Writing for marketing

Thought leadership: what it is, how to do it and why your company needs it

12 minute read

In a world drenched in information and pundits, the need for clear, useful insight is greater than ever.

If you consistently provide this thought leadership, you and your company can reap huge rewards as you rise above rivals and become more valuable to clients. But what is thought leadership, how will it benefit you, and – crucially – how do you do it?


What is thought leadership?

Thought leadership is the consistent and repeated combination of two elements: a new idea or insight that has important implications for a business sector, and the clear, persuasive communication of that idea. An individual (or company) who masters this cycle can become well-known and influential within a sector, even becoming the go-to authority on their specialist subject area. This can bring significant commercial benefits by differentiating them from rivals, winning bids and increasing sales (more on this later).

If the definition is relatively simple, achieving it isn’t – because there are so many aspects you have to get right. Having a new idea or insight is not enough – it needs to be one that has important implications for your market, otherwise no one will care. It needs to be genuinely useful.

And you can’t just pluck this insight from thin air. Without hard facts – perhaps in the form of research or a survey – to back up the idea, your target audience may just dismiss you as an irrelevant dreamer. And then you have to get the idea across in a way that they will not only see or hear but also quickly absorb and understand.


Examples of thought leadership


Deloitte creates a sector

Through their Football Money League, accountants Deloitte have positioned themselves as the world’s leading sports business advisory, with a multi-million pound turnover. But when they published the first report in 1997, the sector barely existed – their thought leadership created it.

In his book The Thought Leadership Manual, Tim Prizeman cites this as one of the greatest ever thought leadership successes. ‘As an accountancy firm Deloitte (then Touche) didn’t like spending much money, so they did something I recommend all businesses – particularly those on limited budgets – to try,’ says Prizeman. ‘They analysed publicly available free data. They just went through what was then the first division – now the Premiership – and created a league table based on their accounts. All this was publicly available, it just required analysis.’

The results of publishing their first Football Money League were dramatic. Suddenly a small team of accountants were being sought out by senior football executives. ‘It did fantastically for them,’ says Prizeman. ‘It got them meetings with people like Manchester United, and once they’d done that there was no turning back. They grew from three part-time people to the biggest sports advisory practice of its kind in the world.’


Knorr dishes up advice

More recently, in 2016 Knorr realised that its target market (chefs) didn’t know enough about the growing demand for gluten-free food. It backed up this insight with a survey of 1,200 chefs. At the time, Knorr made the only gluten-free gravy, so there were clear commercial benefits linked with becoming a gluten-free thought leader.

Knorr ran a ‘Dishing up advice on gluten-free’ campaign to educate chefs on the catering benefits of going gluten-free, and produced an educational guide, a masterclass roadshow and video content. The campaign generated more than 350,000 video views, 3.4 million ‘opportunities to see’ from press and social media coverage, and more than 700 guide downloads. It grew market share by 5.7% in one year.


What isn’t thought leadership?

It can’t be denied that ‘thought leadership’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot (leading some people to tire of it). But sometimes it pops up in reference to something that hardly qualifies for the title. We shouldn’t take against the term – or dismiss the concept – just because some authors can’t use it accurately. Here are a few examples of what thought leadership isn’t:

1. Being a pundit. These are more like thought reporters than leaders. ‘A thought leader isn’t just commenting on what other people are doing, they are helping lead the thinking in a particular area,’ says Prizeman. ‘Which isn’t really what you’d see a pundit doing. A pundit’s merely commenting on what’s going on, whereas a thought leader is actually providing new insights that lead thought.’ Yes, the clue’s in the name.

2. Hollow insights. If an insight has no basis in fact, you’ll struggle to convince businesses to believe it, and with good reason – it’s just a thought. Almost all thought leadership in business is based on research, analysis or surveys.

3. Content marketing. Thought leadership leads – it doesn’t just get information out there, it provides valuable and actionable insight.

4. Staying safe. Being a thought leader involves sticking your head above the parapet. An insight or idea that does not challenge current thinking is unlikely to have important implications for any business.


Why is thought leadership important?

There are three key reasons every business should consider creating thought leadership content:

1. It differentiates you from rivals. In the B2B world, it’s common for clients to see rival businesses as interchangeable – which is why price becomes such a dominant factor. Running a thought leadership campaign can highlight the important stuff you know that rivals don’t, and also introduce individuals to clients. This means your company is no longer faceless. And by helping clients understand a problem for free, you are elevating your company from the crowd – clients may even feel indebted to you. And, of course, if you can make clients value your wisdom above that of rivals, you can charge more – this can be the case even if you are a small company and the rival is a huge market leader.

2. You gain high-level access. Getting time with a CEO or CFO is notoriously difficult if they don’t know who you are. If, however, they’ve seen your strategic or financial insights on the industry website, or seen you quoted in the Financial Times, or listened to your podcast, then the door is far more likely to open. (This is what Touche achieved with the Football Money League.) Popular topics for CEO and CFOs include unpicking market trends, cross-market analysis, rivals’ strategy analysis and legislation insight.

3. You build relationships – and trust – at the critical point before the client is in buying mode. This is a crucial advantage, says Prizeman: ‘In a B2B environment the problem most businesses have could be described as the senior sales Catch 22. This is when senior people don’t want to be sold to until they enter buying mode, but by the time they’ve entered buying mode they’ve usually decided who their favoured person is.’


How do you become a thought leader?

