Becoming a Thought Leader

For some people, the surest way to become a thought leader is to declare that you are one. These people are not thought leaders.

True thought leaders are those who strategically cultivate industry insight to build foresight. They go beyond being experts to become innovators and in doing so they influence organizational change, sustainability and brand integrity. True thought leaders create content that speaks to the issues, the solutions,

the results and the future—content that is designed to solve buyer problems or smart and worthy of doing business with, even if that means the content they are creating isn’t about them or the products and services they have to offer. Every organization should consider adapting a thought leadership strategy for the measurable benefits the aspiration holds. But, you cannot simply declare yourself a thought leader. It takes time, purpose, strategy and the collaborative use of many tactics and get there.

answer questions. They use this content to show that they and their business are

tools. Read on to discover why thought leadership is worth pursuing and how to

Follow the leader: Benefits of thought leadership
Credibility and clout

Credibility breeds more credibility. Thought leaders become such because they are credible, but thought leaders need to ensure that they or their business maintains credibility. By staying on top of industry trends and information, along with innovating and demonstrating expertise, thought leaders are likely to continue

to be seen as a credible source. Through thought leadership, prospective clients, and become invested long before they buy in or sign up.

consumers, competitors and media will experience a brand’s or individual’s value

Once trust is gained, and thought leaders continually prove themselves within the field, their comments and actions will eventually guide the thoughts, opinions, beliefs, questions and decisions of their audiences. Audiences will trust them— and take their word that purple is the new black.

Cisco SystemsSM: Outshining the competition through credibility and clout In recent years, technology giant Cisco Systems set out to position itself as more than a technology company, but rather a “technology consultancy.” To accomplish this, Cisco’s executives have made thought leadership a
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Be the Go-To-Guru

John Chambers, Cisco’s CEO, contends that the insights Cisco has gained through its thought leadership strategy internally, can now be shared with its clients to help them drive growth. “We’re really talking about business process change,” he says. “And since we have done it for ourselves, we can show others how.” 1 Visibility Many of the tactics involved in becoming a thought leader position brands and individuals for a myriad of opportunities to raise name awareness, reaching new audiences and building rapport with current ones. Companies may see an increase in media requests and placements content primes thought leaders to lead the SEO pack.

and a notable improvement in their Internet search result returns. Why? Quality

FedExSM: Leveraging global market opportunities by creating visibility Fred Smith is the man responsible for pioneering the overnight-package delivery market and finding a need for the service before consumers even knew they wanted it. As CEO of FedEx, Smith has also spent the past few years pioneering a unique thought leadership campaign for the brand, called Access. Access is designed to showcase FedEx and its executives as leaders and innovators in a global economy, and aims to engage high-level executives across industries in the topic of access: in this case, the movement of goods and information.

FedEx reaches audiences through Access in the utilization of multiple channels: an annual magazine, called Access Review; direct mail; in-person events for executives including speaking engagements featuring Smith; and a robust Web site that includes rich content, research, video and blogs all written by FedEx executives and customers. The success of FedEx’s Access, according to Smith, is evident through Web site traffic and overall use and demand of Access, as well as increased global sales. He also proudly points out that while positioning FedEx as a thought leader, the share of Gross Domestic Products (GDP) tied to logistics costs fell from 16.5% to 9.5% in 25 years, generating enormous gains to corporate bottom lines and giving us all vastly more purchasing power. Smith recognized that innovations and foresight in the form of new approaches, new technology and a commitment to customer responsiveness could transform the way business is done and generate enormous economic benefits. He also knew how to articulate this vision in a way that would win converts and promote free enterprise. 2

1 Manasco, Britton. “Why you must offer customers a guiding oar in today’s environment.” Web log post. The Reputation Garage Blog. 14 May 2009. Web. <>. 2 Manasco, Britton. “When it Absolutely, Positively Takes a Thought Leader to Get There.” Web log post. Illuminating the Future: HOW THOUGHT LEADERS BECOME MARKET LEADERS. 02 Nov. 2008. Web. <http://www.brittonmanasco. com/2008/11/when-it-absolutely-positively-takes-a-thought-leader.html>.
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goal. They create and distribute content that educate their audiences first and promote Cisco Systems products and services second. Additionally, all executives were expected to establish their own thought leadership presence through blogs, articles and public speaking engagements.

