Why Becoming a Thought Leader Shouldn’t Be Your Goal (And How to Become a Thought Leader Anyway)

Why Becoming a Thought Leader Shouldn’t Be Your Goal (And How to Become a Thought Leader Anyway)

Everyone seems to want “thought leadership.”

Thought leadership has become a marketing buzzword. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or isn’t valuable — but it isn’t for everyone, and not everyone needs thought leadership in the first place.

What’s more, the marketing strategies that many prospective thought leaders choose aren’t actually all that effective at helping you become a thought leader.

If it were easy to become a thought leader, everyone would be one. Which, in turn, means that nobody would be one. To quote the surprisingly insightful Syndrome from The Incredibles: “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

What am I saying? That thought leadership isn’t easy — by definition. In this post, I’ll argue that:

  • “Thought leadership” as a term needs to be more specific to become useful
  • Thought leadership marketing is different from other marketing (especially when it comes to measurement)
  • Most attempts at thought leadership fall short…for reasons you can predict and fix
  • There are three types of legitimately impressive and valuable thought leadership
  • You might not need or want thought leadership at all

What is thought leadership?

The first time I heard the term “thought leadership,” I knew nothing about marketing. My head snapped up in the conference room, suddenly alert—I didn’t know exactly what this whole thought leadership thing was about, but I knew that it seemed important.
People threw the phrase “thought leadership” around the room like a basketball. As I tried to make sense of the conversation, I got increasingly confused.
No one was actually saying anything specific. Other phrases, like “content marketing” and “brand awareness” popped out too. There was some notion that a strategy would be put in place. Beyond that…it was anyone’s guess what we were actually talking about.
I could guess at the meaning of the words “thought” and “leadership,” of course. But he discussion seemed somehow loftier than that.
I didn’t want to show people how green I was, so I Googled it.
thought leadership definition
That’s it?
“One whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential.” In the meeting, no one seemed willing to say what we were actually talking about. This struck me as a pretty simple definition.
Simple doesn’t mean easy, of course. Plenty of “simple” topics are actually hard to implement.
At the same time, it struck me—none of the various tactics or content we had just discussed was going to achieve true thought leadership.
Despite the talk of brand awareness and content marketing, nothing we had talked about would establish us as an organization whose opinions on a subject were considered to be authoritative and influential.
There’s a distinction between the buzzword “thought leadership content” and actually being a leader that people follow and listen to.
If you want to become a thought leader (and not everyone has to, can, or should), there are a few things that are helpful to consider.

  • Thought leadership (and measuring thought leadership) is different from other marketing
  • Most people trying to become a thought leader never succeed
  • There are three types of thought leadership—and the path to achieving each is different
  • You might not want or need to become a thought leader in the first place

Let’s tackle these one at a time.

Why thought leadership is different from other marketing (or, how to measure thought leadership)

With increasing spend on digital marketing and increased ability to measure the results of marketing, more and more marketers are focusing on data-driven marketing.
A trends report from eMarketers shows that executives are increasingly relying on data to make decisions, and that many intent to scale up their investment in data-driven marketing.
Enter thought leadership. A marketing goal that’s notoriously difficult to measure.
Over the long haul, the value of being a respected expert in your space is unquestionable. General brand awareness and respect can go a long way towards new customer acquisition and retention—and open doors for new marketing channels, like speaking engagements and interviews.
The challenge is that these things are difficult to measure—especially when you’re just starting out.
Yes, market research groups can conduct brand awareness studies to gauge the status of your brand. Digital marketers sometimes use an increase in branded search traffic (that is, searches for your company’s name) as an indicator of increased brand awareness.
Although those techniques are useful, they are a far cry from “a prospect landed on our website, downloaded our ebook, went through an email nurture sequence, and became a customer.” Brand awareness studies also present an additional cost.
All of that together can make “thought leadership” a tough sell to an increasingly data-driven population of marketers. Sure, everyone wants thought leadership in the abstract—but it’s a different story once you want to put some resources behind your efforts.
If you’re just getting started in your efforts to become a thought leader, there will always be something of a leap of faith.
But there are indicators—not perfect metrics, but data-driven hints and clues—that can signify you’re moving in the right direction.

