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What Does The Term Thought Leadership Mean?


What most people consider thought leadership, really isn’t thought leadership—it’s content marketing with a CEO cameo. 

Once being a “thought leader” became cool, PR and marketing teams couldn’t help but try and capitalize. Suddenly, every marketer was a thought leadership “expert” and every content team added it to their list of services provided. After that, all content was seemingly #ThoughtLeadership content and every founder of every industry became a thought leader and they all lived happily ever after. 

It was never actually defined. 

Once PR and marketing teams recognized the phrase catching on as a buzzword, saw an opportunity to capitalize, and added “thought leadership marketing” to their list of services.

Thought Leadership is more than a buzzword. 

It’s a philosophy.

And it’s something all founders and CEOs should look to implement into their content strategies. 

In a world flooded with ads and oversaturated markets, it’s hard for any company to stand out—let alone build trust within an industry. Thought Leadership solves that. The entire philosophy is built around founders and C-level executives being more active in their industry. 

But it doesn’t end at simply “being active.” That’s where the biggest misconception lies. It’s more than being active on Twitter and Facebook. It’s more than giving a quote for your company newsletter. It’s more than having your content team ghostwriting an article for you about your company’s recent product launch and posting it on your blog.  

All of that is surface level, and doesn’t matter to anyone. 

What Thought Leadership is really about, is adding value. 

Defined, Thought Leadership is: building relationships at scale, gaining trust, and starting—as well as contributing to—industry conversations by publishing educational and entertaining first-person content on a regular basis

That “first-person” meaning, quite literally, the content is coming directly from a company founder, CEO, or someone in a position of leadership—not from the entity as a whole or “staff.”

If you’re someone in a leadership position, compare the definition above to your current content strategy. Is your “thought leadership” content helping you build trust? Are you contributing to industry conversations? Are you starting them? Are you doing so on regular basis?

Does your content bring any real value to your industry? Do you leave your audiences with actionable takeaways? Or are you simply leaving surface level comments?

If you’ve asked yourself those questions and don’t like the answer, don’t worry—implementing a successful Thought Leadership strategy is easy. 

Here is the definition broken down:

Building relationships at scale is publishing first-person content that resonates on as many platforms as possible. 

  • It’s hard to build relationships tweeting a link to an article on your company blog. Instead, you need to go out “in public.” Do this by answering industry-related Quora questions or find niche publications on Medium and ask to be added as a contributor. You can’t build relationships at scale if your content doesn’t reach anybody. 

Gaining trust is an organic result of building relationships at scale. 

  • Once people begin to feel your presence on different platforms, they’ll start to pay attention to your content. Keep it genuine and allow for that trust to form naturally. 

Starting—as well as contributing to—industry conversations is speaking on industry pain-points, happenings, challenges, discoveries, and sharing what you’ve learned from your experience. 

  • One effective way to do this is to write and publish articles on a regular basis. An easy way to start, is by contributing your two cents on a conversation that has already been started. Before you start, decide what you want readers to take away and remember—don’t be sales-y. Weave in a personal story so your audience understands you’re speaking from experience—it shows you’re relatable. If you’re able to relate to readers, you begin to build relationships, trust, and a following. 

Educational and entertaining means no selling your product or service. It means giving readers actionable advice and sharing real-life experiences.

  • As alluded to above, don’t talk about the applications of your product, or about how impressive your company is. There’s no value in that. Make your goal to educate the reader without boring them. Talk about experiences in your industry and what you’ve learned from them, and make sure everything you publish has useable takeaways for the reader.  

First-person content as mentioned earlier, is exactly that—content coming from the first-person. It’s more personal that way (and helps you to gain trust). 

  • This is a must. Thought Leadership is not content coming from a company staff account. People trust people—not entities. If it’s not first-person, it’s not Thought Leadership. 

On a regular basis means once a week. Or at the very least once every other week. Publishing one article a quarter isn’t gonna cut it. 

  • Perhaps the most important aspect of being an industry Thought Leader is being consistent. A lot of wannabe thought leaders lack consistency. They publish a few articles here and there or hop on a couple of podcasts and expect to be recognized as an industry authority. That’s not how it works. Real leaders are always adding value to their industry.  

Breaking it down, there are a lot of moving parts. But if you don’t think going to that effort is worthwhile, or that it’s a waste of time, consider this:

If tomorrow you were to start publishing one valuable article per week for a year straight, the undeniable result would be an entire library of content, authored by you, speaking on industry happenings, pain points and projections, sharing your expertise through personal stories. 

Throughout the year people would follow you, trust you, look for more of your content and inherently start to associate you with your industry whenever it comes to mind. People would reach out to work for you, to partner with you, to invest in you. When you attend speaking events, people will come up to you and say, “Hey I’ve read some of your pieces online and have even shared some in our quarterly company newsletter. Really great content.”

That’s never a waste of time. 

Experience is life’s greatest teacher. Writer, advice-giver, and former collegiate student-athlete. Music fan but a hip-hop fanatic. Also, please travel.

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