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Thought<br/> Leadership


It's time to rethink thought leadership.

Volume two / Issue one

Editor's note

The smart
way to

Let’s start with a simple question: what do you sell? What is that product or service? You might sell industrial materials, machines or active ingredients. You might sell consultancy or IT. Or to use the language on your boilerplate, you may be a leading global provider of solutions that help customers reduce costs, improve customer experience and drive real business growth, whilst supporting sustainability objectives.

There. That probably covers most of you.

But despite the similar rhetoric on the press release, the truth is that you do everything in your power to differentiate. Yours is the smartest, toughest, smallest, largest, or most environmentally friendly product in your category.

And one of the ways you differentiate is to reassure customers that they are dealing with the best people. Because they don’t just buy products; they buy into people. People who know their business. People with experience, people with facts, with ideas.

When done right, thought leadership provides a platform for your customers to get to know, like and trust your people. Giving them a chance to connect and experience that ‘ah-ha’ moment when they decide YOU are the brand they want to choose, because what you offer is different from the rest. So let’s take a look at what we think is the smartest way to do it…

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more & become more, you are a leader"

John Quincy Adams

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Inform? Inspire? Or both?

Thought leadership can mean two specific things. Either is a valid definition, but it’s important to know which suits you.

Does your style of thought leadership seek to inform – or inspire?

Be the go-to people

Become the industry encyclopaedia. Whatever buyers want to know about your field of expertise, make sure they can get the answer from you. We all know that business-to-business can get pretty esoteric. But there are nonetheless some people for whom that obscure information is essential. By documenting all there is to know about your field, you can claim informational thought leadership.

This kind of thought leadership often involves guides, glossaries, and explanatory content. You might seek to define industry terms, explain principles, and help customers to understand technologies and concepts. It tends towards the factual, but setting out to achieve informational thought leadership is itself a bold, strategic move.

By becoming the place where people go to find information, you make it clear that you are the experts in your field. You have the highest search engine results page (SERP) rankings. There are links to you everywhere. You’re the go-to people – and when buyers start drawing up their list of suppliers, your name goes at the top.

You don’t need to have an answer for everything. But you do need to have an opinion on it.

Be the what-if people

Are you original thinkers? Are you constantly looking for the next big thing? Are you restlessly curious about different ways to help customers? Is your organisation driven by the desire to innovate better products? If you are, you’re well placed to offer inspirational thought leadership. You don’t need to have an answer for everything. But you do need to have an opinion on it. Show that you have your finger on the industry pulse. Demonstrate knowledge of your industry by suggesting new angles of thought and fresh perspectives. Be bold, be interesting, be original. And you will have the core ingredients for becoming a thought leader.

Inspirational thought leadership comes from asking yourself inspirational questions. What if our industry did things a different way? What effect will a certain trend have in five years’ time? What is stopping us from doing this? What is making us do that? If you address the longer-term issues in your thought leadership, it shows not just your expertise but your authority within the industry. Be part of the big discussions, and you’ll be a key part of the buying conversations too.

Or both?
But can you do both?

Of course. In the same way that quality newspapers and websites don’t just list share prices and football scores, but insightful editorial and opinion, you can take either approach. Or indeed, do both. But for thought leadership to be effective, you need more than just information or inspiration…

"The problems we have today, cannot be solved with the same thinking we used when we once created them"

Albert Einstein

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Indulge your customers. Not yourself.

Establishing a position of thought leadership, requires a customer-centric approach. Focus on ‘you’, not ‘we’. The benefit, not the feature. Personalised, not universal.

The key is to address your customers’ biggest concerns and pain points and add a layer of insight to explain what it means for your customers and their customers too. For example:

  • An article on a new piece of technology? Explain how your customers might use it to save money.
  • A series of blog posts on emerging trends in your industry? Tell customers how to see them as opportunities for success.
  • A guide to the four different ways to achieve a certain goal? Help your customers decide which one will bring them a business advantage.

Invest time in understanding what matters most – whether through direct conversations, structured surveys or simply via SEO tools.

What’s in it for them?

