In the mid 1800s, the priest Henry Ward Beecher became known for his fight to abolish slavery in America. He received extensive praise and achieved great influence through his spell-binding lectures and powerful efforts to collect money to purchase freedom for slaves. Beecher is historical in that he was the first ever to receive the designation thought leader.
Thus, the term thought leader has its roots far back in history. But it was first in 1994 that the American economist Joel Kurtzman made it a concept in the business world.1 He defines a thought leader as an individual or a company that builds its competitiveness and profits on being a known authority within a specific area. There are large similarities with the newer concept “influencer” but there is one defining difference. An influencer can be a thought leader but usually isn’t. A thought leader, on the other hand, is always an influencer.
What unifies thought leaders is that they have created a unique position and changed people’s perceptions by coming up with new ideas, knowledge, and insights, which makes them the self-evident actor to turn to for expert help. Business leaders like Elon Musk and Ariana Huffington, researchers like Michael Porter and Cynthia Kenyon, or organizations such as McKinsey and Harvard Business School are all examples of thought leaders. But there are also of course a range of other more niched actors in various sectors, industries and functions.
Driven by consulting companies such as McKinsey, IBM and Gartner, ideas about thought leadership as a strategy have, since we entered the digital era, become an object of increasing interest. Gartner even claims that thought leadership is one of the most powerful trends in sales and marketing, and is currently the highest priority for most B2B companies.2 Interest in thought leadership has increased continuously over the past decade and has not stopped growing despite several years of hype around the concept.
According to Gartner, the largest driver behind this trend is tougher competition, where well-informed customers experience little or no difference between different products and suppliers. The need to differentiate one’s self increases pressure to be the thought-leading company that customers turn to when they seek help. Another driver is the difficult task of penetrating with one’s marketing. The competition for customers’ attention today is brutal, and if you aren’t perceived as an authority in your area you will have more and more difficulty with outreach. Therefore, one needs to build a brand that creates a feeling of authenticity, respect and trust, which manifests what thought leadership is about.
The entrepreneur Brian Clark, who started the blog Copyblogger in 2006, is someone who has succeeded at this. In 2017 Copyblogger was the most influential blog about content marketing, with more than 200,000 unique followers. Clark claims himself that he never needed risk capital, advertising or to hire sales reps. As a thought leader, customers come to him for advice. Many companies study with envy how he has succeeded like a magnet in creating such a strong position as a thought leader.
Thought leadership is when a leader’s thoughts are being used by leaders to lead others. | Onyi Anyado, prize-winning speaker, entrepreneur and writer
Thought leaders exist in all areas that require expertise. Those who achieve the greatest impact often come with huge new ideas and knowledge that inspires and encourages change. They identify trends and social phenomena and look beyond the horizon. At its core, this is about showing that they have a deeper understanding of customers’ problems and current and future challenges than the competition. Consulting and analysis companies often try to achieve this position by publishing advice, research, statistics, tend analyses and new management models in their own publications, such as McKinsey Quarterly, A.T. Kearney Executive Agenda and Deloitte Review. Even we at ProSales Institute have this approach as a goal – to build a thought-leadership position through solid research and trend analyses about B2B sales & marketing.
This has become an important strategy for many companies. So important that many companies have emerged that help their customers to develop trustworthy evidence-based material. Longitude Research, which was on the Financial Times’ 2017 list of the thousand fastest-growing companies in Europe, is one of these.3 Many Mayor brands within media, such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, offer similar services.
A cornerstone for anyone who aims to achieve a position as a thought leader is to stop hiding their knowledge and share it instead. In today’s transparent society there are great opportunities for those who dare to take this step. For example, the company GE Plastics, which made molds for plastic, opted to publish their 30 years of research publicly on the Internet. Registered users gained access to fact sheets, test results, expert advice and simulation software. It can seem strange to give away their collected knowledge: something that had been their competitive edge. The competition was of course there and searched for information, but so did their customers – one million per year visited their new information site. In addition to the enormous attention gained by the company and its strengthened position as a thought leader, customer satisfaction increased, and costs decreased. The quantity of customer support calls for example decreased from 500,000 to 250,000 per year. By building this knowledge center they also created a new tool for generating new business deals.
One important conclusion in this context is that all companies don’t strive to become thought leaders. But for an increasing number of companies this strategy is becoming more important in a growing knowledge-based society, where doing so helps and strengthens the marketing process. Here, all of the functions in a company – including sales and marketing – must work together if one really wants to succeed.
1 Kurtzman har bl.a. arbetat för tankesmedjan Milken Institute, varit chefredaktör för Harvard Business Review, kolumnist i New York Times samt grundare och chefredaktör för affärstidningen “Strategy + Business magazine”, där han var först med att skriva om termen “Thought Leader”.
2 Gartner Group (2010). Marketing Essentials: How to Use Thought Leadership marketing.
3 Stabe, M, Rininsland, A. Bernard S. (2017). The FT 1000: The complete list of Europe’s fastest-growing companies. Financial Times. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://ig.ft.com/ft-1000/