Thought leadership is a common marketing topic, but unfortunately thought leadership is not a common outcome of marketing. Part of the problem is that thought leadership marketing has lost all notions of actual thought leadership.
Gartner defines thought leadership marketing as “the giving — for free or at a nominal charge — of information or advice that a client will value so as to create awareness of the outcome that a company’s product or service can deliver, in order to position and differentiate that offering and stimulate demand for it.”
The problem is, knowledge of what a product or service can deliver or its differentiation does not establish real thought leadership.
Here is the definition of thought leader provided by Wikipedia: “Thought leader is business jargon for an entity that is recognized for having innovative ideas.”
Again, from Wikipedia, a distinguishing characteristic of a thought leader is “the recognition from the outside world that the company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates.”
I see the following as the key points:
- Thought leadership is recognized. A company or individual cannot be a thought leader in a vacuum.
- Thought leadership is expansive. Thought leaders understand their own business, clients needs and the larger market context.
- Thought leadership is pushing boundaries. They do not simply follow market opinion, they have original ideas.
In today’s B2B marketing, the way thought leadership marketing is used is an oxymoron. Here are examples of thought leadership marketing I have seen:
- Company 1. Licensed analyst content to promote on its site and via advertising to capture leads.
- Company 2. Captured leads with required registration by promoting case studies to senior IT executives.
- Company 3. Made a bold leadership position claim, supported with solution-focused content.
Each of these programs falls short of establishing these companies as thought leaders.
Company 1 is only reinforcing the analyst’s position as a thought leader. This may be an effective lead generation tactic, but it isn’t thought leadership.
Company 2 is following the Gartner thought leadership marketing model, but they are focused on their own solution and are not sharing a category perspective. In addition, the registration requirement limits distribution, sharing and discussion, making it nearly impossible to build broad recognition for the results they have delivered.
Company 3 is an example of what happens when marketing is charged with positioning a company as a thought leader without support of the broader organization. Advertising develops messages that claim a thought leadership position, but it is not backed up by the company’s activities. Company 3 has undermined their potential by focusing their communication on creating a position they do not defend.
A Better Alternative
Imagine how different these programs would be if each company was focused on being the number one answer to the following question:
Who is the one company you would want to speak to before wagering on what the most important industry innovations will be in the next five and ten years?
I do believe real thought leadership marketing is possible, but very few companies are embracing this view of it. Innovative ideas and perspectives, broadly discussed and distributed, are key to thought leadership. Content, the focus of so much of today’s thought leadership marketing, should simply be one medium for their dissemination.
Your turn. Can marketing establish thought leadership, or is thought leadership marketing an oxymoron? Share your view or your experience with thought leadership marketing in the comments below or with me on Twitter.