People love proclaiming their opinions and, thanks to a handy little tool called the Internet, they are well equipped with multiple channels, feedback loops, and forums to do so. Some opinions quickly fade into cluttered comment sections and others make the front page of Reddit. Still, some seep into the digital space with such supremacy that they’re subject to popular scrutiny and are being gabbed about in coffee shops and offices from Seattle to Singapore. As such perceptions gain momentum in the digital and physical worlds, the buzz term “thought leadership” seems taking off as well. It’s a phrase that is asserted among countless LinkedIn profiles, professional resumes, and author bios, but remains largely ambivalent as far as self-proclaiming declarations go. The so-called authorities who beat their chests as industry mavens and innovators often underestimate the fact that, as self-publication becomes more viable and “thought leaders” pop up left and right, professional credibility is becoming increasingly vague.
The reason for popularity of this cliché seems pretty clear. What are brands supposed to call it when they create content that takes on a unique point of view, but isn’t necessarily specific to their own products or services? The stock phrase perpetuates because its been warped to be all-encompassing and no current “thought leaders” have coined a better term. Linguistics aside, declaring expertise and differentiating your views from competitors has proven to be a critical strategy for any brand that isn’t dedicated toward marketing a single consumer niche. “Thought leadership” exists as an obscure way for businesses and their management to broadcast that they are being proactive, productive, and personal.
But what makes one “thought leader” more qualified than the next? In the marketing sector, it’s the people who cultivate their brand through events and narratives that reinforce the value of their products or services. Their brand and the image that coincides with it pervades through paid, owned, and earned media, and challenges conventional perceptions. They are fueling the discussion on how marketing is changing, adapting their practices to evolve with it, and staying one or several steps ahead of brands that are attempting to do the same. Why is Google widely known as the “thought leader” on marketing data and insights? Because it’s the most renowned, most responsive, and most innovative brand on marketing data and insights. And how has the company become widely known as such? Because it’s the best at telling its story. Does Google go around publicizing its status as a “thought leader”? No. It doesn’t have to.
I am not the CEO of Google, and I don’t particularly consider myself as trendsetter in “thought leadership”. In fact, if you haven’t realized it yet, I’m not a huge advocate of people who include themselves under the umbrella term and have little support to merit their claims. Stating the “5 Things All Marketers Must Do to Succeed” or “8 Tips to Becoming a Better Blogger” and setting those viewpoints out unto the citizens of the Internet shouldn’t entitle a sense of expertise. Such content is valuable as tools for increasing brand awareness, and even as means of competitive advantage, but are limiting as well. Quantifying a process to achieve qualitative, relative goals like “success” is close-minded in nature. Brand leaders who assert that they hold the definitive X number of steps to achieving greatness are, in essence claiming that there is nothing more for them to learn. It’s the people who realize that their brands must constantly evolve to meet user demand, test and fine-tune problem-solving practices, learn from past mistakes, and embrace variable environment who set themselves apart from the rest.