26 Sep 2011
Over the course of the last few years I have had the privilege of interviewing a number of thought leaders in different fields. I’ve taken the best of what these seven thought leaders have shared on the topic and hopefully you’ll find them useful.
David Meerman Scott, author of “The new rules of PR and Marketing”, is well known to many marketing and public relations professionals. When he was working for NewsEdge he famously ignored the advice of his PR and ad agency and ‘broke the old rules’ by publishing lots of free content online which resulted in hundreds of sales.
Sales and thought leadership
David explained the link between thought leadership and sales this way.
“The Web gives everyone—B2B companies, consumer brands, consultants, non-profits, and even rock bands, churches, and colleges—a tremendous opportunity to reach people and engage them in new and different ways.
“When you build content especially for your audience, you build a relationship with people before you’ve even met them. When it’s obvious that you understand your buyers and their problems, it jars your visitors into paying attention.
“You transform your marketing from mere product-specific, ego-centric gobbledygook that only you understand and care about into valuable information people are eager to consume and that they use to make the choice to do business with your organization. Instead of creating jargon-filled, hype-based advertising, you can create the kind of online content that your buyers naturally gravitate to—if you take the time to listen to them discuss the problems that you can help them solve.
“Then you’ll be able to use their words, not your own. You’ll speak in the language of your buyer, not the language of your founder, CEO, product manager, or PR agency staffer. You’ll help your marketing get real.”
Content and thought leadership
When I pressed David about his thoughts on producing content and whether content alone makes you a thought leader, his view was:
“The problem is that most organizations create content about their stupid products. What people need to realize is that nobody cares about your products (except you). What people do care about are themselves and ways to solve their problems.”
“Content is the medium of exchange for thought leaders. Now, there are nuances to this that I won’t go into, but on the surface, the more content you have, the more currency you have in your marketplace. If it’s you, with a content rich site sharing information that’s deemed useful by your audient (usefulness is key here), vs. a competitor with less content and fewer shared ideas and concepts, I’ve found the prospects like the person or organization that’s given them more currency and gives them a larger base perspective from which to make a decision.”
I love the way Dana equates content to currency and how it gives you the perspective to make decisions. My view is that for your thought leadership to truly work it has to give your clients the information and insights necessary to make informed decisions.
Gary Bertwistle, multiple author of books such as “Who stole my Mojo”, “What made you think of that”, “My Dad’s got Mojo” and “The Vibe” had this to say about content and taking your content to market:
“My advice to aspiring thought leaders would be to develop your own content. Too many so-called thought leaders are just parroting what they’ve read or heard, whereas a true thought leader espouses. To be a true thought leader you have to have original thoughts and this only comes from taking the time to be silent and to look, see, listen and really hear what’s going on around you to be able to form an opinion that can truly help take people and organisations forward. Thought leaders aren’t those who just repackage what everyone else has said. They must have an angle and a new approach, idea, concept or innovation that can truly lead.
“In today’s world books are not the only tool that business or leaders can use. Many thought leaders are using social media particularly well through blogs, tweets, podcasts and vidcasts. The book is purely the tool to help you get the word out.
“Organisations and business leaders can do just as good a job by truly investing in original thinking and using all the tools outlined above as the methods to share your thoughts as a leader. Blogs, tweets, Facebook, LinkedIn, DIGG, podcasts, vidcasts are all fine but if you’re not sharing innovative thinking that helps me as the follower to think differently or be better at whatever it is that I do, then you fail to add value and all those things are a waste of space. Too many companies are loading up with podcasts and blogs, which have no value and are a waste of time.”
Fiona Czerniawska is a global authority on thought leadership, particularly in the management consultancy space. There are few people who understand as much about thought leadership as Fiona. A co-founder of Source, a company specialising in researching the consulting industry, she has authored numerous management reports, books and papers.
