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Everyone’s a Thought Leader

December 1, 2009

“Thought leadership” is the most abused term in professional services marketing. Let’s get real, people. The democratization of self publishing tools (from CMS to blogging and podcasts) means that any person with a laptop and a vague notion of an idea can call themselves a thought leader. True thought leadership takes an area of study or a topic and introduces a new perspective or a whip-smart analysis. If you are in the business of professional services, you are an idea broker and your thought leadership library should demonstrate your ability to think in new and refreshing ways. 

Just yesterday I was writing a note to a colleague, telling her that “thought leadership is dead.” And low and behold, this morning I discover that Paul Gladen, CEO of Muzeview, and Chris Koch, B2B marketing consultant and blogger, writing in the same vein over the last month (Gladen here and Koch here). I think Gladen is right on the money when he writes:

Firms can provide value to their clients and prospects in a number of ways, such as:

  • keeping them up to date on news and developments relevant to their business and roles
  • helping them understand the implications of those developments and suggesting potential courses of action
  • sharing their insights and expertise on handling other issues and challenges that arise in the regular course of business

This material will rarely be cutting edge.  It may be relaying information that is readily available elsewhere and providing guidance that is accepted wisdom or simply good practice.  Clients and prospects may be receiving similar content from competing firms.  But this information still plays a useful role as a resource for clients and prospects as well as reminding them that you have the knowledge and expertise to help when the need arises.

Most successful professional service firms are capable of doing a reasonably good job in the areas that Gladen mentions above, even if they don’t always execute well. But one thing PSFs need to keep in mind: if you can’t execute it well, do not execute it at all. Better to publish just a small handful of truly insightful, well-designed, articulate pieces than a boat-load of mediocrity. Just because you publish something in a podcast form doesn’t make it awesome. Trust me on this one.

Another area for differentiation in a sea of so-called thought leadership is in information aesthetics. Too often, thought leadership reports are too long and too dense. Stand-out thought leadership helps readers to grasp the “a-ha” moment through excellent information graphics (presenting complex data in an way that highlights the key findings and aids in understanding) and information design (call-outs of key points and memorable ideas). After all, the discipline of information design helps professional service firms to convey yet other areas of competence: 

  1. How well they can relay findings in clear language/visuals and an educational approach?
  2. Are they merely analytical “bots” or are they able to use metaphor and design to show-off their left-brained, intuitive skills?
  3. Are they respectful of their clients’ time and attention?

My latest, greatest example of strong information design comes from GE’s new Healthymagination content. Their Cost of Healthcare and the Cost of Death  infographic series are incredible in both relevance of information, interactive design, and beautifully imagined graphics.


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Clare, I really like how you tie good information design to thought leadership marketing. I find that the conversations about the abuse of the term thought leadership misses one major point — it’s not the folks who are trying to position themselves as thought leaders who decide whether or not they are. Companies and people are thought leaders because their market says they are. The abuse is not with the term but with the poor implementation of thought leadership marketing initiatives.

Jim Pennypacker

December 9, 2009

Thanks Jim for your comment. You’re absolutely right… “thought leader” is a title that must be earned. A point too often lost by marcom practitioners.


December 26, 2009

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