Don’t start with views, reach, or impressions

Metrics like views, reach, and impressions—common in the digital world—are poor measures of thought leadership. Switching to engagement-based metrics will give you more useful information.
Engagement Metrics

Engagement > Pageviews (for early thought leadership)

Does that feel counterintuitive? It is to a lot of people.
Down the line, thought leadership will lead to higher views, reach, and impressions. But when your organization is working on becoming a thought leader, there are too many confounding variables.
Did this post do well because people really loved it and thought it was insightful? Or did it get more pageviews because you promoted it better, or it was better search-optimized, or one influencer decided to tweet it?
If you rely on views to dictate your marketing strategy, it can be hard to figure that out.

When you start measuring thought leadership, use engagement

Engagement metrics are a better option for the blossoming thought leader.
A key component of thought leadership is leadership. We’ll talk more about this soon, but the short version is that to be seen as someone who is authoritative and influential, you need to be insightful and groundbreaking.
Let me put it another way before we get bogged down in too many buzzwords. When someone reads content from a thought leader, they should think something similar to the following:

  • “I never thought about it that way.”
  • That’s cool. I can’t wait to try that.”
  • “Huh.” *insert contemplative pause*

The hardest part about thought leadership is saying something interesting. If you can get to the point where you have a compelling message—that’s when you start to scale up and reach more people.
All of your promotion and marketing will be more effective because the message itself is good.
It’s hard to figure out if your message is interesting early on. That’s where engagement metrics come in.
The specific engagement metrics you choose depend heavily on the type of company and marketing you’re doing.
If you publish a lot of content, you might look at metrics like time on page or pages per session. These metrics become slightly less reliable as you grow, but they can be a strong early indicator that your content is interesting and useful.
If you do a lot of advertising or PR, brand awareness studies are helpful. Specifically, you probably want to know what words, phrases, and adjectives people associate with your brand.
In general, you should think about your Unsolicited Response Rate. I first learned about this relatively informal metric from Jay Acunzo. The short version? How many people reached out to say they like your stuff—without you asking?
Unsolicited Response Rate Jay Acunzo

Source: Sorry for Marketing

It becomes less useful as you scale. But early on, URR is a powerful indicator that people are interested in what you have to say.

Why don’t more people become thought leaders? These common mistakes

Everyone wants thought leadership, but not everyone can be a thought leader.
Before we talk about the types of thought leadership, or why you might not want to become a thought leader at all—let’s cover some of the most common mistakes people make when they put effort into becoming a thought leader.

To be a thought leader, you need to lead

A leader without followers isn’t a leader. A huge thought leadership mistake? Putting lots of emphasis on the thought, without much on the leadership.
I see this all the time—people focus on having thought leadership content…without actually considering what goes in the content!
Thought leadership content can’t just be “pretty good.” When you create something engineered for thought leadership, it needs to say something.
Something you do or say needs to be new. You can build on existing ideas. You can disagree with existing ideas. You can provide a demonstration of existing ideas. But there needs to be something interesting about what you’re saying.
I love a recent example, published in The Harvard Business Review. Former Netflix chief talent officer Patty McCord contributed a provocative piece titled “How to Hire,” in which she makes the argument that companies should “stop hiring for culture fit.”
McCord challenges conventional hiring wisdom, and makes a compelling argument while doing it. Because Netflix is and was known as a talent hub, her argument has a lot of credibility. It’s thought leadership in action.

“Thought leadership” is too vague

As a goal, “thought leadership” is too vague.
If you want to become a thought leader, you need to choose what you want to be a thought leader of.
For some organizations, this is easy. If you serve one specific product or service to one specific audience, there isn’t much reason for you to become a thought leader of anything else.
But for any company that serves multiple audiences or solves multiple problems, choosing a thought leadership topic can be difficult. You can’t pick everything.
Often, a company doesn’t want to limit itself to a single area of thought leadership. Which is understandable! You can be good at more than one thing.
But you can’t be a thought leader of everything. Thought leadership is about how people in your market and industry perceive you. They need to be able to think of you as “the people who are good at ____.”
Fill in the blank.
If you try to pick everything, you make it harder for people to remember your message. Consistency of message is crucial.
The example of this lesson is one of my favorites. Bret Contreras is a highly regarded strength and conditioning coach, and holds a PhD in Sports Science. He trains athletes, bodybuilders, and figure competitors.
But most people know him by a simple moniker.
The Glute Guy.
76ivsv75 bret contreras thought leadership

Source: Bret Contreras

Bret Contreras is known because he is the world’s foremost expert on your butt muscles. Thanks in part to his research on the role of the glutes in movement, jumping, and running, top strength and conditioning coaches have changed the way they train the lower body.
If you were looking to improve your glutes (for athletic or aesthetic reasons), would you turn to any old personal trainer? Or would you choose “the Glute Guy?”
When you choose a focus for your thought leadership, you make it easier for people to remember you.

