Public Relations

What is Thought Leadership?

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What is Thought Leadership?  

In PR and communications, thought leadership refers to the practice of sharing an individual’s unique knowledge and insights to steer conversations around a particular topic. But when done well, it’s not just about showcasing someone’s expertise. Effective thought leadership is communicating this knowledge in a way that influences markets and shapes stories, introducing the public to new ways of thinking and ideas.  

While thought leaders may make a name for themselves due to their knowledge, ideas and insights, often, there’s a visible confidence and passion for their subject matter that gives them a greater ability to move markets.

At the root of this is a genuine desire to contribute to important conversations, and make changes for the better. 

And because thought leaders can command significant influence over their audiences, thought leadership can be an effective tool for businesses. By building a consistent, visible presence for themselves through sharing unique perspectives on various channels including media articles, blogs, social media, webinars, podcasts, conferences and others, companies can set themselves apart as a trusted authority in their field.

Read on for our take on how thought leadership can play a pivotal role in public relations and communications strategies.

Who is a Thought Leader?  

Does simply being an expert in a particular field make someone a thought leader? Not necessarily.

While thought leaders certainly have deep expertise in their subject matter, they’re set apart by their ability to shape conversations rather than participating in conversations. In some cases, being a successful thought leader means challenging the status quo to drive change and progress in their respective field. 

Thought leaders additionally have a passion for sharing their insights openly. This open communication is often what enables them to become catalysts for deeper discussion on particular topics, and inspiring their audiences to think critically about a particular topic. 

To have such gravitas and sway over industries, companies tend to assume that their go-to thought leader should be a high-profile figure or executive. But this is not always the case, as thought leadership can stem from any level of an organization or professional background. 

One of the best ways to identify thought leaders is by first looking at which individuals within a company have the most firsthand insight into the topic they want to be known for. From there, they should also determine whether or not this person is comfortable speaking to the public. In some cases, companies may find that they have more of a ‘behind the scenes’ expert to form ideas on a subject, but there is another expert that’s more comfortable disseminating and discussing those ideas. 

And, it’s not uncommon for companies to have various thought leaders for various areas of their business. 

A thought leader is someone who:

Has In-depth Knowledge in a Specific Domain 

One of the main attributes of a thought leader is their depth of knowledge in a particular field. Even for experts who are already intimately familiar with their industry, such as Retail Technology, it’s important for thought leaders to stay abreast of new and emerging trends and topics within that field so that their ideas are fresh and relevant to what’s happening around them.

Can Articulate Complex Ideas  

For external audiences to latch onto a thought leader’s ideas, they should make complex concepts understandable. Whether they’re communicating verbally or in written content such as a byline, thought leaders should make their ideas accessible to their target audience. 

Pioneers Ideas

Although thought leaders communicate about existing topics or ideas, they don’t simply regurgitate information about those topics that’s already been published or distributed. Thought leaders are people who consistently bring new ideas to the table—whether that’s by challenging their audience to think differently about something, or providing a new perspective on the topic that hasn’t been covered before. 

Challenges the Status Quo 

Thought leaders don’t hesitate to go against the grain. While this should be done in a way that is credible (often backed by data or other evidence) and respectful to the opinions of others, the nature of thought leadership content provides more of an opportunity to present controversial perspectives than, say, a press release.

Take a look at how we made the CEO of Albert a thought leader on the advantages of artificial intelligence when the larger public was still skeptical of the technology.

Is Recognized as a Subject Matter Expert 

Thought leaders are the first people the public thinks of for any information or insights on a particular subject matter. Jamie Dimon, for example, isn’t just someone the public looks to for information about JPMorgan Chase, but the trajectory of the banking industry as a whole. While this is a broad example, thought leaders can be recognized for much more specific, niche topics as well—such as sustainability in banking, or cloud migration in banking.

Has the Ability to Inspire and Guide Others 

Thought leaders don’t just share their knowledge, but inspire and guide others while doing so. One of the biggest reasons that thought leadership is a more effective communication tactic for some subjects than others is because it provides a human element that can’t be portrayed through a press release. To capture this in their content, thought leaders should maintain charisma and relatability that audiences can resonate with. 

Builds Trust 

The very reason people will follow a thought leader’s column, watch them on television, or listen to their podcast is because they trust them. By consistently delivering reliable and accurate information, thought leaders build and maintain this trust with their target audiences.

Maintains a Consistent Message

Trust goes hand-in-hand with consistency. Thought leaders should stay true to their values and how they deliver their messages, regardless of the platform. This means that what they say on social media should be the same as what they write in their articles, or how they are in public appearances. This level of consistency reinforces their personal brand and makes them a credible source within their field.

The Benefits of Becoming a Thought Leader 

Building someone’s thought leadership presence doesn’t just benefit their personal brand, but that of the company they represent as well.

By integrating a consistent cadence of thought leadership content in their communications strategies, companies can open doors to even further opportunities such as being invited to speak at conferences, to collaborate with other experts in their field, or to forge partnerships with like-minded brands.

Thought leadership can additionally contribute directly to attracting new clients, customers, and followers—while building trust with them at the same time.

Thought Leadership Benefits FAQs

Can Thought Leadership Lead to More Career Opportunities? 

Becoming a thought leader can lead to diversified career opportunities. For example, recognized experts in their field are often more sought after for leadership roles or more specific industry-related positions. Thought leadership can also aid individuals in establishing themselves as consultants in their field. For businesses, being regarded as a thought leader (or the employer of a thought leader) can help attract top talent and build trust as an employer.

