Real Thought Leadership is Rare, but Worth the Effort

Kizzy D. Blount

When was the last time you read or listened to something that truly changed your mind?

That’s what real thought leadership should do — challenge what we believe, or at least make us think differently.

Content marketers use the term ‘thought leadership’ so often today that it could refer to almost anything with a byline. When brand thought leadership is done well, it has the potential to set your company apart and get people thinking about big ideas with the power to transform the way they live and work. It can even convince people to invest in something they hadn’t previously considered. 

What Is Brand Thought Leadership?

A few years ago, brand thought leadership touted the benefits of remote work before it became a necessity during the pandemic. Today, it’s the people you hear talking about the future of the metaverse or finding new use cases for cryptocurrency. 

We think we know thought leadership when we see it, but do we really know how to define it? 

Lisa Gately, a principal analyst at Forrester, describes it this way: 

Thought leadership is an intentional exercise of knowledge, skills and expertise to increase awareness, elevate perception and drive reference. 

At a recent presentation during Content Marketing World, Gately shared the most common reasons brand thought leadership fails to make its mark and how to develop a successful thought leadership strategy. Here are some of the highlights from the presentation and some great thought leadership examples to inspire you. 

Why Thought Leadership Fails

You aren’t sharing a unique perspective

Gately said a lot of what she sees company leaders sharing just isn’t very original. It’s re-sharing ideas or opinions that are already widely accepted. 

“There’s a distinct level of sameness in the content and the themes people produce,” she said. “Without a unique perspective, that content has very limited use for the audience.”  

She can say this with firsthand authority because Forrester conducted its own research on the matter. In the 2021 Content Preferences Survey, 60% of B2B buyers said the content they received from vendors was boring, biased or lacking substance.

HubSpot SVP Kieran Flanagan said this even more bluntly in a recent podcast, noting SaaS and tech companies in particular have mastered education in their content marketing but aren’t great when it comes to inspiration. They’re focusing on providing helpful information to buyers, which is still important — but they’re not thinking like media outlets and telling stories people actually want to hear. It’s one of the reasons why HubSpot bought The Hustle, a media company that already had a successful newsletter and podcast. 

“I think the problem with most SaaS brands is they try to build the media capabilities in-house, in particular the storytelling, and what they end up doing is doing product marketing for their products,” he said. And this isn’t just applicable to SaaS brands. This threat lurks across industries.

It hurts to hear, but it’s true. 

It’s not enough just to say what’s already being said. Think about how many articles you’ve read in the past two years about the importance of giving employees more flexibility around where and when they work. That idea isn’t new or revolutionary anymore; almost three-fourths of US companies said they supported a hybrid work policy today, according to CBRE’s latest survey. The new normal isn’t new anymore.

What’s often missing from the discussion is how to effectively manage a hybrid work environment. Almost half of US company leaders who responded to the survey said they wanted employees to evenly divide their time between home and the office, but it’s less clear how they’re setting those expectations or enforcing them. 

That presents a huge opportunity for companies to share their own perspectives on how they’re approaching hybrid work and overcoming challenges. 

It’s not a priority for your organization

Most company leaders would agree they want to be known as thought leaders, but it takes time and effort to get there. The people with the most expertise and most recognizable presence within your organization are usually the people with the least amount of time to spend writing down their own thoughts and sharing them with the world. The marketing team might really see the value of thought leadership, but they can’t only tell stories from their own point of view. They also need insight from the sales and product teams, who may be less invested in the effort if they see how it will contribute to the growth of the organization and more opportunities for them. 

It’s too self-serving

Are you really interested in changing the way people think about something, or are you just focused on selling a product or service? 

Real thought leadership does lead to sales, but it doesn’t start with selling as the primary goal. If you’re writing about one specific challenge and positioning your product as the clear solution, you might intrigue a few people who have that challenge right now, but it won’t have a broader appeal to people who may not even realize they’re experiencing that problem yet. It won’t give them enough of a reason to continue to follow you and hear what you have to say. 

Thought leadership content is valuable to someone regardless of whether they’re looking to buy anything from you in that moment. It’s really the original, ultimate inbound marketing strategy. 

How To Succeed With Thought Leadership

Understand the market context

Gately said company leaders often publish unoriginal or self-serving content because they start with their own priorities and goals instead of looking at what’s happening in the broader marketplace.

What trends are you seeing, and how are other people thinking about them? What is the discussion that’s already happening, and where can you interject to add context or more insight? If you’re thinking about the broad topic of the hybrid workplace, you’ve probably noticed conversations around managing schedules, updating policies and potentially investing in new solutions that make it easier to collaborate anywhere. Who are some of the leading voices in those areas? Who else may have influence?

As you consider potential topics, think like a journalist. What is timely and relevant for your audience right now that will still likely be important to them a year from now? What will have the most impact on the way they do business? 

Look to your audience for insights

Your customers and prospects can offer a valuable perspective on how they’re thinking about the challenges you’ve identified. To use the hybrid workplace example, you might conduct a survey to find out more about how companies have updated their policies to allow for more flexibility while encouraging employees to continue using their office spaces. 