Good will In the classic 1947 holiday movie, “Miracle on 34th Street,” Macy’s Santa Claus instructs shoppers to shop elsewhere for items they are unable to find in the store. Initially, management fears that this will lead to the loss of customers, but later finds that it

actually increases customer service satisfaction in the store, maintaining customers and

bringing in new ones through word of mouth. While a Hollywood portrayal, Kris Kringle’s knowledge and honesty was appreciated and as such, Macy’s was able to benefit directly in sales. In the real world, thought leadership can do the same for individuals and companies—by simply using knowledge to illustrate that they care for the needs and interests of their audiences, they are creating good will. “What differentiates [someone] as a thought leader,” explains Theresa Skillrund, account supervisor at Minneapolis-based public relations agency

Padilla Speer Beardsley. “Is [their] genuine willingness to help by providing

resources and information beyond what [they] and [their] company may offer.”

Skillrund adds that “Being open and generous with what you know will build trust and lead to other rewards, in the form of recognition and credibility.”

Campaign for Real Beauty: When good will and research yield greater results When DoveTM launched its thought leadership-based Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004, no one could have predicted the emotional impact it would have or the debate over “real beauty” that it would incite. Additionally, no one could have predicted the double-digit growth for the brand following the launch—a sales increase of roughly $500 million.

From the beginning, the purpose of this campaign was focused on catering to the needs of Dove consumers. The campaign was rooted in extensive research that spurred Dove to recognize customers’ dismay at the disparity between “real” beauty and the beauty depicted in advertising.

Following this research, Dove created a Web site (www.CampaignforRealBeauty. com) and invited women and experts to participate in conversations through blogs, forums and polls on beauty stereotypes. Eventually, they expanded to the use of advertising, Web videos and billboards, and even started a non profit fund to assist in self-esteem training for young girls. But, here’s the clincher—the reason the campaign exemplifies thought leadership—not one of these mediums featured a single ad mentioning or selling an actual Dove product. Instead, Dove positioned the campaign as a ‘starting point for societal change.’

Campaign for Real Beauty hit a chord with women worldwide, engaging consumers in a way the brand had never seen before—creating brand evangelists, word of mouth and brand loyalty. Dove became a thought leader by: tapping into the needs of its audience, focusing on the issues, and providing resources. 4

3 Skillrud, Theresa M. “Thought Leader.” Public Relations & Marketing Firm - Minneapolis, Minnesota / New York Public Relations - PR Agency. Web. 8 Oct. 2009. <>. 4 “Thought leadership case study - Dove.” Thought Leadership. Web. 09 Oct. 2009. <http://www.thoughtleadershipstrategy. net/2009/08/thought-leadership-case-study-dove/>.
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Conduct research and formulate an approach

If these benefits appeal to you or your organization, begin pursuing a thought

leadership strategy or campaign. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—know that while the cases above provide great examples of successful thought leadership, becoming a thought leader as a brand or as an individual may not be appropriate or viable in all cases. The first step you or your organization should take is research. The goal of this research is to discover first the readiness of you or your brand to become a thought leader, and second to gauge the needs of your audiences. Ask these questions to get started: • What do I, or what does my company, know? Am I qualified to be an expert? Does my company have staff or leadership that are qualified to be experts? • • • • • • Is there demand for the information? our audiences?

Is there time to continuously research, innovate and reach out to

Is company leadership willing to support and foster these efforts? thought leader? Could they? information do they seek on a day-to-day basis? How can thought leadership influence audiences behavior?

Do audiences or customers currently view you or your organization as a What are your audiences talking about; what do they care about; what

Using the responses to these questions as your guide, the next step is to determine your thought leadership approach: 1. 2. 3.

Thought leadership as an individual — supported by the brand. within the company. due to a lack of resources, talent or support.

Thought leadership as a brand — supported by multiple individuals

No thought leadership strategy — forego thought leadership altogether

Thought leadership as an individual implies that you, or another qualified person leader status. This approach often makes the most sense for smaller businesses. Thought leadership as brand is a team approach—cultivating multiple areas of

within your business, take on the responsibility of attaining and maintaining thought

knowledge and expertise from many individuals on behalf of the brand. This approach
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Because of Dove’s good will, the issues of real beauty and self esteem are now synonymous with the brand and they became thought leaders.

multiple industries.

