


Not all thought leaders are the same – and that’s a good thing!

 To add value for prospects and customers in the competitive and rapidly evolving B2B marketplace, There’s an opportunity to draw on different types of thought leader who have the ability to engage with audiences in distinctively different ways:   

  1. Industry thought leaders provide unique perspectives on the latest trends and market developments that can influence and inform future innovation. With authoritative – yet authentic – content designed to speak to specific audiences, industry thought leaders espouse original insights on various topics. Audiences value them for their incisive and memorable content. 
  1. Organisational thought leaders focus on their brand’s vision, innovation, culture and story. By sharing industry-leading organisational values, standards and practices, they show the world how they’re doing things differently. From spearheading emerging technological tools and driving unique approaches to implementing growth strategies, audiences want insights into how to emulate their successes. 
  1. Product thought leaders capitalise on sharing the most effective solutions to help clients, partners, and customers solve their problems. These might take the form of practical, user-friendly content, such as strategic and how-to guides, FAQs, tutorials and troubleshooting advice. Product thought leaders provide their audiences with useful information to achieve a more seamless and convenient experience with each brand solution. Audiences often benefit from insights and information that will positively impact their productivity, cost-efficiency and importantly sustainability goals. 

It’s worth noting that industry, organisational and product thought leadership are complementary. While it’s not necessary to master all three types to succeed as a thought leader, each enhances a different aspect of the B2B brand experience.  


How do I identify thought leaders in my organisation?

Now we’ve looked at the different types of thought leader, it’s important to understand how to find them. The most effective forms of thought leadership arise organically, fuelled by passion, interest and knowledge on a specific subject. The good news is that you probably already have potential thought leaders within your organisation – they just require some cultivation.  

To identify prospective thought leaders in your midst, you must first determine and prioritise the topic or topics on which you want to build B2B thought leadership. Subsequently, you should consider which of the key subject matter experts working with or at your company embodies these attributes characterising thought leaders: 

  • Aligns with brand values 
  • Takes a firm stand on innovative ideas and concepts 
  • Espouses deep industry knowledge on topic(s) of choice 
  • Has experience sharing with audiences – whether writing, speaking or making public appearances 
  • Possesses a strong or growing loyal following 

Because thought leaders come in so many different forms, shapes and sizes, the key is to empower them to share their opinions in ways that resonate best with their audiences. The combination of individuals who create, curate and champion ideas has the potential to transform your marketing efforts to inform and inspire your B2B audience.  

For a fresh perspective on how to cultivate exceptional B2B thought leadership that makes a genuine impact, check out our latest digital edition of the knowledge. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive future issues on leading B2B marketing insights right to your inbox. 

The Thought Leadership Issue

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