According to our good friend Wikipedia,
A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.
The actual return on investment from achieving thought leadership status is deviously difficult to quantify, but it’s generally accepted that being seen as a thought leader is a good thing. To that end, individuals and companies aspire to this status through speaking engagements, whitepapers, bylines, webinars and so on. I don’t think there’s any conclusive measure that can tell you exactly when or if you have succeeded in becoming a thought leader, although I’m sure folks have tried and would be happy to hear about such things.
I’ve actually got some experience in the world of thought leadership: conveniently enough, while I was running Sandvine’s Global Internet Phenomena program, Netflix went and achieved enormous popularity. A few industry observers picked up our study and stats, and all of a sudden we were on the front page of CNN, BBC, CBC, and a host of other sites and aggregators. Before the Netflix stats went mainstream, Sandvine had a well-earned reputation in the telecommunications sector as a subject matter expert in the domain of Internet traffic; since then, the company’s insight, and my own, has been sought by a wide range of media outlets (not just telecommunications) and publications whenever the discussion topic is Internet traffic.
To me, thought leadership is a little bit like Rule #5 of the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: “The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind.”; but instead of owning a single word, you’re owning a concept.
In Sandvine’s case, we’ve done pretty well with “Internet phenomena”.
Today I saw an article in Forbes by John Hall and co-authored by Don Broekelmann, entitled, “6 Ways Thought Leadership Will Take Your Marketing to New Levels”¹.
In the article, John lists six very good benefits of a successful thought leadership campaign and offers his definition of thought leadership:
“There are a lot of definitions of thought leadership floating around these days. People declare themselves thought leaders because they wrote a book or because they have an occasional speaking gig. Thought leadership is more than an article, a book, a speaking gig, or an award: It’s truly leading a space in thought and serving as a resource for others in your area.”
I was looking at the six benefits, planning to write about the one or two that most-resonated with me, but I just didn’t feel strongly enough about any of them to do so (and I don’t mean to take away from the list, I’m merely saying they were all equally relevant). Instead, I’ll talk a little bit about my own observations.
The largest benefit I’ve personally observed is that thought leadership helps to establish your company as being relevant. The growth in popularity of the Global Internet Phenomena reports paralleled Sandvine’s transition from start-up to stable, trusted enterprise, with each helping the other along. Based on this experience, I’d advise folks in the marketing team at a start-up to treat thought leadership as something worthy of your time.
I concede that establishing the relevance of your company could well (and should) generate sales leads and increase conversions (#4 on Mr. Hall’s list), but I see it as being a little bit distinct. What do I mean? Well, recently at Management World 2013 I was giving a presentation called “How To: Mine Business Intelligence for Real-Time Service Innovation”. The room was packed with about 110 people, and I started by asking the audience, “Who has heard of Sandvine?” About a half-dozen hands went up (this wasn’t entirely surprising or upsetting, as this conference is primarily B/OSS, which isn’t our main focus). Next, I asked “Who’s heard that Netflix is one third of Internet traffic in North America?” This time, most of the hands in the room went up. OK, so it might have helped that earlier that morning a keynote presenter cited our statistic, but he did so without attribution (a downside of a stat becoming so ubiquitous). By connecting our company and myself to that well-known statistic, I’d gained the audience’s attention and they saw my presentation as being more relevant.
I’ve used this same tactic at tradeshows when people come to our booth; you can actually see the recognition and familiarity cross their faces and the conversation becomes much more natural since you’ve established some common ground.
Of course, not all efforts to achieve thought leadership will succeed, and sometimes you’ll succeed by accident or lucky timing. In our case, it was a combination of conscious effort, good timing, and unique insight into a remarkable development. We had been studying Internet trends since 2003, and had revealed to the world many interesting phenomena, but the Netflix thing really took it to the next level. What would we have done if the Global Internet Phenomena studies hadn’t gone mainstream? Looking back, our actions would probably be the same – we would’ve kept on publishing our studies and statistics – but fewer people would’ve noticed, and our status might not be so widely recognized. While we work very hard to deliver a tremendous study, I’m not naïve enough to suggest that luck didn’t play a role in our remarkable success.
Ultimately, it’s the audience that determines who is a thought leader, but a necessary condition of becoming one is that you put yourself out there and can be associated with a relatively concise concept. A word of caution, though:
Thought leadership is a lot like a trademark in that you have to use it or lose it. A competitor is no doubt very eager to snatch the title, and to retain your status you must continue to publish meaningful content.
Furthermore, overwhelming success in thought leadership is not without its drawbacks, and these must then be weighed against the benefits. In Sandvine’s case, the company has to a large extent become synonymous with the Global Internet Phenomena report, so we are frequently cited not as an equipment vendor but as “network research analysts” or as an “Internet statistics company”. The studies deliberately shy away from promoting our products, so you can read a whole edition without actually knowing what we sell. In fact, at my presentation at Management World, as part of my introduction I said, “We’re often quoted as an Internet stats company. We do produce stats, but these stats come from our products.”
To summarize my own experience:
Done right and nurtured with compelling content, thought leadership is a gift that keeps on giving.
A decade after the debut of our studies, Sandvine continues to gain valuable executive eyeballs thanks to our efforts to shed light on Internet trends: in the past week, Sandvine has been cited in a Forbes article covering Netflix’ quarterly earnings and by no less than Google as part of their announcement of the Nexus 7:
I’m confident that buying an equivalent amount of publicity would be prohibitively expensive.
¹Has anyone else noticed that most articles that pop up in your news feeds now have some sort of enumeration? When did this become a necessity?