How to become a (genuine) thought leader

The role of thought leadership in strengthening the perception that customers or clients have towards a business, brand, or organisation, cannot be understated. Trouble is, most attempts by leaders to position themselves as a ‘thought leader’ miss the mark. In this article, we look at what thought leadership really is, and how to become considered a thought leader in your space.

I love this topic, but I know a lot of people think that ‘thought leadership’ is how PR people dress up what is essentially someone showing off their supposed expertise and experience. Quite often, they do so with very little substance or justification.

They’re not entirely wrong in that assumption given what many people see on LinkedIn.

Indeed, there are 1.5 million people on LinkedIn who have ‘Thought Leader’ in their job title, which is frankly laughable. It’s laughable because being regarded as a thought leader is not what most people believe it to be.

Thought leadership, as we define it, is about:

Building on your area of expertise and then creating shareable and relevant content (articles, videos, white papers, podcasts) that will add value to your target audience because it addresses their challenges, pains, and ultimate needs.

However, that content must satisfy certain criteria before its creator can be considered to be a thought leader as I’ll go on to explain below.

Ideas selection

For a start, the content being created must posit ideas that are original and not simply an echo or extension of what everyone is saying, or what can be sourced on Google. If said content does not offer a unique perspective, it will barely register on the dial. As such, its creator cannot be considered a thought leader because, well, there is no original thought.

But if it does present news ideas and perspectives, there is every likelihood that the views expressed by these individuals will likely be actively sought and encouraged by their peers.

That will then lead to authored articles being published in the media, speaking engagements at key industry events, webinars and podcasts, and broadcast media interviews.

Here’s an example of my own for ITV. During the so-called ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial in 2022, I was widely quoted in various media outlets for providing a PR perspective that appeared to differ from that of many of my contemporaries.

Click image below to read coverage on ITV News:

Adam Grant explains in his brilliant book ‘Originals’, that the focus needs to be on “trying something new, which means accepting some measure of risk.” Thought leadership is a game of risk, but one that must be played if the goal of thought leadership status (plus the added business gains to be had by default) is to be achieved.

In fact, a study by Harvard Business Review found that businesses in the US were “losing $1 trillion in annual revenues to their competitors because they are not consistently relevant enough.”

The point is that unless you really understand your customers and can offer them either full or partial solutions to their challenges in a way that differs to what is already out there, don’t waste your time creating new content that they will never be interested in consuming.

Where the authority really sits

A long-standing client of ours once wonderfully described Clearly PR as:

The thought leaders on thought leadership.

Which was rather nice to say the least. No one has the right to attribute ‘thought leader’ status to themselves – that’s the reserve of their peers.

Frustratingly, it would seem that a significant number of the 1.5 million LinkedIners who consider themselves to be thought leaders most certainly are not. And the data supports this theory.

A 2021 study by global PR behemoth, Edelman found that 71 per cent of the 3,593 global business executives they surveyed feel that less than half of all the thought leadership content they consume each week provides them with valuable insight.

Research carried out by Clearly PR has found equally damning statistics.

We commissioned a leading market research agency to conduct a survey on our behalf into how business leaders perceive the thought leadership content they are exposed to and consume. The results were rather depressing.

Of the 500 CEOs and MDs who took part, 40 per cent rated the quality of the content they read, watch, or listen to as badorpoor at best. More than half (59 per cent) said the content lacked originality and simply regurgitated what everyone else is saying.

This is bad especially when our latest research (March 2024) found that one in four (24 per cent) consume thought leadership content daily.

You may be interested in these, too:

Video: How thought leadership will build your brand and bottom(line)

Research finds thought leadership key driver of growth in 2024

How to become a thought leader

If we assume that the perspectives you can offer and expertise that you have will add value to the lives of your intended audience, there are several tactics that you can deploy to raise your profile and increase the likelihood of your peers regarding you as a true industry thought leader.

They include:

  • Authored articles for your company blog or news pages: publish every week. Infrequent articles posted on your website just doesn’t cut it (and makes you look lazy!).
  • Personal profile on LinkedIn: post every day. Most people have 500+ connections, so share your ideas, insights, and content with them.
  • Personal X (formerly Twitter) account: post at least three times a week. You may hate it, especially since Elon Musk took control and introduced a raft of unpopular changes, but many within your target market continue to hang out there and so should you.
  • Piece to camera: film and publish every two weeks. Share your views on latest trends, future predictions, and insights based on your experiences. Trust me, this has enormous potential to deliver an ROI – this video we filmed generated £60,000 in new revenues for Clearly PR!
  • Original market research: survey your market bi-annually as a minimum. The only way to demonstrate that you have a finger on the pulse of your industry is to canvas them regularly. Write the results up in a white paper, create a series of blogs and digital assets, and trade them for speaking engagements at key industry events.

The importance of thought leadership cannot be understated. It has been proven time and again to increase brand awareness, boost an organisation’s influence over customer purchasing decisions, consolidate sales, and give leaders and the organisation’s they represent an ‘edge’ over their competitors.

Prove it, Paul

OK, we will. Here are two incredible case studies that demonstrate the incredible ROI that great thought leadership content can produce.

  1. Global tech client: How a thought leadership-led content marketing campaign generated $250,000 in sales for an international tech company, reached 8,000 prospects, and exceeded its target by 400%. Click here.
  2. Recruitment client: How Clearly PR enabled one recruitment company in an industry of 40,000 to be seen and heard by over 100 million people, featured in multiple national media outlets, and win a six-figure contract. Click here.
Find our more about our thought leadership content marketing service. Click here.