Both approaches require some level of cultural commitment and strong executive

support to develop ideas. If these components are missing, thought leadership efforts

can become grossly impeded, slightly unfocused or misguided, and difficult to grow and measure. Make sure everyone is on board—a thought leader will need the help in order to effectively learn, innovate and disseminate information.

Britton Manasco, founder of Manasco Marketing Partners, says that companies that fail to become thought leaders often undergo the process with the idea that it’s a make-shift solution to a lack-luster bottom line. When really, being a thought larger business and communications plans. Success by way of this tactic leader isn’t a solution, it’s an ongoing tactic that should be integrated into your demands both commitment and consistency—so build up your endurance. 5

After determining an approach, continue research to determine the thought leader’s or your brand’s range of expertise. Develop a working list of all possible topics that

support this knowledge and skill set. By defining the parameters of expertise, thought is appropriate for their knowledge base, experience and audiences.

leaders will be better prepared to offer input when the opportunity arises in a way that

Then, it’s time to develop a strategy—one that is brand consistent, utilizes many different tools and tactics and reaches audiences through a variety of channels.

Formulate an effective message
information and trends, to serious and time-sensitive industry challenges. 6 Keep these tips in mind while developing your message strategies: •

Determine the goals for becoming a thought leader and then craft efforts and messages to follow suit. Content can differ in terms of subject matter, ranging from general

E xecute for your audience. Always keep them in mind when creating your thought leadership message. After all, truly successful thought leadership revolves around the purpose of serving them.

• •

Steer clear of industry jargon. Make content accessible to all audiences by avoiding technical terms whenever possible. B e consistent. Keep your blogs, articles and visuals current. If you stop

posting, your public will stop reading and subscribing. When just starting

5 Illuminating the Future: How Thought Leaders Become Market Leaders. Web. 08 Oct. 2009. <http://www.>. 6 Skillrud, Theresa M. “Thought Leader.” Public Relations & Marketing Firm - Minneapolis, Minnesota / New York Public Relations - PR Agency. Web. 8 Oct. 2009. <>.
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makes the most sense for larger businesses or businesses that span over

different examples if possible. Then, ease the flow to a steady trickle of 10 or more per month. As you continue to heighten your visibility, you’ll find yourself differentiating your business from your competitors’. •

C reate something new. Present new ideas in a new way, and don’t feel like

you always have to shy away from controversy. These ideas should shed new the information out there, but you have an opinion and you’re expanding on it. •

light, draw attention and instill the perception that you’re not only aware of

Quality, not quantity. While it’s important to keep an ever-increasing

presence both on and offline, try making each individual message short and to Shakespeare, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

to the point unless the medium demands otherwise. Remember, as according

Open the door
On a very basic level, there are two parts to thought leadership—idea development and content dissemination. If pursuing thought leadership through the brand approach, develop a team to provide a reliable source of content to package and disseminate. This team focuses on identifying internal thought leaders and building alliances with external academics and customers who can help develop and test ideas. Internal knowledge share sessions, and reward and recognition programs, provide added motivation for thought leaders to emerge inside the organization and help instill a thought leadership mindset into company culture. Both individual thought leaders and thought leadership teams should: Get out there

One of the easiest ways to get a thought leader’s name out there is to network— socialize across related industries. Advertising may bring in sales, but word of mouth referrals are often more valuable and cost effective. 9 Attend or speak

at professional association events, trade shows and seminars—anywhere that is relevant and offers high visibility. Also, sit in on panel discussions or sponsor a should be built to work for the brand. These opportunities kill two birds with one stone—they allow thought leaders to demonstrate their expertise, and a thought leader.

networking event for other industry leaders. Keep in mind that these connections

subsequently the expertise of the brand, while creating visibility to position them as

7 “Traffic Tube: YOUR Key to Online Visibility.” Free Articles Directory | Submit Articles - Web. 06 Oct. 2009. <>. 8 “Expert advice - How to become a leader in your industry.” Smart Business The Management Journal for Corporate Growth. Web. 08 Oct. 2009. <>. 9 “Three Steps to Positioning Yourself as an Industry Thought Leader -.” Associated Content - Web. 10 Oct. 2009. <>.
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out, it may be helpful to create an initial rush of submissions—more than 50

Become a resource Thought leaders need to be eager to volunteer their ideas and research to media writers and editors as a great way for your brand to exhibit credibility. leaders need to present themselves as reliable sources that are quick to respond, ensuring they’ll likely be called first by media. •

But remember that members of the media are often on deadline—so, thought

Thought leaders become reachable by: Creating a press kit—complete with a bio, a company fact sheet and the working list of topics they developed.

