Is thought leadership the domain of marketing or strategy?

Until now, I think many have seen thought leadership as a buzzword – just a description for a type of content marketing that digs a little deeper than your average ‘listicle’.

But thought leadership isn’t a subset of content marketing. It’s a whole beast (and a very exciting one!) all to itself.

Thought leadership is a way of positioning yourself strategically within a market, an industry, or society to influence the way people think and act.

While content marketing is focused purely on bringing leads into your business, thought leadership does so much more.

It allows you to spread your ideas further and have a greater impact. It allows you to spark positive change (thanks to Hannah McKnight from Ngātahi Communications for that fabulous phrase!). It allows you to bring people along on a journey, and get them excited about your ideas and vision.

And yes, it does bring in business as well – because you become seen as the ‘go-to’ in your field.

A global strategic trend

Globally, we’re seeing a real trend towards thought leadership being a strategic approach rather than a marketing tactic. Thought leadership departments are popping up in global enterprises under the strategy umbrella, and many business leaders are moving from a focus on strategy to thought leadership.

As Bill Sherman of Thought Leadership Leverage shared in one of our conversations, “I’d argue that one of the main reasons to do thought leadership is business strategy. 

“It’s a tool to help you get your internal team aligned to a vision. And it’s a way to reach customers, prospects, and target audiences and shape how they think and act. I think that’s why we’re seeing some heads of strategy at major organizations moving into thought leadership roles. Thought leadership isn’t ancillary to the business; it’s core to the business.”

Although we don’t have many organisations big enough  – or brave enough (yet!) – to have thought leadership departments here in New Zealand, those lessons can be applied just as well to mid-sized businesses.

Making the choice

So how do you go about making thought leadership a core part of your strategy?

The first choice to make is: Do we want to be thought leaders? 

If your business is ticking away nicely and you have no interest in growing it further, then thought leadership may not be the right approach for you.

But if you’re ready to have a wider impact, get your ideas out further, and really claim your space as an authority, then thought leadership could be the way to go.

We notice it working particularly well for business owners in the B2B services space, especially where there’s consulting or coaching involved – but that certainly isn’t the only situation where thought leadership can flourish. 

Strategic thinking

The second thing to consider is – are we ready to be thought leaders? 

Not every business or business leader is ready for thought leadership – and that’s okay. But if you’re going to invest your time and energy into sharing your content and spreading your ideas, you have to invest even more time and energy into the thinking itself. 

Christopher Brace put it well when he shared, “I think it’s critical to draw a distinction between strategic thinking and strategic planning. Strategic thinking is the world of thought leadership while strategic planning is the world of any business unit activating the thought leadership. Organizations seem to be flush with planning and very short on thinking!”

Of course, we know that thinking – coming up with fresh ideas and challenging and testing them until they’re robust – is the hard part. It takes time and dedication. But the payoffs for your business can be huge.

Incorporating thought leadership into your strategy

Once you’ve decided that thought leadership is the right approach for you, you need to create a thought leadership strategy that is closely aligned with your organisation’s overall strategy.

Consider – what are you trying to achieve as a business? How can thought leadership support those goals? 

The best thought leadership is always driven by a clear purpose – by your why, if we’re looking to Simon Sinek. If your business and your thought leadership activities are aligned under the same purpose, you’re going to have a far greater impact on both your audience and your business – because all your activity will be working towards the same goal.

The other area you need to be clear on is who your audience is. Understanding who you are trying to influence, and who your thinking can help, is key to deciding on what activities you will take to spread your thought leadership. We’re not talking 45-year-old Bob who works in accounting and has two kids here – we’re talking the type of people who have a belief system that will allow them to open their minds to your ideas. We’re talking the people in positions who can actually implement your ideas. 

If we take Malcolm Gladwell’s terms from The Tipping Point, thought leaders are likely to be a combination of Mavens – “people we rely upon to connect us with new information” – and Salesmen (or women, thank you!) – “charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills”. 

In many cases, one of our key audiences will be Connectors – those who “link us up with the world… people with a special gift for bringing the world together”. In other words, those who will help us connect our ideas with the world.

Deciding who you’re trying to reach is vital. As Bill Sherman says, “It’s likely that target audiences for your thought leadership go beyond buyers’ profiles. And that’s why thought leadership can’t be a scattershot, haphazard approach. It totally needs to be strategic!”

Why is it a good strategic choice for Kiwi business owners?

Although there are plenty of speakers, plenty of authors, and plenty of businesses doing content marketing in New Zealand, there are very few business owners who have truly tapped into the power of strategic thought leadership. 

There is an immense opportunity to become known as the thought leader in your field both here in New Zealand and on a global scale (which I’ll be looking at in a few weeks as I explore what Kiwi thought leadership looks like).

If you can elevate conversations, drive thinking forward, and engage others in your ideas, you have a huge opportunity to create greater impact. And with few Kiwis taking a strategic approach, now’s the time to set yourself apart.

If you’re interested in finding out whether a strategic thought leadership approach is right for you, book a free 30 minute chat with me via Kintell here.

By Verity Craft