Thought Leadership: The Most Misused Term in B2B Marketing?

Thought Leadership: The Most Misused Term in B2B Marketing?
Stephanie Tilton - Wed Jun 20, 2012 @ 06:00AM
Comments: 81

Outside of industry jargon, no phrase is thrown around as lightly as "thought leadership" in the technology sector.

In my work developing content for technology companies, the topic of “thought leadership” comes up often. The discussion usually goes like this: “We want to develop a thought-leadership white paper.” When I ask what innovative or visionary ideas monkey-scratching-head.jpgthe company wants to share, I’m often met with silence. Or am pointed to the insights and visions of others and told to reference those.

The concept of “thought leadership” continues to be controversial, namely for reasons such as these – companies misunderstand or misuse the term and in doing so, degrade its intrinsic value.

Someone commented on a blog post that he believes companies are actually saying they want to generate awareness when they say they want to develop a "thought-leadership" paper, which may very well be the case. The fact is, not every company can be a thought leader – and that’s okay.

I'm not saying I have all the answers. But I can point you to posts exploring the issue:

Now that we’ve beaten thought leadership down, here are suggestions on how to develop true thought leadership:

  • This post by Britton Manasco defines thought leadership, as does this one by Michael Brenner.
  • Both Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute and Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners debunk the myth that you’re “giving it all away” by sharing your insights.
  • Want a 4-step framework for B2B marketing and thought leadership, and examples of B2B marketers that have mastered the science of thought leadership marketing? Check out this one-hour on-demand webinar presented by DemandGen Report and featuring Jeff Ernst of Forrester Research.
  • For ideas on how to gain real traction with thought leadership, read my interview with Chris Koch.  
  • Wondering if your content is supporting or sinking your thought-leadership efforts? Read this post by Kevin Cain of OpenView Venture Partners, which outlines criteria for judging the thought-leadership worthiness of your content.
  • Want to discuss this topic with others? Join these LinkedIn groups: Thought Leadership Salon and The Thought Leadership Marketing Mastermind Group.


How are you seeing the term “thought leadership” misapplied? Know of companies that are truly thought leaders? Share your finds and thoughts!  

Image source: Tambako the Tiger on flickr

Comments: 81


1. Doug Kessler - B2B marketing  |  my website   |   Wed Jun 20, 2012 @ 09:48AM

Nice one. It needed to be said, Stephanie.

We marketers can use jargon so much that we forget it's jargon at all.
Thought Leadership is definitely one of those terms that get thrown around indiscriminately until they lose their meaning.

And most so-called thought leadership is actually thought followership!

2. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Wed Jun 20, 2012 @ 08:32PM

Doug, if there's one person I know that says it like it is, it's you (and if I'm looking for a few more people, I just think of your cohorts at Velocity Partners ; )

So true that the majority of thought leadership is anything but. It would be so much clearer if everyone would just stick to the "rules"!

Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts!

3. Craig Badings  |  my website   |   Thu Jun 21, 2012 @ 02:14AM

Stephanie well said. The problem thought leadership faces is that it is a relatively new term and an even newer discipline - the term was only coined only 15 years ago. Much like the term public relations was misused for decades until people started understanding its role and place in the marketing mix, thought leadership is undergoing the same teething problems.

In many industries, particularly management consultancies and other professional services firms it is now quite sophisticated. Sadly in many others it is bandied about quite loosely and applied to every bit of content the company puts out whether it is thought leading content or not.

My prediction is that we will see this change over time. Thought leadership is here to stay and it will become a powerful part of the marketing and sales mix.

4. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Thu Jun 21, 2012 @ 08:12AM

Craig, I appreciate your perspective and think it's interesting that some industries have fared better than others when it comes to thought leadership and wonder what lies behind that. I'm wondering if it's that management consultancies and pro services firms are in a way "forced" to stay in tune with what's happening in the their clients' industries in order to effectively deliver services. On the other hand, companies selling products can manage to remain more inward focused (much to their detriment).

5. Nick Stamoulis  |  my website   |   Thu Jun 21, 2012 @ 08:40AM

In order to be a true thought leader you need to publish content that is different from the rest. If you are simply rehashing what others say you can't be considered a thought leader. You need to add your own unique point of view on the topic.

6. Dana VanDen Heuvel  |  my website   |   Thu Jun 21, 2012 @ 08:56AM

Stephanie, I like the way you've stated this and especially like the links to "how to think about this the right way." That said, I'm surprised that you didn't link to any of the "thought leadership" on thought leadership that the Bloom Group has published. In my own work on the topic, I've drawn a considerable amount from their early thinking on this, especially their "Seven Hallmarks of Compelling Intellectual Capital."

Further, I'm with Craig on the idea that thought leadership is early on in its development and not unlike every other business term like JIT, CRM, and so forth. That said, there are terms with far less ambiguity, but more on that in a second. To Craig's point as well.