Will Thought Leadership Increase Visibility and Recognition? 

Thought leadership content has a direct impact on executive visibility because it directly links an individual with their ideas. The nature of thought leadership content, such as bylines, also provides more real estate for executives to share their perspectives than a standalone quote in a larger article. Because of this, thought leadership can contribute to more widespread visibility and recognition. 

Companies with recognized thought leaders are also more likely to be trusted by consumers and stakeholders. This means increased visibility for their brand and, consequently, a broader customer base.

How Does Thought Leadership Help Attract New Customers and Clients? 

When a person or company is perceived as thought leader, they can draw prospective clients by:

  • Establishing their authority
  • Building trust and credibility
  • Showcasing their capabilities
  • Differentiating themselves from their competitors 

Can I Generate Leads and Revenue with Thought Leadership? 

In comparison to an advertisement that a company pays for to market themselves, thought leadership is a more authentic way for companies to showcase their expertise. It additionally provides an opportunity for companies to go much more in depth about a particular subject or idea than they can with a paid advertisement. This can provide more of an opportunity to attract potential customers. 

Some additional ways that companies can generate leads and revenue with thought leadership include:

  • Attributing valuable content, such as articles, webinars, or whitepapers, directly to their spokespeople.
  • Using social media and professional networks to amplify visibility of published thought leadership content and reach a broader audience. 
  • Offering solutions to common challenges among potential customers.
  • Providing broader opportunities for engaging with prospective customers through discussions and collaborations.
  • Using targeted calls-to-action.

Can I Build a Strong Network Through Thought Leadership? 

Building a strong network is often a natural result of thought leadership. Whether an individual is communicating through traditional media, social media, in-person events, broadcast, or something else, if they are good at it and having compelling insights to share, they should attract listeners. Building a following on social media is one of the most direct ways to expand a person or company’s network through thought leadership, but these followers can come virtually anywhere someone is sharing their content publicly.

How to Become a Thought Leader 

Thought leadership involves the dissemination of opinions and analyses on that subject. Thought leadership content can be distributed across various traditional and digital media channels including newspapers, magazines, websites, social media and blogs, as well as through broadcast and in-person speaking engagements.

Many companies ultimately find that their best-performing thought leadership content is that which is vetted by a third party, such as a media publication, who, by publishing the content, gives it their validation. 

Thought leadership isn’t a one-way street, however. Successful thought leaders are often those who encourage discussion through their content, and are willing to converse back and forth with their network. This can lead to broader visibility of their ideas, as well as strengthening relationships with their followers.

Here are a few other proven tactics for building a thought leadership presence.

Choose a Specific Area of Expertise

One of the first steps to becoming a thought leader is committing to a specific subject matter. Many companies run into challenges when they try to become known for too many different things. Especially when it comes to thought leadership, it’s better to demonstrate deep expertise in one particular field rather than limited expertise in multiple different areas. 

Create Valuable Content 

Audiences will not engage with content that offers no value to them. Determining what this content is comes down to what topics are important to your target audience, where they get their news, how they like to be engaged with, and what topics they regularly follow.  

Whether it’s through articles, interviews, videos or webinars, thought leadership content should always focus on quality over quantity.

Examples of thought leadership content include bylined articles, blogs, podcasts, commentary, interviews, social media, e-books, public speaking, webinars and whitepapers.

Choose a Channel to Share Your Knowledge

Thought leadership content should appear on the channels that the spokesperson’s audience is most engaged. A B2B company, for example, may find that their target audiences are most active on LinkedIn, whereas a consumer company will have better engagement on Instagram. 

Even within the media, there are various questions that thought leaders should ask themselves about which channels are best for them. For example, print or digital media? Mainstream news or trade outlets? Live, on-air interviews or recorded? 

When done well, all thought leadership content is valuable. But companies will find more value on some channels than others based on their individual needs.

Speak at Conferences and Events 

Nearly every industry conference and/or event puts out a ‘Call for Speakers’ as they plan their agendas. While some of these—for example, Money 20/20, NRF’s Big Show, TechCrunch Disrupt—are harder to get in front of than others, event planners look to previously published thought leadership content and previous speaking engagements as a way to vet the speakers they select. 

Because of this, having a consistent, trackable history of published thought leadership content (both written and verbal) is beneficial to securing speaking opportunities in the future, and furthering an individual’s thought leadership presence.

As companies build their thought leadership presence, conferences and events will be the ones seeking them out to speak—not the other way around.  

These types of events also serve as an opportunity for networking with both prospective customers and media attendees, which can also help increase a thought leader’s following. 

Collaborate on Projects and Initiatives 

By joining forces with other thought leaders and experts, companies can amplify their presence and foster introductions to new audiences. These types of collaborative projects can be anything from co-authoring thought leadership articles, to contributing to joint research or launching a joint corporate venture or partnership.

Whatever the initiative may be, it’s important for thought leaders to align themselves with like-minded professionals who offer mutually beneficial ideas and opportunities.

Conclusion 

There are plenty of experts out there, but not all of them become thought leaders. In our opinion, it comes down to executing on the steps outlined above—and working with an expert in thought leadership strategy. For more information on our approach to thought leadership, read more about our Thought Leadership Service here, or drop us a line.

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