I think it’s important to start with the misconceptions about thought leadership, namely that you can't be one if you aren't one already. Another way to put it is: there’s a common perception that the status of "thought leader" is limited to those people that are already thought leaders in your industry. The reality is, they had to start somewhere as well.
They’re human. You’re human as well (unless there’s something you want to tell us). Have you ever thought that maybe you can be a human who shares your knowledge to help bring even more value to your industry? Yep, you sure can.
One ah-ha moment for me around this subject was when someone on the tweetchat mentioned differentiating between a brand ambassador and a thought leader (if that was you, please leave a comment!). While public personas can be sometimes be seen as selling themselves, that’s not always the case. That got me thinking about the definitions of -- and differences between -- the various words we use for "people who know their stuff." Let’s explore the different definitions of the different types of public figures in an industry:
What is a Brand Ambassador?
Although thought leadership could be part of a brand ambassador’s job, it doesn’t have to be. The person filling that role (with the exception of the external brand ambassador) puts the company’s priorities before the audience they serve.
What is an Influencer?
There’s also a subsection of micro-influencers that are below the radar, but are influencing buying behaviors of their market. They’re lesser known, but potentially even more influential in their micro-markets. Depending on the product or service they advocate for, it could be even more lucrative for companies on their radar.
It’s likely that your average influencer started out as a thought leader. The dividing line comes when influencers start recommending products, services, or methodologies based on their wider experience and have the potential to benefit from that personally. That benefit could come in the form of a job, free product, or increased clout.
What is an Employee Advocate?
What is a Thought Leader?
A company might hire a thought leader as a way to put that expertise under the umbrella of their company, but trying to turn them into brand ambassadors or influencers could actually undermine the influence and impact a thought leader can have on the business.
When cultivating employees into thought leaders, companies need to be brave and open. They need to offer a potential the thought leader the leeway to share data (even if it’s anonymized), have opinions, and share perspectives that may not 100% represent the company’s perspective. Edited or censored thought leaders turn into puppets for the company -- if they get that far. Many of them will quit or leave before that eventuality comes to pass.
The Big “Thought Leadership” Takeaway for Brands
If a company wants to genuinely benefit from thought leadership, they need to invest in a few key things:
Thought Leadership Program Resources
#CMWorld Recap - An overview of the chat we had last week highlighting the best answers from the community.
Content Matters Podcast episode - This talks about book writing as a physical manifestation of your thought leadership strategy with Andy Crestodina.
Fast Company Article - how companies can harness thought leadership. A favorite quote: “your company shouldn’t sell anything but ideas.”
#ContentChat Roundup - A tweetchat run by Erika Heald, Chief Content Marketing Officer for hire, walks through another perspective on what thought leadership is.
The Anatomy of a Thought Leader - a Marketing Land article that outlines what makes a thought leader… well, a thought leader. It has a marketing industry perspective and it’s a little older, but I think the principles hold up.
If you’re interested in cultivating thought leaders in your organization there are two fun things you can do: come see me at Content Marketing World 2018 this September. I’ll be talking about how to cultivate your employee’s expertise into thought leadership. Or if you’re interested in building your own thought leadership program, feel free to reach out! We’ve done it for other companies, and we can do it for you too.
I'm a veteran digital marketer whose career has grown up with the Internet.