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Thought Leadership: What does it really mean, and how do you achieve it?

You’ve heard the phrase repeatedly, yet its meaning is allusive. What does it really mean to be a “thought leader” in today’s fast-paced, constantly evolving business environment? Who’s thoughts are you leading anyway — and where are you going with them?

A new definition for Thought Leadership

Back in 1994, Joel Kurtzman, founding editor of Strategy+Business, said that thought leaders “have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.” Later, Kelsey Raymond, co-founder and CEO at Influence & Co., said a thought leader is an “industry expert who shares his or her expertise with a broader audience for the purpose of educating, improving, and adding value to the industry as a whole.”


Those definitions, long used by the tech companies across the board, no longer fully encapsulate the concept of thought leadership. The idea of the “influencer,” which evolved from the social media craze of recent years, has altered the path to thought leadership in significant ways. It isn’t enough for a domain expert to assert new and unique ideas as it will only be contradicted by industry influencers who think differently. And if those influencers have large and loyal audiences, convincing the industry to listen to you instead will be an uphill battle without supporting data or customer case studies. As such, today’s thought leaders must not only guide and inspire; they must influence people to agree with their perspectives.


What’s more, what characterizes a thought leader has changed. The “wow” factor of a leader’s ideas or insights has less impact. According to a recent survey conducted by Mantis Research, the top three qualities marketers think thought leaders show possess include “easy to understand”, “challenge the way I think” and “publish data to validate their position.” People are increasingly skeptical and have access to a wide array of information, so they’re not easily persuaded. They’re open to hear your unique perspective or opinion, but they won’t necessarily jump on your bandwagon.


Be real. Be credible. Be accessible.

In the recent past, the path to thought leadership involved being featured in Forbes or other leading publications and speaking at industry events about your new ideas. Today, it’s not as straightforward. To be heard above the noise and influence people to agree with your insights and guidance takes careful planning, consistency and a touch of humility. (Some of yesterday’s more prominent thought leaders may have been challenged with the last part of that equation!)


Here are four ways to start building thought leadership in today’s business environment:

  1. Know your audience. This piece of advice has become a marketing meme, but it’s critical if your goal is to “lead the thoughts” of people in your industry and potential customers and partners. A thought leader has all the answers to the most pressing questions of the audience he or she is leading, and if you don’t truly understand their pain points, needs and desires, you won’t be armed with the right information. Tune in, do your research and be willing to learn.

  2. Humanise. Thought leaders of the past seemed superhuman, and that was part of their allure. Today, winning the hearts and business of your target customers requires convincing them that you are trustworthy and authentic. According to Social Media Today, 86% percent of people say authenticity matters when deciding what brands they like and support. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for authenticity has intensified as people work remotely and their personal and work lives become increasingly intertwined. Today’s influencers have established authenticity through creating communities on social media, where two-way conversations take place. They become “friends” with their audience members and create strong emotional connections that lead to trust. Thought leaders must follow suit. If you want people to trust and believe in you, you must be willing to be transparent, vulnerable and, ultimately, human.

  3. Substantiate your claims. Just as marketing has become a data-driven discipline, today’s futurists must try to harness data to validate new ideas. Your audience has many options for thought leaders, and is likely following many of them in your industry. If you make a controversial claim or base your opinions on faulty research, one Google search can discredit you to thousands, especially if someone shares that on social media channels. As you formulate your groundbreaking perspectives and insights, make sure you can back them up with data.

  4. Have a diverse content strategy in place. Recent research shows that only half of marketing organizations have a thought leadership content strategy in place. But a content strategy is essential for getting the word out about your unique ideas and insights. And today there are more ways than ever to deliver your content. While contributed articles and whitepapers are still important, you can’t be relevant without incorporating new forms of content delivery. Videos, podcasts, interactive microsites and digital hubs, virtual events and webinars, training materials and tutorials, digital reports and more can all be excellent ways to establish thought leadership — and a healthy mix of all of them makes your content more accessible to a wider audience. Be prepared to provide all of your content for free — at least initially — to continue building on your authenticity and the trust you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Establishing thought leadership is still an important component of a comprehensive PR strategy, but the tactics have changed. Waters Agency can help you pave a clear path to success. Contact us today for a consultation.

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