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January 29, 2013


How to show Thought Leadership in your Industry ?

by Tom De Baere
How to create thought leadership

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It’s interesting to be a thought leader and show thought leadership.

But how do you get organized, from a marketing and company perspective?

Michael Porter or Treacy and Wiersema have learned us about product leadership, operational excellence or customer intimacy, and the relevancy to the strategy of companies.

(Michael Porter, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors – 1998), later revised by Treacy and Wiersema with their Value Disciplines model (The Discipline of Market Leaders – 1997), now taught in nearly all business school programs, and which crops up at least once at every business conference.)

When B2B buyers seek out to buy a certain solution, I believe that in many cases they are not buying a product, but they are buying the vision of the company, and the people behind that vision.

That’s why any company, no matter which “Porter” strategy you have, must have a clear vision about the new solutions of the future. Solutions that give your buyers the competitive edge they need to survive in todays economy, while believing that your company will remain to provide you with future products that will keep giving him that competitive edge.

The objective of thought leadership ? If you get your thought leadership strategy right, customers will see you as a go-to source of expertise, your new products or incremental improvements will find easier acceptance, you’ll stand a good chance of bolstering product price (which is critical in many industries where commoditization is at work), and you’ll attract talent more easily.

The real definition of Thought Leadership

It’s hip and trendy to talk about thought leadership. Everyone wants to be a thought leader, right?

But it’s not that easy as having your executives share their opinions on several topics, and bang, you have your though leadership! Not that easy.

If you think thought leadership is producing whitepapers, webinars and god knows what about a certain topic in which you radiate your vision, wrong again.

Haydn Shaughnessy has written an interesting article about thought leadership at MarketingProfs, but in essence his claim is that thought leadership doesn’t have to come in the form of an essay or interview, or whitepaper. He states that the

The core attribute of thought leadership is that it has to feed into the product strategy.

And I believe he’s absolutely right.

I think that a thought leader is a recognized leader in one’s field.

What differentiates a thought leader from any other knowledgeable company, is the recognition from the outside world that the company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the marketplace in which it operates.

A Crucial Part of your Thought Leadership Strategy

Listening method for Laser-sharp Content Marketing

Listening method for Laser-sharp Content Marketing

You have to realize that if you try to formulate thought leadership by going into a direction that everyone knows about, you’ll fail. Or if you give your opinion about something that others have better opinions about, you will fail. Because you are simply bringing something to the market that is known to people. Now, that being said, I agree, this is all easier said than done.

As said before, the way to go is to understand the market, your customers, analysts and large players. I have written a blog post (just click on the image on the right) about how you can organize to understand and “listen” to customers, markets and industries across your complete organization. That will allow you to figure out the great issues in your industry into a greater level of detail than anybody else.

This input will allow you to develop a product, a service and content strategy that exactly answers this great issue of your industry. It doesn’t have to be the entire solution. It’s doesn’t have to be the “Magnus plus ultra big next thing”. As long as you can show that you deeply understand the issue, and that you see the bigger picture of the complete answer, which is already reflected to a certain extend in what you are doing today.

A thought leadership organization

How to create thought leadership

The intersection of product management, market research and thought leadership

In essence, thought leadership should be a combination of great market research (listening) and great product management (answering).

This symbiosis of product management and market research will bring the knowledge to your product development team on what to bring to the market.

No surprises here by the way, this is how many companies work. The output will be your roadmap. But somewhere along this process, you will also have a view on a roadmap for your sector, your industry or your customers.

And that’s where it get’s interesting. That’s when your Thought Leadership needs to be created by spreading this vision on your industry and it’s future.

Usually you have a number of in-house thought leaders that are visualizing this roadmap for your industry. They can be talented engineers or subject matter experts who speak on behalf of the company, but also the industry as a whole. That vision can then in its turn be validated by a number of external industry leaders under the form of a strategic advisory committee, or even just a community reacting to the thought leadership pieces on your blog.

Right at the intersection of this product management and market research, your strategy teams must derive the big themes that will form the basis for your thought leadership. The big themes will further fuel roadmap developments expressing your though leadership. While your marketing team guides your in-house thought leaders in your organization towards a concerted content marketing effort that produces regular content about these themes, and your related product creation efforts.

thought leadership_2

The danger however is that 2 fold, as depicted in the drawing above:

  • You have no real new insight or strong vision that is reflected in your products, and your thought leadership content is too close to what you have today. At that moment people don’t really see you as the company showing or leading them into the future.
  • Your vision is about the future, but you are not reflecting it in your products, or hardly at all. That doesn’t make you credible, does it?

Methods to spread your Thought Leadership message

You cannot become a thought leader. You are seen as a thought leader. That’s a first and most important thing to know.

For people to see you as a thought leader, you first need to act like one. I talked before about the intersection, and the big themes. That’s what you need to talk about in your communication:

  • Show that you understand the market by plotting the trends like nobody else, and proof these trends with clear arguments.
  • Envision a future where the issues in your big themes are solved through innovative new products and solutions.
  • And point out the work you have done already today to show proof of your thought leadership through product leadership.
  • And point out the upcoming work that you will be doing in the near future without disclosing too much of your roadmap.

And how do you do that ? Multiple tactics apply, but I guess these are the most common ones :

  • Create an online presence: unless you are already seen as a though leader, you need to start somewhere. Usually online is a good place to start because you can showcase your knowledge easily on a blog, and spread it through social media.
  • Public speaking: an open door. But getting people to open that door for you starts by showing that you have something to say. Send organisation, show and conference organizers a letter suggestion your topic (theme), and ask them to be considered. Once you have a slot, don’ waste it by bringing mediocre speaking skills. Both content and format and speaking skills need to be trained, and must be above the usual standards to be picked up by your audience!
  • Show it in your products: if you want to be seen as a thought leader, you need to show it also in your products.
  • Win some awards: Identify the awards that matter in your industry, go out with your theme and technology/product linked to it, and win that prize!

Hopefully this has inspired you somewhere on how to do this in your organization. Or maybe you think that I’m all wrong, that’s also fine. In the latter case, please let me know why ;-).

As usual, just one question : What other techniques would you use to create a reputation as a Thought Leader ? Put your comments in the comment field below this post.

Warm regards,

Tom De Baere