If you want more in-depth stories, consider doing some interviews. This will give you insights no one else has. Gathering input from your audience should be an ongoing initiative you build into your company’s processes. Planning quarterly surveys, hosting monthly customer focus groups, and setting up Twitter streams to monitor activity on social media are just a few ways you can gather insights more frequently. 

Gain alignment within your organization

Now that you have a better idea of what topics make sense to cover, you need to get broader buy-in. Since this is a long-term strategy, your leadership team needs to understand how it fits into their broader goals. You need to talk about what’s realistic based on your resources and your team’s time and help to set expectations. 

“It sounds really obvious, but you don’t want to take on some things where it’s really hard for you to go out to market, where it doesn’t line up with your mission, your purpose,” Gately said. “If you’re talking with your company’s leaders, you might want to test a few ideas, whether they’re from your marketing, sales, product leaders or others. Could (those themes) stand the test of time?” 

Brand Thought Leadership Examples

Toptal – Reimagining the way work happens

Toptal is a global network of the top 3% of freelance developers, designers, finance experts and product and project managers. They’ve invested heavily in thought leadership content by publishing well-researched pieces that read more like news articles than “how to” guides. 

They know their audience already knows how to hire great people, so they focus on broader themes related to the future of work and the metaverse, what Fortune 500 leaders are doing to attract and retain top talent, and how to treat remote employees fairly in a hybrid workplace. 

One recent article is based on an idea by two futurists who wrote a book called Work Without Jobs. It’s a 9-minute read that includes graphics, quotes from the authors and other experts and examples of this concept in the real world. 

Eptura – The Workplace Innovator Podcast

Eptura is a worktech software solution that helps teams manage office space, people and assets in the new era of hybrid work. The new company is the result of a merger between Condeco and iOffice + SpaceIQ. 

Long before that, the company hired former radio DJ and podcast host Mike Petrusky to start its own podcast featuring interviews with workplace leaders. 

Today, the Workplace Innovator Podcast has released more than 230 episodes about workplace trends, strategies and technologies. It has helped the company develop new relationships with a broad network of global experts, expanding its audience and adding to its already established credibility in the industry. 

“It’s been an honor and a thrill to speak with and learn from so many leaders in our industry,” said Petrusky, Director, Podcasts & Events. “I’m often asked if I ever worry about running out of guests or things to talk about, but my response is always the same — the world of work and the workplace is constantly evolving and I don’t think we will ever have all the answers.”

Getting leaders to embrace grit – Angela Duckworth

The next time you face a monumental challenge and you’re thinking about walking away, you might want to watch Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on grit (or watch it again.) 

Her work as a corporate consultant, a junior high math teacher and a psychologist has given her a unique perspective on why some people succeed regardless of their inherent intelligence or talent. 

She’s studied cadets in military school, rookie teachers working in tough neighborhoods, and salespeople at private companies to identify the strongest predictor of success: grit.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” she said in her talk.  “Grit is having stamina. Sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living your life like it’s a marathon.” 

Duckworth could have been content with having that one viral talk that millions of people have heard by now, but she has continued to find new insights that build upon her core theme over the years. 

During the pandemic, Duckworth published an op-ed in The New York Times about why persuading people to wear masks was more effective than merely requiring it. She has also published a wide range of articles about building effective habits, cultivating grit within organizations and how to raise kids who have grit.   

Making misfit fruits appealing – the ‘ugly’ food movement

The USDA estimates 30-40% of all the food we produce in the United States goes to waste. The ICIC adds this startling perspective — that’s the equivalent of throwing away an entire Rose Bowl Stadium full of food every day while one in six Americans experience hunger or food insecurity. 

Startups like The Ugly Company, Imperfect Foods and Full Harvest have developed their own solutions to this problem: repackaging ‘ugly’ produce from farmers and selling it to consumers. 

With some traditional public relations strategies, they’ve been featured in news articles and on morning shows. They’ve also attracted some criticism from crop scientists and others who say there’s no proof the ‘ugly’ produce they’re reselling from farmers would have actually gone to waste. It could have been used to feed animals, composted back into the soil or used to make juice, for instance. 

Companies like Full Harvest have responded with their own data and certification programs to demonstrate they are actually rescuing food that would have otherwise gone to waste. 

Publishing thought leadership articles and approaching reporters to be quoted for relevant news stories have been an important part of their response. 

Elevating Your Company’s Thought Leadership Is A Team Effort

Once you’ve identified thought leadership opportunities, finding the time to dig into your company’s own data, write in-depth insights and social posts, and look for opportunities to be featured in news articles, podcasts or TV segments can be challenging. If your entire initiative falls on just one person or even a few people, it’s difficult to sustain over the long-term. 

A digital marketing agency like Kuno can help support those efforts or even lead the charge. We’ve helped many companies establish their key stakeholders as thought leaders by writing articles, producing videos and publishing social media posts on their behalf. We’ve helped them conduct their own surveys and create reports analyzing data their organization already has through its own technology or consulting services. 

We dig deep to find opportunities for them to contribute to other websites, news stories or podcasts to provide them greater visibility. 

If you’d like to talk more about how we can help, schedule a consultation with us today. 

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