The most effective marketing campaigns focus not on the latest functionality or any specific product details. They put the spotlight on the benefits delivered. They create a sense that life will be somehow easier or better for buying a certain product or service. That pressures will be relieved, costs will be reduced and problems will evaporate. You give your customers the knowledge; but your customers give you the direction.

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes"

Marcel Proust

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Making your mark

If you are already well known in your industry, especially in terms of an active social media following, you already have a degree of influence. So positioning yourself (or your organisation) as a thought leader will be easier. But if you are embarking on a new thought leadership initiative, this may have to be built up gradually.

Organic – the long-term option

An ambition to position yourself as a thought leader is not a short-term goal. Building your distribution capability is therefore an essential part of what you do. But it is also a wonderfully virtuous circle if you get it right.

You produce original thought leadership material – as opposed to the thin, repetitive, derivative content that clogs most B2B channels. This shows you to be a source worth following, raising both the quantity and quality of the people sharing in that conversation. In turn, their feedback increases your quality further.

(Note that many thought leaders do not act alone, but involve guest contributors who are prominent in the industry. Both guest and host benefit from the content created).

Paid – influence on demand

We live in the real world where our thought leadership efforts need to show results quickly. We cannot afford a year of obscurity before we start to emerge into the spotlight. The answer is not just to produce thoughtful, original content, but also to allocate marketing budget to the distribution. However, this too needs to be carefully planned.

LinkedIn is the obvious channel for B2B, but don’t forget that original thought might perhaps benefit from original distribution and promotion ideas. Get onto the speaker circuit at both physical and virtual events. Use webinars, podcasts and video content where possible. And don’t forget that your target audience spends time in other online places too. If your content style suits Instagram – and no one else in your industry is doing it – it can be a perfectly valid channel for thought leadership.

Build it and they will come

Fundamentally, the ultimate success of a thought leadership campaign depends more on the quality of your information than it does on the distribution. Setting budget aside for paid media will help you get noticed but don’t cut corners on quality. You don’t want to be shouting in the dark – but that may be preferable to standing in the spotlight and having nothing meaningful to say.

3 key qualities of thought leadership

Effective thought leadership requires 3 elements:


Whether you seek to provide a comprehensive resource covering all relevant industry information, or a bold original viewpoint on the big issues, you start with your core expertise.


Understand what’s going on in your customer’s world and what’s important to them.

This starts by applying your experience in the field – whether that’s two decades or two years – to deliver an unmistakably distinguished perspective.


The result. If you’re not influencing anyone, then you’re not a thought leader. It’s therefore important to build your following and ensure that your content gets out there, whether by paid or organic means.

"I define thought leadership as creating a conversation that informs and shapes people’s thinking"

Nicole France

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A culture of curiosity

If an organisation wants to present itself as a thought leader, it needs to encourage original thinking and creativity from within.

Can an organisation be a thought leader? Or does it have to be an individual?

It is clearly easier for an individual since they have the freedom to express themselves as they see fit. If an organisation wants to present itself as a thought leader, it needs to encourage original thinking and creativity from within.

See it as a culture of curiosity. The companies that repeatedly crop up with bold, erudite, thought-leading content are those that have a desire for innovative thought embedded into their brand. The world’s leading management consultancies are great examples. To promote themselves, they need to illustrate the dynamic qualities of their individuals. They hired these people for their brains, so they trust them to say the right thing and reinforce the company’s reputation when they speak out.   

Any organisation can be a thought leader – but they will find it easier if they:

  • Have a clearly articulated corporate brand that places value on innovation and intellectual curiosity.
  • Recruit people who are open-minded, forward-thinking and progressive. This will facilitate a natural flow of idea sharing, and even debate.
  • Minimise approval processes. This means as few restrictions as possible – and that any guidelines are well-documented and easily understood. After all, you trust in the quality of your people, right?
  • Have coordinated and well-organised content schedules. This provides a vehicle for thought leadership content and helps coordinate the use of marketing budget to promote it widely.
  • Recognise and reward individuals to grow their confidence in sharing original thought, helping thought leadership to thrive.

