So, you’d like to embark on a thought leadership program. Now what?
In practice, thought leadership is as ancient as Greek philosophers teaching on olive-tree-studded foothills. Wikipedia explains the modern iteration of the term was coined in 1994 to describe a particular business magazine’s interview subjects “who had business ideas which merited attention.” This definition, now spanning a larger universe of people and businesses, holds true, and leads to answering where to begin.
As a thought leader, you start by identifying ideas that merit attention. In practical terms, you do this by continually immersing yourself in technical and business news and relevant social media, seeking the most relevant issues in your market. As you talk with your customers, you listen to what’s keeping them up at night. You consider what industry influencers are talking about. You’ll need to understand what’s currently being talked about before you can contribute something unique to the conversation. Ultimately, as a thought leader, your goal is to envision where things are heading, and lead the conversation there.
Identifying the things that matter most to your customers is the first plank of a thought leadership program suitable for a technology vendor. This research can be aided through direct conversations with customers and prospects, search analytics, social media groups and hashtags as well as formal/informal marketing focus groups, surveys and other traditional marketing tools.
This fact-gathering step is also one to consider assigning to outside consultants, because their objective perspective adds value and alleviates you of what can be a time-consuming process. The results of this process should be topics that resonate with customers and prospects, as well as incites passion in you, the thought leader.
Once this larger set of topics has been developed, you’ll cull the list to a few, strong themes that are broad enough to allow you to develop them into multiple discussion threads. This is important as it relates to the long-term commitment aspect of thought leadership. You’ll be approaching each topic from various viewpoints, and you will likely segue from topic to topic, but be forewarned: you will be talking about these topics for months and possibly years to come.
Now for the plank that differentiates true thought leaders from “wannabes.” For each of the selected topics, you’ll need to apply your specific expertise to make connections in a way that others cannot or have not done so before. While this step requires both originality and technical expertise, it is another place in the process that can be enhanced by a partner that has experience asking laser-focused questions to help end the proverbial throat-clearing and generate the compelling ideas that “shape people’s perception of your company, your products, even your shared futures.” This is how author Daniel W. Rasmus defines today’s thought leadership, in “The Golden Rules for Creating Thoughtful Thought Leadership,” Dec. 12, 2012, Fast Company.
Not only is the successful thought leader making connections and shaping perceptions in innovative ways, but he or she does this by translating complex issues into understandable ideas that benefit the market. And whether the thought leadership program is executed by a large, well known corporation or a smaller, unknown tech company, it succeeds when the thought leader shares his or her expertise credibly, building trust in the truth of what is being shared.
Successful thought leadership attracts the attention of professionals. For one of K/F’s clients, a multi-year program culminated in the recognition of the thought leader as one of the most influential bloggers in his technology field. His twice monthly opinion pieces had successfully reached a mix of partners, customers, prospective customers, employees, journalists, industry analysts and investors as well as prospective candidates from these categories. Others recognized his insights; he didn’t need to proclaim himself as a guru.
A final word of advice: while successful thought leadership contributes to business’ primary goal of increasing revenue, the thought leader must commit to living by Mr. Rasmus’ first Golden Rule: “Don’t sell anything except ideas.” If you adhere to our amendment to this rule, “Don’t sell anything except ideas that merit attention,” then you’ll be on your way towards executing a successful thought leadership program that will in the end benefit you and your company.