How can you sustain thought leadership programmes that really deliver? Beyond vanity metrics, one that touches your target audience. Sadly, there is no ‘magic bullet’ for this. Research shows that there is no one thing that ‘great’ thought leaders do that others don’t. Instead, it seems to be a combination of activities, content, and approach that turns good into great. This is our take on the six things that really matter in thought leadership.

Showing authenticity and generating trust

The vast majority of sources on thought leadership list authenticity as one of the top ‘values’. The reason is that being authentic—speaking in your own voice, and saying what you believe—tends to generate trust from your audience. Unfortunately, it is relatively easy to detect insincerity in both voice and written word, and when we see it, we immediately distrust the speaker or writer. An essential part of thought leadership is that your audience has to be able to trust what you are saying.

Demonstrating expertise, to generate authority

Thought leaders are experts in their field. They do not just see themselves as experts, but they are seen as experts by others. It is noticeable that many brands that trade as experts—the big consultancies, in particular—are not seen as thought leaders. Over time, the great thought leaders have shown that they know their stuff and are able to predict problems and needs with considerable accuracy. Their views are therefore influential. Becoming an expert means being prepared to do extensive research to make sure that you really understand your area and your customers’ needs and wants. In presenting your opinions and expertise, you need to be thinking deep rather than broad.

Delivering value for your audience

Your expertise is one thing, but you must harness it to drive value for your audience. Simply providing information is not enough. Your content has to help your customers to solve their problems, and understand how to improve. The best thought leaders bring together their expertise with their understanding of their audience to generate content of various types that delivers what their audience needs. Providing a range of content can be a good way to reach a bigger audience: some will want short blog posts or videos, but others will be seeking in-depth reports or white papers. What matters in thought leadership is not so much what you do, as what effect it has on your audience.

Innovating and delivering novel and interesting content, to stand out

The thought leadership space is crowded, and it is becoming impossible to stand out from the crowd by simply doing the same thing as everyone else. Great thought leaders need to spend time thinking about new ways of doing things—and not just for the sake of novelty, but because it will help their audience. This may be a new type of content, such as Philips’ Future Health Index, or a new way of presenting information, such as L2’s CEO Scott Galloway’s YouTube videos on ‘winners and losers’. It is a thought worth holding that some of the best thought leadership content in the B2B space is actually a curation of interesting content from others.

Engaging in conversations to build relationships

Thought leadership is not about simply putting content out there. Publishing content is actually only the first step in the thought leadership process. It requires a dialogue with your customers. The best thought leaders think about content marketing as a way to start meaningful conversations with their audience. After all, the whole point of thought leadership—and, indeed, content marketing more generally—is to build relationships with people before they are your customers. You cannot do that by simply standing there with a megaphone. 

Striving for excellence to ensure that you stay ahead

Research shows that perhaps the biggest difference between good and great thought leaders is that the ‘great’ companies are constantly looking for ways to improve. They understand that becoming a thought leader takes work, and they are prepared to input the required time and effort. For example, they spend time benchmarking against their peers and leading brands to ensure that they really are creating the best possible content, and sharing it most effectively. They also take the time to audit their content on a regular basis, to ensure that it is up-to-date, and to avoid overlaps and contradictions. Finally, they make sure that their content always fits their strategy and brand position. 

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