The term “thought leadership” is near the top of the list for trending buzzwords in the marketing industry as we enter the 2020s. It’s such a ubiquitous term, and so many people are using it, that I’m surprised there isn’t a universal-accepted definition. It’s about time we have one.
Some people use the term as if it’s synonymous with content publishing, such as writing blogs or publishing books. Other people think that a thought leader is someone who speaks for a living, like a keynote speaker at a professional conference or even a college professor. You might have even heard someone link thought leadership with your social media following, as if you need so many Instagram followers or a blue checkmark on Twitter to be a thought leader.
Now, every industry has its own unique jargon. While it tends to be the source of industry humor, jargon also plays an important role in our work. It actually helps connect the people within an industry and allows them to be more specialized through a shared vocabulary. That’s why it’s important for those of us who work in communications and marketing, convergent industries in which content has been king for a while, to have a shared definition of thought leadership.
Here’s the definition we use with our clients at Bellwether Communications, and that I recommend be adopted industry-wide:
Thought leadership is your expertise being made accessible and valuable to an audience by creating useful content and distributing it through effective communications.
Right away we see that there are five key elements that make up thought leadership: expertise, accessibility, value, useful content, and effective communications. Let’s unpack each of those a little bit more to explain why this definition works.
Expertise leads the definition of “thought leadership” because it is the main factor that determines whether or not you’re a thought leader. If you have expertise, you can add value with useful content, but that doesn’t work the other way around. You don’t become an expert by creating a lot of content, and this is a huge misconception about thought leadership.
Some consider themselves to be a thought leader because they produce a large amount of content or have a big audience. They write dozens of blogs, post loads of articles, upload numerous videos, and write too many social media posts to count. If they’re simply sharing information or opinions with their followers, even thousands or millions of followers, but they don’t have expertise, then they’re more properly defined as an influencer.
These are individuals who produce tons of content with an audience that pays attention. Influencers have thousands of followers, not necessarily because they’re experts, but because people just like them and their content is enjoyable. But being likable and having expertise are not the same thing. Being likeable means that people are influenced by other people or brands who are like them or who they find relatable. While having expertise says that people trust you and your brand because you’re in a position of authority on the subject.
Likability relates to familiarity and connectivity. Expertise relates to authority. Likeability can make you an influencer, but expertise can make you a thought leader.
Accessibility is a key part of thought leadership because a thought leader is an expert who intentionally shares their knowledge with others. A person becomes a thought leader, and not just an expert, when they choose to make their expertise accessible to other people. Someone who just attends conferences with peers or only publishes in niche journals is not a thought leader because they’re not influencing an audience. Their expertise stays confined to their small circles.
If an expert chooses not to make their expertise accessible to a wide audience, they may be acting as a coach. A coach’s knowledge is only accessible and valuable to the proteges they train and not a broader audience. If they did expand their reach into the world, they’d be a thought leader. For example, the much-beloved basketball coach John Wooden expanded his influence beyond the teams he coached to the rest of the world by writing several popular books on leadership.
It’s not enough to just make your expertise accessible to people. To really be a thought leader, there has to be a reason for people to seek out your expertise. You need to offer a clear explanation about why your ideas and insights are worth their time.
For some thought leaders, the value they add to their audience is pretty straight forward. A small business owner’s expertise, for example, is an integral part of what they sell; so communicating that to people will help them reach customers. For others, the value may be more indirect, such as advocating for social change that your audience finds desirable. The value doesn’t have to be tangible to be meaningful.
A person who is an expert in their field, and is willing to make their expertise accessible, but doesn’t know how to make it valuable to a wider audience, is a scholar. A scholar may be someone who is an expert in a field not many people are not interested in (septic systems?) or a field most people won’t understand (cancer research?). We can all recognize and respect their expertise, and maybe benefit from it in ways we don’t understand, but they aren’t thought leaders if no one benefits from accessing their expertise.
Useful content is goal-oriented, produces a certain outcome for your audience, and generates a result for the thought leader. Whether you’re an individual, a small business owner, or a thought-leading organization, your content has to invoke a response from the reader, listen, or recipient, or else it’s not worth your time.
This will be familiar territory for people who work in marketing, but the way you’re going to make the content is useful is to be sure it has a “call-to-action” (CTA) in it. So that when your audience has consumed your content, it ends with an action item for them to do. It’s what inspires the person to take the next right step. A CTA may not be large, such as an ask to purchase your expensive product or book you to speak at a conference, it could be a small ask such as a button to click, an email to sign up for, or a link to follow you on social media.
People struggle to make CTAs because they can feel "salesy." It can feel forced, but the important thing to understand is that calling your audience to take action is part of your job as a thought leader. You are the authority on this topic. Your expertise is adding value to their lives and they’re trusting you to guide them toward the next right step. If you leave them where they are and hope that reading your blog alone will dramatically change their lives, that’s not likely to happen, which means you are not being a thought leader.
Unfortunately, a lot of people just have an “if we build it they will come” mentality with their content. Don’t fall into the trap of writing the blogs, recording the YouTube videos, producing whatever form of content soaks up your expertise and your brilliance without considering how to connect with your audience. You need to do this by strategically implementing communications tactics. Communications is the comprehensive term we use because it includes marketing, PR, social media, content creation, and the various methods you would be using to get your useful content into the hands of your audience, in front of their eyeballs, or into their earbuds.
To do communications well, and to make it effective, you will need to invest time and treasure. You can minimize how much of your time it will take if you are willing to invest more money into hiring professional help. You can offset it the other way as well, spending more of your own time to save more of your money. But however you manage that trade-off, you need to be prepared to make the investment necessary to ensure you are communicating effectively.
Who is a thought leader?
One thing you may notice from this definition is that thought leadership is not industry-specific. Anyone in any industry who has expertise and wants to share it can be a thought leader.
One of my favorite examples of a thought leader is the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. He is one of the most famous names in the highly technical field of cosmology and astrophysics, right up there with Albert Einstein. He wasn’t a thought leader because he was the best; he was a thought leader because he made his expertise accessible through the book, A Brief History of Time. It was a widely-popular bestseller that explained astrophysics to the layperson in a way that an entry-level science consumer could read. It added value to their lives by making the universe accessible and exciting. For the first time, anyone could have a working knowledge of black holes and the big bang theory, and that’s what made him a household name. It wasn’t just that he published in journals or taught at a fancy university—he chose to take his groundbreaking knowledge and share it with the world.
Who is NOT a thought leader?
In our definition, the first three elements make up the “what” of thought leadership. That is expertise, accessibility, and value. If you lack expertise, you may be an influencer. If you are an expert, but you don’t make your expertise accessible, you may be a coach. If you are an expert and are willing to make your expertise accessible, but it doesn’t add value to an audience, you may be a scholar.
Being an influencer, a coach, or a scholar are all perfectly valid roles. There are plenty of reasons why someone would want to be any one of those things. They just aren’t thought leaders without meeting the rest of the definition, and we all need to acknowledge that.
If you are an expert and are willing to make your expertise accessible and valuable to an audience, then you have to meet the “how” of thought leadership. That is, you have to produce useful content and distribute it through effective communications to be a thought leader.