She makes the following point about good content:
“If you look back at the block-buster management ideas of the past, they were all based on serious research, not a sudden brainwave or luck. I don’t believe in eureka moments except those that emerge from deeper-than-deep content. That being said, I do think that innovation in thought leadership will come from the way this content is assembled and disseminated.”
Thought leadership is about sharing
Generosity played a big part in Gary Bertwistles’s advice about content sharing:
“Today’s brands need to be generous.
“Generosity is a key driver for any thought leader or organisation wanting to lead. You can’t just sell a service or a product. You have to go above and beyond that and provide the extras.
“Provide the overs. The overs come in the form of information, advanced notice, freebies, alliances, promotion or insights. If you aren’t sharing your knowledge or insights with your target audience then you run the risk of leaving yourself open to attack from a competitor who does. Today it’s an expectation from your target audience. The buyer of any product or service expects the extras.”
Gary had a simple three-step process around thought leadership which comprised:
1. Clarifying who you are targeting
2. Clarify the category you want to occupy – find a single concept which differentiates you and decide what perceptions you want to create around this
3. Work out how you will infiltrate your target’s world in order to alert them about this information.
When it comes to sharing information, Bernard is emphatic:
“There are a lot of people who I am aware copy my material, style and approach without attribution – there is no protection against intellectual theft. But the way I figure it is that it’s my job to remain intellectually creative to such a degree that pretenders are continually left with the option but to copy.
“The only people who are paranoid about giving away material are people who do not have faith that they are creatively superior to those who would copy them. Copy away. I’ll just think up other stuff. It keeps me sharp.”
Thought leadership is not about controlling the message
One of the areas where companies really battle in the social world is about controlling information. The idea of engaging in conversations online let alone having dialogues with people as a result of their thought leadership content is an anathema for most big corporations. Most companies have always pushed a message, typically a highly sanitised one at that, and then controlled it to the nth degree across all channels. As a result they really battle with the concept of no longer being in control of what is said about their brand and are hesitant about entering the social media world.
David Meerman Scott has a strong view on this and access to information:
“And you must resist the urge to “control the message.” Create something interesting that will be talked about online.
“When you lose control of your marketing by opening up and not requiring a registration, as many as fifty times the number of people will download it compared to the form requirement.”
Thought leadership is Customer focused
David believes one has to be customer focused when it comes to creating thought leadership content:
“My most important aspect of creating information is to throw away your own ego and instead create content for what I call ‘buyer personas’.
“I think ‘buyer personas’ are the king of marketing and a focus on buyer personas allows you to create the content.”
I couldn’t agree more, too many companies focus on what they’re excited about rather than taking time to find out the pressing issues and challenges facing their clients or prospects.
As Fiona Czerniawska point out:
“Clients have mixed reactions, depending on the subject-matter and their position. Overall, clients dismiss most thought leadership simply because it’s not relevant to them. There’s a lesson in this about ensuring all material is focused on as tight a group of clients as possible, otherwise – a bit like infections treated with antibiotics – they become resistant!
“Where it is relevant, views are much more positive: indeed, it’s quite clear that producing good thought leadership is, in many senior managers’ eye, a fundamental characteristic of a certain type of established, high-class consulting.”
Tips from a master thought leader
Most people will know Ken Blanchard from his book “The one minute manager” which has sold more than 13 million copies. The fact is Ken has published and co-authored over 50 books and is one of the top 25 top selling authors of all time on Amazon.
When I asked him about what tips he could give to other aspiring thought leaders he said:
“The first thing you have to do is to determine your leadership point of view—your thoughts about leading and motivating people. Your leadership point of view relates to who you are as an individual. It grows out of who influenced you, what your purpose is, what your values are, and what people can expect from you. This is important because research has shown that the most effective leaders have a clear leadership point of view and they’re willing to share it with others.”
Ken also makes a hard hitting point about sharing information and getting your thought leadership to market:
“The bottom line, though, is that you have to get the word out somehow. You can have the greatest, most innovative thoughts in the world, but if nobody hears about them, they’re worth squat.”