Want your organisation to be perceived as a thought leader? Start by creating the right environment and letting creative freedom flourish – you may find you’ve had a team of thought leaders in front of you the whole time.

Making thought leadership a reality

So, you’ve decided to invest in a thought leadership campaign. Do you start with a conversation about formats? Shall we do a series of expert videos? Or maybe some whitepapers? Or kick off with a couple of webinars and see how we go?

If that’s how you start, you should stop for a moment and consider this.

The essence of thought leadership lies in the thoughts. You will only achieve an effective campaign if you start by considering where your knowledge lies, and how that maps onto the questions asked by your customers.

However, there will eventually come a point when you need to consider how to present your ideas. It’s great content, so it needs great packaging. You wouldn’t want to serve fine champagne in a paper cup. Let’s consider then, how you can showcase your ideas in the best way possible.

Be different: It doesn’t have to be a series of blog posts or whitepapers. Especially if that’s what your competitors are doing. If you’re looking for a different angle of thinking, choose a different medium. Think interactive. Think visual effects or CGI. Think different.

Be personal: If you have charismatic people behind your thought leadership, put them in the spotlight. Webinars, podcasts and videos are all ways of using personality to underscore the strength of your ideas, while humanising your brand.

Be accessible: The trade-off is in accessibility. Take it too far and you run the risk of making great content hard to consume. Strike a balance between visual appeal and ease of use. Does it work on mobile? Can it be used without sound? Are you making your readers work too hard? Great thought leadership requires great usability.

Practising what we preach?

Take the knowledge, for example. You may be reading the online edition, but we decided to print it too – because no one else is printing. We’d like to think the content stands out, so we wanted the format to be a little different too. You can hold it in your hands, thumb the pages, even smell the ink. To us, that’s what thought leadership smells like.

"Quality is never an accident but always the result of intelligent effort..."

John Ruskin

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4 questions you will want to ask

Thought leadership sounds great. But you may already have thought of a few potential barriers to making it a reality for your B2B brand.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions by businesses with which we work:

1. How can I get my experts to contribute?

There are natural-born extroverts in every organisation; but most contributors will require encouragement. In our experience, there are a few things you can do to motivate them:

  • Invite them to be part of a select group of contributors. A little flattery goes a long way.
  • Feed their curiosity by encouraging them to attend industry events.
  • Publicise their efforts. This is not only motivating but may encourage other contributors to get involved.
  • Create a sense of competition. Either through ‘gamification’ techniques, such as a league table of clicks/downloads/views or more material incentives.
  • Give them the tools to do the job – e.g. by offering media training where appropriate.

One thing not to do: don’t let them see the job of contributing thought leadership as “something that marketing told them to do”.

2. Where will they find the time?

You can ring-fence time. ‘Away days’ are a great way for contributors to come together, discuss ideas and generate material. But their time must still be justified – and your smartest people are often the busiest and most in demand. The secret is to use the right support, such as external writers, video teams and others who can enable internal thought leaders to communicate their views quickly and easily. It is then over to the external support to create the finished product, while your experts get on with their day jobs.

3. How do I get senior-level buy-in?

The higher you get in an organisation, the more important the idea of corporate prestige. Identify the thought leaders that your potential senior sponsors already know – and explain how you can do the same in your industry. If they believe that thought leadership elevates the company’s perception in the market, they will be more likely to support your initiative. And of course, you need to prove it works…

4. How do I prove it works?

There is no single ‘master metric’ for thought leadership. However, combining qualitative and quantitative metrics will be necessary to demonstrate that your initiative is not just being seen, but being valued too.

Brand perception surveys are by far and large the most effective way to gauge the impact of your thought leadership efforts. However, if your marketing budget doesn’t stretch that far, there are other ways. Measure influence or reach by gathering data on web traffic, downloads, views etc. But also monitor how people are engaging with the content – number of shares, comments, likes, etc. – to get a clearer sense of its quality.

Comparing and monitoring such data over a range of timescales will enable you not just to prove the success of your campaign, but to refine and improve it.

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