Why thought leadership needs a rethink

Pic by Akua Sencherey

Much of my working life is spent developing thought leadership articles and reports, which provides me with fantastic opportunities to dig deeper into concepts and hopefully get people thinking a little differently as a result.

What I’ve learned over the years however is that there are certain conditions and processes that need to be considered if a thought leadership exercise is going to deliver the desired results.

A good thought leadership piece is not simply an announcement – that can be better achieved through a press release or an ad. Good thought leadership is about joining a conversation that is already taking place – or better still, starting a new one.

Unfortunately for some brands, they have no natural place in the conversations they wish to enter. Hence the goal is to find a point of connection around which they can build their relevancy, and use that to earn the permission needed to join into the conversation. Just because a brand hasn’t yet earned its place in a conversation doesn’t mean it should give up however. Authenticity and relevancy obviously help, and often these can be established over a period of time. But doing so requires commitment.

Other times a brand will simply be too late to the conversation to offer anything meaningful. This happens a lot regarding discussion on transformation – a topic that is very important, but which many people have tuned out of. Earning a voice in this conversation requires significant effort to establish a perspective that is new or different – a difficult task given everything that has been said about it already.

Being part of a conversation means being committed to that conversation over the longer term. A single discussion paper or research report might gain some attention, but its true value is unlocked when it is part of an ongoing campaign that builds over time, possibly using multiple different voices in many different forums. In some ways building good thought leadership is a bit like building a brand – it takes consistency and commitment.

Good thought leadership also needs to be something that is not immediately obvious .If the outcome is a conclusion that anyone could have come to – or worse still, one that obvioulsy is designed to serve the brand message and nothing else – it will have no impact. But having a recipient say “I hadn’t thought of that before” or “I’d never looked at it that way” is likely to ensure that the core ideas remains in their thinking over the longer term.

It helps then if the concept is one that is easy to grasp. This points to one of the most important truths regarding the creation of thought leadership – while the ultimate product needs to be simple to understand, the process of its creation is usually anything but.

Many of the best thought leadership projects are the result of extensive research and discussions, which is designed to bring forth basic truths that might have been hidden under layers of noise, and shine a light on hidden patterns. Hence it is best to commence a thought leadership project with a question, rather than stipulating the outcome from the outset. Many great thought leadership projects simply give life to concepts which might at first glance seem obvious, but which have not yet been expressed so simply and eloquently. These projects that bring life to the obvious are often the most powerful, as they exist within a framework which can be easily grasped, but are the result of a long process of sifting and sorting.

All of this points to another basic truth of thought leadership – that it is earned. For a brand to simply blunder into a conversation for which it is neither relevant nor prepared is to invite disaster. But when a brand is prepared to put in the hard work to earn its position, and then build that over time, amazing things can happen.