Thought leadership takes time
Bernard Salt believes that thought leadership is a test of endurance, personal belief and courage because it takes years to be recognised and to cut through the clutter. As he says: “You have to be the last person standing when all other pretenders have melted away.”
He also says that corporations need to be patient with thought leaders but that they are notoriously impatient.
Thought leaders need to be skilled communicators
Bernard is a firm believer that thought leaders need to be able to pitch their ideas – in other words they need to be skilled presenters and outstanding communicators. Bernard says:
“What business wants is a compelling case pitched verbally with passion and with direction. Hone your speaking and presentation skills. And then hone again.
“Watch good speakers and presenters. Watch stand-up comedians, they are brilliant at controlling an audience.
“Get to the point, speak passionately, use words well (you must be articulate), and connect with your audience. And when you think you are good enough in that skill area go out and learn some more because you are never good enough at speaking, pitching and presenting.”
Another global thought leader who believes in the power of presentation and effective communications is Howard Gardner, professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Howard has authored 25 books and is best known for his theory on multiple intelligences: Howard had this to say about becoming a thought leader in your chosen field:
You need the “capacity to speak and write for a popular audience, and the willingness to go on television, travel, speak to general audiences…
“Every year I think that I improve both my understanding and my ability to communicate effectively – or at least I hope so.”
Key challenges for thought leaders
Fiona Czerniawska says that one of the trends she has identified is the way in which people are publishing their material with a plethora of new formats, including Twitter, videos, podcasts and design-your-own graphs.
She flags that the key challenge for thought leaders these days is:
“…you have less space to say things and I think consulting firms are struggling with the transition from back-breaking flagship reports to a pithier, more opinionated style. A five-minute video shouldn’t be a balding man in a grey suit reading the executive summary, but someone saying something memorable and thought-provoking, as well as fast. This type of thought leadership should be like the tip of an iceberg, with the underlying research below the waterline, but it often becomes an excuse for not doing the research in the first place – and that shows.”
How thought leaders attract attention
One of the areas that Fiona touched on was how thought leaders can attract a client’s attention. She has identified four areas on which a thought leader should focus. These are: appeal, differentiation, practical application and quality of thinking. She explains:
“These four factors relate to the quality of a firm’s output and that’s independent of quality (although, almost inevitably, a firm that decides to increase the quantity of its material takes a hit on quality). It’s tempting to say that quantity should never matter but it does: if you produce one piece of thought leadership on, say, strategy in the banking sector, but your competitor produces 20, then there’s a fair chance that you’ll get shouted down, however great your piece is.
“Quantity also sends a not-so-subliminal message to clients about how much a firm specialises in a particular area.
“However, I think firms could indeed be more creative about the way they package their content. In particular, I’d like to seem more “bundling” (putting related articles, in a mix of different formats, together in the same place); better recommendations (suggesting articles I might find of interest); and, please, please, please, better search engines. It’s incredibly frustrating to put a keyword in but not be able to sort the results by date or filter them.”
The future of thought leadership
Fiona believes that thought leadership has a bright future:
“I like to think that it will become a serious battleground for really good ideas. I may be laughed at for this on the quite reasonable grounds that (a) clients value small-scale insights more than grandiose conceptual models and (b) the extent to which thought leadership is – or can be – a crucible for innovation is questionable. But I do get frustrated by the lack of ambition in much thought leadership.
“There are some big and interesting questions about business that never seem to get debated – and it would be good to think that some of these will start to be discussed. The prerequisites to this, and I suspect to upping the overall quality of thought leadership, are investment and collaboration.
“I can’t believe we won’t see more money going into thought leadership in the future, as it’s clear that it is one of the few marketing activities which can differentiate a firm. And I also think consulting firms will realise that they have to work with people (clients and other consultants) outside the boundaries of their firms for inspiration.”
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