Thought leadership – hideous jargon or a key to growth?

Done well, thought leadership is a very powerful tool for improving your positioning, raising awareness in your industry and target market, acquiring new business, increasing both revenue and profit and recruiting great talent.

Having said that, it is still an irritating and dramatic expression that should perhaps be permanently excised from the English language. More on that later.

I began the post with this title: Your handy 12 step guide to thought leadership. Which I thought would interest some readers – and I loved the fact it sounded like I’d written a self-help book – but in the end decided it was too cheesy and salesy a title to suit my usual style. So I switched it to the one it got.

This also better reflected a recent discussion with a lovely client – who runs a firm of chartered surveyors – about whether thought leadership was a tangible and useful goal for a business development strategy, or whether it was just another spineless marketing phrase aimed at baffling those not in the industry.

What (actually) is thought leadership?

When I first heard the phrase bandied about years ago, it was by PR people who couldn’t clearly define or explain it themselves, let alone find a way to demonstrate it. So I struggled making sense of it myself and finally came up with my own simplistic definition – now very useful in helping me talk about it in plain English with my clients.

The 12 sentences I think define thought leadership

  1. It’s when a person or business talks about what they know best
  2. They know more about this topic than most/many other people and businesses
  3. They talk about it so much that people start to hear about them
  4. And they write about it, make films about it, draw pictures about it, sing about it…
  5. This gets them more attention, which is their aim
  6. So they SHOUT about it. More and more. Louder and louder
  7. Then they get quite famous for it (within their business or social circles)
  8. Then they get asked to talk, write and present about it
  9. So they learn more about it, to get better at talking about i
  10. Next they get PAID to talk, write and present about it
  11. And of course, make keynote speeches all about it
  12. Then they make a business out of it.

When you look at it broken down into those 12 points, you can see they could quite straightforwardly be used make up a bit of a full content marketing plan for your business.

Thought leadership: action plan for your business

I’ll break the points down into a little more detail so you can see what I mean.

1, 2 and 3. Talk about what you know most about. This one is simple and it links to how well your business is positioned. The better your niche, your focus, your positioning: the easier it is to work out what you know most about. It becomes easy to talk about it, because you should know a lot of stuff about a very particular topic. More than anyone else, in fact. That’s why you’re the one that people contact when they need that service.

So, if you supply Amazonian frogs trained in classical ballet to the film industry – then you are where the film industry goes when they need those frogs. And what do you talk about?

  • How to train frogs.
  • Why Amazonian frogs are better trained than the native African species.
  • Why it is that frogs can be trained for classical but not contemporary ballet.
  • How frogs in film need better representation by agents.

You get my drift.

4,5 and 6. Giving more. This is about giving more in order to get more (in a good, pay-it-forward way when you are in it for the long game).

  • Give more content.
  • More quality.
  • More useful information for potential customers.
  • More tips and resources.
  • Give your time, your effort, your knowledge.
  • Find interested people and give them more of what you have.

7,8,9,10 and 11. Getting more. This is where all your giving and hard-work is rewarded with the attention you wanted. Enough of the right content means Google will start to love you. Your social media circles will hear about you. Your prospects, competitors, suppliers, clients and the media will know about you. The word is out and people will be sharing it. And next, they all start to want a piece of you. They will  engage (magic word) with your content and they will move through knowing, liking and trusting you. They’ll be:

  • happily signing up to subscribe to your resources
  • avidly downloading your free e-books
  • excitedly buying tickets to hear your keynote speeches
  • wishfully applying to work with you…

12. Making a business of thought leadership. Not everyone wants to get to this stage. Just getting past 6 is enough for many – and that’s fine. Once you begin to get famous (in your circles) for what you know most about, you can leverage that in many ways. Awareness is up, sales are up, pricing is strong, profit is up, recruitment is up and growth follows. So – you can get to number 12 just by getting past number 6 – because you’ve made your business out of thought leadership.

On that note, my conclusion has to be that:

Thought leadership is a good thing.

I’ll finish on a more playful note. At the beginning of the post I think I might have mentioned my dislike for the actual phrase ‘thought leadership’. So I spent a little time thinking about what I would call it if I was… er… in charge?!

Suggestions for phrases or words to replace ‘thought leader’

  • A business talking clearly about what it does best (accurate but pedantic)
  • An expert (would be fine except many will know the infamous definition of an expert …. an ex is a has-been and a spurt is a drip under pressure)
  • A company sharing how it keeps on top of things (too long and broad)
  • Anyone doing anything new (definitely too vague)
  • Someone doing something new that seems fairly effective (better, but still vague)
  • A think-boss? (just plain weird)

If nothing else, that exercise also makes you feel that thought leader perhaps isn’t such a bad old phrase after all.

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