Assuming you have a specialist area of knowledge and the ability to connect concepts and ideas, then you can become a thought leader – if you’re willing to put in the work. ‘You can definitely turn yourself into a thought leader in the same way that you can turn yourself into a Guinness Book of Records record breaker,’ says Prizeman. ‘But that doesn’t mean we can all become the 100m record holders. It’s terribly hard to be a thought leader on a huge topic, but once you break it down into niches, it’s doable.’

So, for example, rather than trying to be the world’s leading guru on artificial intelligence, you’ll probably have far more success concentrating on a particular aspect of AI you specialise in – for example, its impact on architecture, or how AI research is financed.

But it’s important to recognise that becoming a thought leader is difficult and requires consistent effort over a long period. It’s not just a case of doing a survey and sending a press release. To cement yourself in the minds of clients as a thought leader will take months or, more likely, years. This is a long-term strategy.

With that in mind, you need to:

  • Identify the key areas that are critical to your target’s business. It’s important not to come up with ideas that are purely of interest to you and your business.
  • Plan how you will generate the ideas. You need a schedule for research, case studies, surveys, interviews or internal brainstorms – and these must be in the diary. Ben Hammersley is one of the world’s leading futurists, who has advised everyone from Google and KPMG to the British Government. He likens his idea-generation time to the time Olympians devote to training. ‘It’s like being a competition athlete, in that you have continuous practice all the time,’ Hammersley says. ‘And then your year is punctuated with one-off events. In my case, it’s 30 to 40 events a year, and then the rest of the time is observation, research and formulation.’
  • Plan how you will market the ideas. What channels and content are most likely to reach the targets? Do you need blogs, stories in industry journals or websites, podcasts, videos, white papers, guides? And how often? A big hit – like the CBI Growth Indicator survey – is great, but it needs to be followed up by a drip feed of smaller insights to maintain your profile and build confidence.
  • Agree what resources you need. Most thought leadership starts with writing – this is where many companies need to bring in outside experts.
  • Start the ideas process. As a starting point, consider changes in the market, impending legislation, outdated modes of working or beliefs, the impact of new technology and impact of societal changes.


How much insight, information and advice do you give away?

All of it. Many companies are understandably wary of giving away their intellectual property for free. But they shouldn’t be, because a) your insight in itself is unlikely to be detailed enough for rival companies to make use of – it’s a taster to get people thinking and interested in you. And b) the benefits greatly outweigh any potential losses.

Despite publishing free market-leading reports, companies such as McKinsey still hoover up clients. Similarly, most of the world’s most highly paid thought leaders have written books on their chosen subjects, but many CEOs don’t merely read the book and attempt to enact the advice solo. They want tailored depth from the expert, not a book that their rivals have read.

This is how futurist Ben Hammersley operates. ‘I find I can give everything away,’ he says. ‘I’m talking about new behavioural change, new cognitive tools, and different ways of thinking. If I could change the way you thought purely through one blog post, then the world would be a different place.’

And be ready to repackage and repeat your idea or insight for the full desired effect. ‘The valuable ideas are often the sorts of things that take huge amounts of time and effort,’ says Hammersley. ‘You may need the same thing said many, many times in different ways – like the Buddhist precepts. It’s like Howard Aitken (innovative computer scientist) said: “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats”.’


How to write thought leadership that stands out

Executing a thought leadership plan is often where companies fall down, because unless you’re conveying your shrewd insights accurately, briefly and clearly, they stand no chance of cutting through the noise of everyday life. So before sending out a press release, blog, report, guide, white paper or case study, run it past this checklist:

  • Is the key benefit of your insight clear in the first paragraph, or even the first sentence? If it isn’t, the reader will probably go no further. And make sure you’re writing for the target reader, not your colleagues.
  • Is the benefit clear from one quick read? Most sentences should be under 20 words, and free from clunky phrases (‘due to the fact that’, ‘with reference to’, ‘on the grounds that’, etc etc). Avoid formal language such as ‘ascertaining’, ‘undertaking’ and ‘facilitating’ unless you’re writing for lawyers (and perhaps even then), who are used to wading through this type of swamp.
  • Is the order logical and focused on the benefits to the client?
  • Are there anecdotes, case studies and analogies? These all make your writing far more memorable.
  • Is the information presented in the best format? Have you used tables and graphics where it makes sense?
  • Are the tone and language appropriate for the target reader?
  • Are the spelling and punctuation flawless?
  • And finally … Have you read it out loud? This will identify any clumsy or confusing sections.


A final thought

Thought leadership allows small companies to win bids even when up against huge brands. It enables individuals to supercharge their careers by becoming widely known and respected within a sector. And it gives major brands the opportunity to demonstrate they’re innovative, creative and at the cutting edge of industry thinking.

But the process of getting there is not easy or quick. As with leaders of other kinds, the secret is often in the planning and the teamwork going on behind the scenes. So if you have ambitions in this direction, don’t be put off and don’t think you have to do it all. Be sure to line up the support you need to ensure your ideas get the audience they deserve.


Image credit: Max4e Photo / Shutterstock


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John Westlake is an award-winning writer and editor, a sought-after writing coach and management trainer.

As editor-in-chief of Emap (now Bauer) he worked at board level and oversaw the relaunch of 16 magazines. He has trained hundreds of journalists and managers at companies and institutions as diverse as Bauer Media, the Government Digital Service, Informa Healthcare, the Rugby Football Union, Haymarket Publications and the Ministry of Justice.

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