The one thing that I believe this industry (if you want to call TL and industry) is really missing is a seminal work and, I hate to use it, but a real "thought leader" that crystallizes what TL is really supposed to mean. When you look at other terms like Reengineering, Lean manufacturing, Value stream, Kaizen and so forth, the disciplines are both well worn and have some great pieces of intellectual property created around them to cement the real meaning into the business culture. Craig's book and others aside, we still don't have a "universal resource" to draw on insofar as TL is concerned. Or, at least that's how I see it.

More to Craig's point on PR, I believe that it wasn't until Bernays put the stake in the ground on Propaganda and later with his master piece on Public Relations that we all got to really understand what PR truly means. How many executives do you hear misusing PR on a daily basis. I would argue that they outnumber those misusing TL, and PR is a very old concept now...

I was personally first introduced to the concept in 2003 by Steven Van Yoder when he wrote "Get Slightly Famous", and have never looked back. That said, I'm hard pressed to come up with any major developments in TL in the last decade. It's gotten more buzz (though I don't believe that it's as overused or "misused" as you state) but it's still lacking in overall sophistication and applicability, as evidenced the misuse that you point out.

More posts like yours and conversations like these are necessary for us to really get this discipline to the level of use and understanding that it deserves. Looking forward to the dialogue!

7. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Thu Jun 21, 2012 @ 04:49PM

Dana -- Thank you for sharing your insights. I also appreciate the pointer to the Bloom Group. I love learning about resources I hadn't considered.

You raise an important point about the lack of a definitive guide to thought leadership, and bet many organizations would welcome such a resource. For now, as you say, it's important to continue a healthy discussion on the topic!

8. Jim Burns  |  my website   |   Fri Jun 22, 2012 @ 06:07AM

Stephanie, thought leadership is like stardom. Other people bestow it on those they think deserve it based upon their achievements. Let's start with good ideas. That's "valuable and useful," the criteria typically associated with content marketing.

We see formal thought leadership in larger organizations based on specialized teams that conduct research to distill their many insights and good ideas into a "big idea." This takes skill, expertise, time and resources. Most of us with a day job that isn't focused solely on this activity should strive for good ideas.

For those "professionals" who do manage thought leadership programs, they have another challenge: how to "hand-off" their big idea to the many marketing and sales enablement teams that must create "content extensions" that are buyer and situation relevant. We've just completed a blog post on this:

9. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Fri Jun 22, 2012 @ 10:04AM

Jim, I like how you contrast "good ideas" vs a "big idea." That said, I think too many companies claim they have a "good idea" (i.e., thought leadership) because they're up to speed on their customers' industries and understand their pain points, goals, etc. That's not thought leadership -- that's table stakes. If a company didn't have that understanding, it wouldn't be in business.

I agree that it takes a dedicated focus, process, and framework to truly come up with, cultivate, and socialize a "big" idea. Thanks for sharing your post with ideas on how to develop and manage the critical hand-off process. Good stuff!

10. Britton Manasco  |  my website   |   Fri Jun 22, 2012 @ 01:45PM

Great discussion, Stephanie. One thing I would add is that thought leadership gets even more interesting as a discipline as it begins to move beyond the realm of PR and marketing and outward toward the realm of sales/sales enablement.

In other words, sales people need to begin to think of themselves as thought leaders (aka trusted advisors) if they are to break through what I've called "the trust barrier." They may not have to create content to do this (in fact, that may prove to be a distraction), but they do need to curate it and present it to their potential customers in personal, relevant, provocative and memorable ways.

For an example of this model, check out Jill Rowley, Eloqua's top sales person for 7 of the last 8 years. I am fascinating by her curation and social media skills as well as her passion for her subject. She demonstrates how sales people can become thought leaders (by leveraging the insightful content of others).

Of course, companies do need to be generating original and compelling insights and perspectives for their sales people to discuss in the field. That should be a core part of the decision-enabling content that sales people are sharing in their interactions. (But it need not ALL be developed in-house. Sales people also should be curating and sharing the work of other influencers and provocateurs.)

To sum up: As sales people increasingly adopt these approaches and bring truly relevant insights to their conversations, I think the discipline of thought leadership (whether it goes by that name or not) will rise to a new level.

Best, Britton

11. Britton Manasco  |  my website   |   Fri Jun 22, 2012 @ 01:56PM

Jim, I hadn't refreshed my screen. So I hadn't seen your comment before writing mine. But it looks like we were thinking along the same lines in terms of how successful application by demand-gen and sales enablement teams fuels demand for more ideas, insights and content-rich messages. Britton

12. Stephanie Tilton  |  my website   |   Mon Jun 25, 2012 @ 08:04AM

Britton -- I like the angle you've raised about sales reps being the delivery conduit for thought leadership and establishing themselves as trusted advisors. As you say, by delivering a higher level of value than their competition, folks like Jill Rowley stand out and stay top of mind with prospective buyers. Thanks for weighing in!

13. Anand Radhakrishnan  |  my website   |   Thu Jun 28, 2012 @ 06:09AM

Very interesting article, like the part where companies turn silent when they are asked on what topics they would like thought leadership. Must say many B2B marketers would find themselves in that situation.

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