Thought leadership and lead generation—complementary or opposites?

When I was on the agency side of marketing, we used to do client kickoff calls to get a sense of our clients’ goals for each project. More than 50% of the time, we got the answer “thought leadership and lead generation.”
It’s really hard to do both.
Thought leadership and lead generation are two very different approaches to marketing. Lead generation is generally closely tracked and measured. It’s not perfect, but it’s relatively easier to measure success and failure.
Thought leadership, on the other hand, is much harder to measure.
The tactics you use are very different. Although the long-term goal is to be seen as an expert (and therefore attract business), it’s hard to see short-term lift. In the long-term, it’s hard to say that thought leadership marketing caused a particular lift (even if you’re pretty sure that’s what’s happening).
I’m not saying that lead generation can never help thought leadership. And some thought leadership content can drive leads. But (unless you have a ton of resources) you’re usually doing yourself a disservice if you try to do both at the same time.
The fix? Get more specific in your goals. “Thought leadership” and “lead generation” are too general. Which you choose, and how you drill down, depends on the state, strengths, and weaknesses of your business.
If you’re reliably bringing in business, maybe a thought leadership emphasis makes sense (with a long-term focus).
If you’re trying to aggressively scale, maybe you want more lead generation anyway. A SWOT analysis could be a good idea as you build your lead generation or thought leadership strategy.

3 Types of thought leadership

One helpful way to think of thought leadership is “when I say something, people listen.”
Which begs the question: why do they listen?
People listen to thought leaders because those thought leaders are authorities in their space. But there are a few different ways to be authorities in your space—it doesn’t all have to start with marketing.
I like the distinction drawn out by Jason Miller, Head of Content and Social Media Marketing at LinkedIn.

  • “Industry thought leadership, including perspective on news and trends
  • Organizational thought leadership, embodied in the vision and ethos of your company
  • Product thought leadership, focused on being the best solution for your customers”

Put another way, people think of you as a thought leader when you:

  • Lead by saying: Provide deep, insightful commentary on industry trends and best practices
  • Lead by doing: Create a clearly defined company culture or especially well-run organization
  • Lead by creating: Have a product or service that is genuinely the best in its class

Marketing tactics—be they blog posts, podcast interviews, speaking engagements, or anything else—can help you build thought leadership.
But your tactics and messaging need to be aligned with the type of thought leadership you pursue—and not every company is in a good position to pursue every kind of thought leadership.

Conclusion: Is becoming a thought leader worth it?

After all this—the measurement, the mistakes, the types of thought leadership—is becoming a thought leader worth it?
Becoming a thought leader isn’t something you should take lightly. It takes a significant investment of time and energy—and though the rewards can be large, they are also hard to measure precisely.
The good news is that most businesses don’t need to be a thought leader on any kind of grand scale. There are three ways you can “hack” thought leadership to some of its benefits without a massive investment.

  1. Become a thought leader in a narrow industry segment: Smaller markets have fewer customers, but there’s also less competition for thought leadership. Like “The Glute Guy,” dominating a niche can make you a go-to authority on your specific topic.
  2. Become a thought leader for an underserved market: This is the “blue ocean strategy.” Is there a market that isn’t getting what it needs from existing thought leaders? They’re hard to find, but if you can find one…the results are significant.
  3. Become a thought leader to your customers: The smallest scale yet. You won’t get as many interview requests, but becoming a thought leader for your customers and audience builds trust—and can still have a profound effect on your business.

Whether you should focus on becoming a thought leader or not isn’t for me to say.
But if you do choose to pursue thought leadership—choose a specific area to lead in, lead by saying something new in that area, measure engagement before reach.

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