4 Problems Killing Thought Leadership Marketing

Chris Koch shared Four Reasons to Hate Thought Leadership earlier this week. He made some great points in his call to end the use of the phrase thought leadership, but ultimately I disagree with his conclusion. We don’t need to stop using the phrase, we need to start using it right.

The problem is thought leadership has become a catchall for any marketing that includes content. Unfortunately, looking back, it isn’t surprising that this happened.

Here are four of the underlying problems that created the situation.

1. Thought Leadership Isn’t Created by Marketing

At the heart of the problem is the idea that you can market your way to thought leadership. The role of marketing is to shine a light on your company’s thought leaders and thought leadership. Marketing can facilitate, organize and amplify. But unless your business is marketing, thought leadership needs to come from your business.

2. Thought Leadership Isn’t a Real Priority

Your potential thought leaders are valuable people in your organization, and everyone wants more of their time. When it comes to getting time, it becomes clear that thought leadership isn’t the real priority.

3. Thought Leadership Is Human

Today, it seems some businesses are so busy humanizing their company or brand that they forget to include real humans. I see logo-ed social media accounts that don’t indicate who is behind it, or blog posts on corporate blogs posted by “admin” or “blogger”.

Notably, in this discussion of thought leadership, all of the example given were individuals, not companies.

4. Thought Leadership Isn’t About You

Marketing organizations are instinctively focused on their product, message and position. Real thought leadership needs to exist on its own, independent of your company and product. Thought leadership and “Product X is the fastest in its class” should never coexist in the same space.

In Summary

Despite the problems marketers have created for thought leadership, it is still valuable. According to Wikipedia, the 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.”

Many other definitions would add a unique and forward-looking element as well.

This is a position that creates differentiation for a company, before getting to any individual product or service. It is not a position every company is able to claim, but for those that are, it continues to have significant potential.

We are slowly killing thought leadership, and it will be our loss if it dies. So let’s keep using the phrase thought leadership, let’s just start using it right.

Your Turn

Should thought leadership stay or go, and why? Share your perspective in comments below or with me on Twitter (@wittlake).

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  • Good article Eric.  Thought leadership has been co-opted by marketing and has diluted its real value.  You cannot write and claim thought leadership because your wrote.  In the true sense – it should be reserved for those who share mind breaking thoughts that challenge us and change our view of the world.

    Tony Zambito

    • Spot on. And very few are capable of doing this and want to make the investment to do so over time. Thanks for the comment!

  • I always love the the posts that advocate to kill one or another term. As per usual, it is all in the way that you approach these things. The idea is to turn the culture, and thought leaders, of an organization inside out, so that everyone can see the talent that insiders already know about. The question is, how do you take advantage of the brain power in your organization, and use it in your communications? I also like, as you say, that companies are made up of individuals. Facing the world as a “collective” is comfortable, but it doesn’t inspire anyone. I have seen situations where one or two key people left a company and it lost market position in those areas of expertise. When that happens, you really see how important individuals can be.

    • I agree, the approach is critical. In this case, I believe the approach is undermining an organization’s ability to establish themselves or their individuals as thought leaders.

      Killing? Well, we need a headline, don’t we? 🙂

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  • Well, as usual you communicate a robust defense of your ideas. But one of the reasons that I hate the term is that we somehow feel like customers will like it as much as we do. My research shows that they don’t and worse, that they mistrust those who position themselves with it. So I will compromise with you ;). How about we let the term live on with each other but not use it with customers?

    • Yikes, I never meant to imply this should be a label we apply to ourselves. I believe it was Jeff Wilson (@jeffthesensei) that said on Twitter that thought leadership is a title that is bestowed, not claimed.

      I agree, it is a term that can be used internally, to talk about an objective (although it should then be used carefully, not as a catchall for best practices and other areas of expertise) and it is a label we should be willing to apply to others that have earned it.

      Thanks for starting this discussion with your post and continuing it with me here!

  • Craig Badings

    Spot on Eric but I’m afraid the term is currently being used like a cheap sticker.  Stuck on any campaign by anybody to try and differentiate themselves.

    That’s why some people despise the term and why it is cheapened.  Your wish about people using it right is mine too – I just don’t think it is going to happen.

    When will marketers learn that as soon as you tell your clients this is your thought leadership it comes across as arrogant and pretentious.  Only your clients will label you a thought leader and their actions will speak louder than any of your words.   

    • Craig, great comment. As I mentioned in my reply to Chris, I hope we never apply this label to ourselves or our people (but it happens, I know). Rather, it is an objective to earn the label from others in our market.

      Thanks for adding the reminder here. You are spot on, thought leadership as a cheap sticker is a big piece of the problem today.

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  • Anonymous

    100% right – thought leadership comes from the top people. Marketing’s job is to lift the lid on the ideas box and let everyone see what is in there.

    Unfortunately the box is often pretty empty. Dilbert put it well – “we can’t compete on price, features or quality. So we’ll have to use fraud – which I’d like you to call marketing.”

    Look at the Marketing Automation companies. They are selling a way to automate old fashioned, discredited push marketing – but wrap it up in cutting edge marketing words to sound like thought leaders. Gullible marketers’ eyes only open when they buy the product which, quite simply, doesn’t do what the bloggers talk about.

    • Thank you Peter. I agree, that box often is pretty empty and that is one of the reasons I don’t believe thought leadership is really an objective most marketers should have. There are so many other valuable areas marketers can carve out and can drive more effectively from within marketing.

      Yes, Dilbert did say it well. Thanks for your addition!

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  • kevincain

    Great article, Eric. I think another problem is simply that thought leadership has become a cliche. It seems that anyone with a pulse and an Internet connection can churn out so-called thought leadership. When we ask ourselves the question, what is thought leadership, we’d better start thinking a lot more critically about the answer.