Thought Leadership in B2B Marketing [#B2Bchat Recap]

Why should companies invest in thought leadership? And just what does thought leadership mean anyways?

These and other questions were debated during a Twitter #B2Bchat on Thought Leadership in B2B Marketing on October 13, and I had the privilege of moderating the discussion.

Here are the key takeaways I took from the discussion.

Thought Leadership Starts with Individuals

Individuals drive thought leadership, and many in the discussion posit companies cannot truly be thought leaders, only their people.

Notably, when people shared their own marketing thought leaders at the end of the discussion, there were no companies mentioned. It is easy to look to other spaces and see companies as thought leaders, but it was notable that when the group looked within the space they know best, where they are most likely to recognize true differentiated thought leadership, all the thought leaders identified were individuals.

Thought Leadership is Earned and Bestowed

Individuals (or companies) cannot simply claim thought leadership. They must earn it and it must be recognized by the audience.

Although this statement is (hopefully) obvious, actually earning thought leadership isn’t trivial. You must carefully consider who in your organization has the experience, insight and communication skills to broadly earn recognition as a thought leader and invest the time required to earn that recognition.

Thought Leadership is Not About You

Self-serving perspectives are not thought leadership. Taking this position a step further, Jeff Wilson (@jeffthesensei) said “Thought leaders are often heretics. Prime example is Galileo.”

Heretics have positions that are beyond the leading edge and the wisdom of their position or view is only seen over time. For individuals or companies, being labeled a heretic is about as far from self-serving as you can be.

Below are highlights from the discussion, also available here on Storify.


Join the Discussion

Can companies by thoughts leaders? What are the barriers to establishing thought leadership today? Share your view in the comments below or with me on Twitter (@wittlake).

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  • http://www.kilkku.com/blog/ Ville Kilkku

    It seems to me that, taken at face value, your argument about individuals as thought leaders might do too much to convince companies that though leadership is not a worthwhile venture. After all, if companies are not seen as thought leaders, what are the implications for them should their thought-leading individuals decide to leave the company?

    (As a sidenote, this issue is discussed admirably by Chris Koch in this post: http://www.christopherakoch.com/2011/01/2011-the-year-of-personal-brands/ )

    I think you might be reading too much into people mentioning individuals and not companies as examples of thought leaders.

    An example from the world of social media analysis. I could mention, for example, Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li as thought leaders. I would not say Forrester or Altimeter, but their work has nonetheless raised the image of both of these companies. In some ways, Forrester is even a good example of a company that has lost numerous thought leaders but manages to stay relevant nonetheless.

    I am not sure what a company’s influence should be called. Is thought leadership too ambitious of a word for it? I think it is not. After all, you mention that we see companies as thought leaders on fields that we are not intimately familiar with, and I would extend this claim to include fields that we are intimately familiar with as well – it’s just that in those cases the thought leadership of the companies is seen on a more granular level where individuals are more clearly noticed.

    Like Chris Koch wrote in the blog post I linked to, a thought-leading individual benefits a brand, but the brand can also bestow authority on an individual. This effect is not to be underestimated when evaluating whether it is worth it to build such a brand.

    • http://B2BDigital.net Eric Wittlake

      Hi Ville,

      Chris’s posts are always an inspiration, the one you flagged here is no different. You are right, the point isn’t that companies cannot benefit from thought leadership. The benefit of thought leaders certainly accrue to the companies they work for and represent. However, I do agree with some of the statements that were made. Companies are not thought leaders. (This invites a discussion of how companies would think if it were not for people, but I digress).

      I think we need to look at this as a two-way street. The reputation of a company impacts opinions of the individuals that work there and the reputation of the individuals impact the company. Thought leadership is a broadly visible individual reputation that can influence the perspective of a company. Likewise, a company’s reputation for hiring leading thinkers makes every hire a potential candidate to be seen as a leading thinker.

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful perspective, you always challenge me and I appreciate it. :-)