Thought Leadership: Beyond Marketing

A piece from 2010, in which I proposed a thought leadership approach to marketing that has become more or less standard today.

I had a short conversation with the CEO of a European software company at the recent Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco a few weeks back [note: this was in 2010]. He was explaining his plans for increasing his efforts to compete in the US. I suggested a slightly oblique approach, which motivated me to write this post.

We have become jaded by superlative overload, where products are the best, the most innovative, the coolest, or guarantee higher productivity, or more contented clients.

In a time of maximal messaging efforts, the noise is so great that no one can be heard, like standing in a room with hundreds of people shouting at the top of their lungs.

Marketing Messages And Product Features: Fail

The rise of the social web has meant that a growing proportion of those likely to be ‘targets’ of traditional advertising and marketing have grown immune, or extremely hard to reach. We have become jaded by superlative overload, where products are the best, the most innovative, the coolest, or guarantee higher productivity, or more contented clients.

In a time of maximal messaging efforts, the noise is so great that no one can be heard, like standing in a room with hundreds of people shouting at the top of their lungs.

Is there any way to stand out?

I think there is.

Thought Leadership

Even in a time of great noise, people are still looking for guidance: they still need to make informed decisions, and to take action on their own behalf or on behalf of their companies.

To do so, they look more than ever to those individuals and organizations that they trust, those that have credibility and hard-won reputations.

How Can A Competitor Be A Thought Leader?

There are serious barriers to a company — a competitor in a particular marketplace — to be considered a thought leader. People evaluating options in that marketplace will naturally assume that the company and its spokespeople will use any marketing vehicle to favor their own products and services. As a result, any efforts in this regard are likely to be suspect.

Alternative courses of action are well known, but pose problems for companies trying to be thought leaders.

One obvious course is to hire existing thought leaders. This is a timeless approach. As examples consider Deloitte’s Center For The Edge, with John Seely Brown and John Hagel III as co-directors, or Tom Davenport’s work at Accenture’s Center For Excellence. These are individuals who are so well-known and well-regarded that the community considers them outside the conflict of interest potentially at work in their employment. The limitations here are costs: only a large firm like Deloitte or Accenture would be capable of investing the time and money in creating a research institute, and attracting people like these to work there.

Another path is to become allied with various projects and programs that are considered innovative, or oriented toward solving some societal problem, like IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative. But here again the costs are significant: IBM must be investing many millions into Smarter Planet, and many people have to be basically dedicating themselves to it full-time.

A third path is to organically develop thought leadership based on participation in open discourse about the issues that confront the community, through writing and public speaking. If you are selling ‘enterprise 2.0’ software, for example, that would involve discussions about adoption, the impact of technologies on business processes, and change management. But if these discussion seem generally canted toward positioning the company’s products rather than a more high-minded examination of needs and trends, it is likely to not work, and to possibly backfire altogether. If this works, however, it can be of inestimable value. Consider Tim O’Reilly’s reputation as the ‘sage of Silicon Valley’ or the throw weight that David Armano brings to a conversation about marketing.

What’s A Start-up To Do?

All of these paths have serious benefits, but considerable costs. A startup wondering how it can stand out in a crowded field may just punt, and go down the classic social media route: the CEO and/or marketing folks will blog on the company website, and hope that people read the posts; they pay to attend conferences, and hope that they can get a speaking slot; and they try to make the company and its various spokespeople seem to be highly regarded in the community. This is the path that all companies seem to head down, so it comes as no great surprise that it generally doesn’t lead to outstanding results.

In the discussion I had with that CEO in San Francisco, I sketched out three alternatives that could be both effective — leading to real thought leadership, not some stunt — and still affordable.

Rather than creating the standard company blog — with product release updates, hirings and travel plans — a company might be much better off developing an semi-independent blog, perhaps edited by an industry thought leader, and having one or more of the company’s management team acting as contributors. The company might also be clearly identified as an advertiser, and of course full disclosure of this relationship would ne necessary. For example, consider a company developing a small business accounting solution: instead of writing a company blog, the company could be a sponsor and participant in a blog dedicated to small business management. As a result, the company would be associated with the thought leadership that would grow with that website.

And rather than attending conferences and hoping to get a speaking spot, a company might be better off structuring its own event. For example, a company developing a solution to support human resource management might be better off holding a series of one day events in major US and European cities on ‘Best Practices In Career Development And Talent Retention’. And instead of packing the event with the companies managers, and endless product demos, well-regarded local figures in HR and management might be invited to speak. This way the company is viewed as a source of sage advice, and acting with the community in mind, rather than as an overly aggressive sales machine.

Another course of action that I recommend is to create an advisory board with thought leaders; however, advisory boards often are mere window dressing. If you’d put a bit more energy into using an advisory board — and convince your board members to contrbute more as well — the returns can be significant. For example, consider a software vendor with a large developer community that build products on the company’s platform. Getting a well-known software designer to head up a developer forum, and to keynote or MC a developer conference could lead to significant payback, much more than the typically passive advisory board might.

Planning For Thought Leadership

Every company’s situation is unique, but broad principles apply, and therefore the basic approach for any company has similarities.

If you have true thought leaders — individuals whose reputation exists independently of the company’s brand — certainly work to harness that social capital. Be cautious, however, because that regard can shift if the community beleives the thought leader is selling out in some way. If you are considering hiring a throught leader, this cautionary note is even more relevant.

If you are considering one or more of the sorts of programs I have outlined, obviously a great deal of planning must be involved. In a software company — where I have the most experience — this will have impacts on marketing and product teams, if it is to lead to real effects, not just window dressing.

Originally published at in 2010.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store