In the spirit of Christmas and as a gesture of goodwill, we’re holding a marketing competition with a cash prize of $50 trillion for one lucky winner. No strings, no catches.*
It’s a huge(ish) prize because we’d like the marketing and PR community to come up with a better term for one of the most over-used and misunderstood terms in the PR and marketing handbook.
Thought leadership. A term that we all think we understand, but interpret in all sorts of different ways.
It’s a bit like trying to describe an elephant. We all know what it looks like, but it’s not easy to define succinctly.
Wikipedia defines a thought leader as “an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialised field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.”
A recent article in Forbes magazine described it as “an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.”
I’m not sure that either definition entirely sums up the complexity of thought leadership because it’s also about cultivating brand and corporate values that, of themselves, are hugely important but which may be largely intangible.
What is central, however, is that thought leaders are not shy to come forward. Whether as companies or individuals, thought leaders engage with their markets, to educate, start discussions, or offer insight –with compelling content that everyone in their markets, including
competitors, will want to read.
That means stepping away from the bland product press release, blog or Tweet. It means defining issues in the marketplace on which you can comment – lucidly, provocatively (if need be) but, most of all, cogently. Irrelevance or waffle not allowed.
It’s about engagement with everyone in your markets, and saying things that are useful to them. Things that give them pause for thought. New ideas boldly expressed and well researched. Inspiring or educational content that will lodge in potential customers’ minds: raising profile, creating trust – and nudging them into the sales cycle.
A lot of companies play at thought leadership, and as a result rarely become respected commentators. They make the mistake of writing from a corporate standpoint, rather than from their industry. In a way, thought leadership is therefore communications philanthropy.
It’s about giving valuable insights away for free; promoting you or your company for what it knows, rather than what it does. It should demonstrate an intellectual mastery of the market: a company to be trusted because it understands and is willing to share that understanding. It’s about positioning and corporate value.
My problem with thought leadership is with the term itself. It’s now so used and abused in so many different contexts to have lost its shine. A cliché to be quietly killed off. I think it’s time to come up with a better term.
What’s certain is that the person who comes up with that new term, and manages to achieve widespread business acceptance for it, will be a genuine thought leader.
I’ll cull the best suggestions made on our LinkedIn or Facebook pages before Christmas, post the best of them early in the New Year and (since it’s my $50 trillion) I’ll also pick a winner.
* The prize is offered as a single banknote issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, so don’t get too excited.