Are You a Thought Leader or a Thought Follower?

Well, obviously you’ll see yourself as a ‘thought leader’, don’t you? But actually, what does that mean? And can you make money out of being a thought leader?

Thought leadership means a lot of different things to a lot of people and for some it boils down to the creation or adaptation of an innovative concept for direct or indirect business advantage.

Thought leadership mash up

If you happen to work in a marketing or PR agency, the value of your time can be measured directly in proportion to the quality of your intellectual and creative output and the outcomes you deliver for the client. On that basis, thought leadership can be very profitable indeed.

But you don’t have to work in an agency to become a thought leader.

Thought leadership should become less of something to strive for and more a state of mind.

I first came across the concept of thought leadership when working as the Chief Press Officer in the UK for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) back in the early 1990s. It’s a term that’s often banded around in professions, consulting firms, in technology companies and by trendy market research agencies!

Over the years there have been many management ideas born from thought leadership, such as the ‘Boston Matrix’ as a strategic planning tool and some thought leadership ideas appear to have evaporated over time, such as ‘Business Process Re-Engineering’ and ‘Total Quality Management.’ Some ideas claim to be thought leadership, such as ‘Think Global, Act Local’ or ‘Return on Customer’ but we very quickly start to get dizzy from thinking whether something really is thought leadership or simply a bit of PR and marketing.

What is true thought leadership?

Thought Leadership - QuestionBack in the days of Andersen Consulting, one of my tasks was to seed content for the house magazine called Vision, which is still going strong today. A bit like the McKinsey Quarterly, it was a distillation of new and original ideas, concepts, processes and technology and how the world was rapidly changing and reinventing itself. The magazine had a reputation for depth and innovation that’s perhaps only rivalled by the Harvard Business Review. For my money, Vision was a living and breathing example of thought leadership, and what was really interesting is that we shared all of this stuff for free.

A more recent example of thought leadership is what a friend of mine, Professor Jaideep Prabhu of Judge Business School, Cambridge University developed with others into a very powerful idea called Jugaad Innovation.

Research is without question a source of thought leadership but a lot of research is actually ‘thought followship’ because it often fails to deliver any genuine insight or add to the body of knowledge that already exists in the public domain. It simply tells us what we already know.

Those who are better at doing this may use what’s known as multivariate research techniques that include cluster, factor and latent analysis. Such techniques enable researchers to obtain and analyse complex data sets. For example, factor analysis is a tool to reduce a large number of data points to a few understandable trends. It’s highly likely that many of the projects commissioned by large organisations from specialist research agencies to produce thought leadership are developed in this way. Similarly, many of the trend watchers in different market segments use this form of analysis to produce their reports.

Many businesses are now much more confident in creating communication channels that connect them directly with their desired audience, customer, client and supporter segments. This is a healthy development rather than falling back on buying advertising space or always relying on getting messages through the filter of the media, with the attendant hazards and dangers that are associated with using those channels.

The future of thought leadership

The Millennial Generation are digital natives and as they grow in their careers the use of the web for communicating thought leadership to this group is growing fast.

One of the best examples is the current Samsung campaign Launching People.

Having fought a hard battle against Apple to establish its technology and design credentials, Samsung has now embarked on a new brand strategy that it hopes will add personality to its products and engage with the Millennial Generation in a completely different way.

The South Korean giant has recruited actor and producer Idris Elba, singer-songwriter Paloma Faith, Sunday Times cook Gizzi Erskine and photographer Rankin in a nationwide search for up-and-coming talent. And it’s using Facebook to reach these audiences and customer segments.

Andy Griffiths, president of Samsung UK and Ireland, explained: “Everyone knows Samsung for launching products and every day we’re inspired by people who use those products to achieve amazing things. ‘Launching People’ is all about doing just that – launching people’s potential through technology, whatever their stage in life. We hope to give people with passion, ambition and a hungry mind, a launch pad for their bright ideas and change their lives in a positive way.”

Entrants make a two-minute video pitch all about their idea and upload it to the site where the lucky winner will be chosen to be mentored by the celebrity depending on their interest in film making, music, photography or cooking.

There’s also a ‘People’s Choice’ winner per category, voted for by the public on Facebook, who will receive Samsung products that will support them in pursuing their dreams.

Such is the strength of the idea that Sky 1 HD has also come on board to create a TV show showing the celebrities choosing one person each to mentor, and will follow their journeys as they collaborate on a project and has spent £7 million ($11.7 million) on promoting the new show.

So what can be distilled from this and other examples of thought leadership? There are seven attributes that can be identified as being part of good thought leadership:

Attribute #1: It’s free.

The unmistakable component of the best thought leadership is that it’s free. It should be altruistic and at its best, a valuable and honest gift to the audience. 

Attribute #2: It has genuine insight.

It must add to what already exists in the public domain and enrich our understanding and even influence our behaviour. It needs to be new. Definitely not “old wine in a new bottle.” It should help people to see things in new ways, find new opportunities or solve new problems.

Attribute #3: It’s informative and credible.

Although it’s obvious, the best thought leadership leaves its audience something to think about. it prompts businesses to learn, to investigate and even challenge accepted norms. It celebrates doing things in a way that may be better. It can advocate change and shares an idea that can spread like a virus.

Attribute #4: It’s authentic.

Research studies on thought leadership tended to show that audiences respond more positively if it is sincere and convincing. Clearly a track record is important here as companies need to be seen to have developed expertise in the area that they’re talking about as without such a foundation it will be seen as “hype.”

Attribute #5: It’s unique.

Organisations are capable of creating different types of thought leadership, so the efforts of Accenture will be very different from those of McKinsey as it would be if comparing Samsung with Philips. All are different in nature even though they may compete in the same market segment. The way in which they tackle important subjects contributes to the differentiation of their overall corporate reputation and thought leadership.

Attribute #6: It’s valuable to the audience.

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Some years ago I wrote a piece about the future of sponsorship and how brands needed to rewire their thinking when it came to brand partnerships in the future. The blog was used at the global marketing conference of Speedo and I was hired to write the global sponsorship toolkit that was launched across all its 190 markets.

Attribute #7: It’s looking into the future.

By its very nature, thought leadership must be about looking forward and not looking backward. Good thought leadership not only informs, it shapes an idea and provides foresight. This means that it’s risky because an individual or an organisation has to take a view on a trend or theme. For Unilever, this meant putting sustainability at the heart of everything it does across the world.

Image: Atos International (Creative Commons)

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