Ensuring that they are listed in directories— media directories, and other online resources.

such as those for members of professional associations or social • Keeping company contact information up to date and easily Twitter bios or backgrounds. Anticipate the news and create talking points

accessible on Web site, LinkedIn profiles, Facebook pages and

Thought leaders need to pay attention to daily and breaking news in print, of expertise. In staying on top of trends, not only will a brand or individual

online and on the tube, especially focusing on news items relating to their area continue to hold an edge as a thought leader, but they will find it easier to

anticipate the direction of conversations. Doing so will also position the company to easily respond to a call from media or other audiences, or to proactively offer media relations staff should have talking points ready and a targeted media list before picking up the phone. commentary or quotes as an expert source to a media outlet. Thought leaders or

Create a content development process

After creating information and ideas, or gathering content from a thought leadership team, develop vehicles for disseminating that content to audiences. Thought leaders knowledge and establish a reputation as the go-to source. tactics to turn ideas into effective thought leadership: Write and log on

don’t wait to be called on for input or commentary, they seek opportunities to share

This is where tactics and

tools come in to play. In following sections, we share tried and true opportunities and

Like speaking engagements, writing will allow thought leaders to prove

10 “Three Steps to Positioning Yourself as an Industry Thought Leader -.” Associated Content - associatedcontent. com. Web. 10 Oct. 2009. < html?cat=35>. 11 Skillrud, Theresa M. “Thought Leader.” Public Relations & Marketing Firm - Minneapolis, Minnesota / New York Public Relations - PR Agency. Web. 8 Oct. 2009. <>.
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themselves as such while creating visibility. Additionally, and depending on the channel, writing can allow for direct interaction with audiences written word and online channels: • • • • • • • • • Blogs Case studies White papers Newspapers articles and editorials E-Books Social media Podcasts Webinars Video marketing and immediate feedback. Here are some ways to boost the brand through

Be sure that thought leaders are writing daily, are seeking other external thought leader input, utilizing leading resources to aid in promotion

(like BlogRadio or iTunes for podcasting) and that they are engaging and commenting on what others have written. Thought leaders don’t ignore feedback from internal or external audiences.

Measure your thought leadership campaign

Measurement of thought leadership efforts is crucial, but will vary based on which

tactics and tools utilized. Consider measuring downloads of white papers, e-books, events hosted, client uptake, marketing qualified prospects (MQP) and, of course, revenue.

podcasts, etc., Web site traffic, press hits and inquiries, attendance in any webinars or

In conducting measurement, your company will be able to substantiate the efforts of

thought leadership and tailor future efforts to the trends and demands of audiences.

Continue to lead

As thought leaders begin to execute methods of attaining and maintaining visibility in their industry, they will find that brands must simply plant the seed and if the will help to grow visibility on their behalf.

information being presented is reliable, relevant and accessible their potential clients

Remember, becoming a thought leader doesn’t happen instantaneously. It’s a

continuous climb to establishing expert status. How will you know when you’ve reached the summit? As Skillrund puts it, “This is one case where perception IS reality.” You will know you’ve become an effective thought leader when your customers and media truly

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do come to you and see you or your company as the go-to-guru for comments, insight, advice and knowledge about your industry.

4imprint serves more than 100,000 businesses with innovative promotional items throughout the United States, embroidered apparel, promotional pens, travel mugs, tote bags, water bottles, Post-it Notes, custom calendars, and many other promotional items. For additional information, log on to
12 Skillrud, Theresa M. “Thought Leader.” Public Relations & Marketing Firm - Minneapolis, Minnesota / New York Public Relations - PR Agency. Web. 8 Oct. 2009. <>.
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