How do you decide whose advice you’ll listen to and follow? Do you look for someone with name recognition? Someone others are listening to? Someone who will challenge or expand your understanding? Someone who confirms it?
Questions about thought leadership are nothing new, but they’re often limited by conventional wisdom about who thought leaders are. When you start with the assumption that a thought leader should be someone with a high profile or in a position of authority in your organization, you might be limiting what that leadership can help your business achieve.
Research indicates a few important contradictions between thought leadership and the way brands use it. One finding is that marketers heavily value thought leadership content as a means of sharing their brand’s story, yet it’s not always the way consumers prefer to learn: Nearly one-third of consumers say they’ll turn to people they know personally, instead.
And while consumers believe brand leaders have an impact on the company’s reputation, those leaders may not factor heavily in their brand perceptions: Just 3% say leaders are the most essential part of a brand.
This creates an enigma for marketers. You have leaders with valuable insights and experience to share but, to put it bluntly, an audience that doesn’t always care much. Yet, it would be a disservice to everyone involved to abandon your thought leadership content just because your customers aren’t always aware of the benefits.
Here’s a more sustainable approach: Expand your definition of who your thought leaders are and how you empower them to create effective brand stories.
Thought leaders don’t necessarily have to be technical experts or high-level executives. They can be anyone with a good idea or relatable experience that your audience might appreciate hearing about.
Making small mindset shifts like this can provide three big benefits to your organization:
Grow thought leadership organically
Even when we solve the strategic challenges around thought leadership, marketing teams still must manage the logistical ones. How many campaigns have been stalled while you waited for the right people to be available to contribute content?
For any marketing team, the ability to consistently deliver stories across relevant topics and authors is invaluable – and can be made even more effective when you’re able to incorporate a thought leadership angle.
Expanding your pool of internal thought leaders is a sustainable and scalable way to distribute messaging on a wider variety of topics. Not only does it help to address challenges of volume and cadence, but it also adds valuable, trustworthy perspectives to your content.
Where to start
Changing how you define thought leadership doesn’t mean removing every parameter. Even as teams benefit from expanding their options, they still need to ensure they can maintain content quality.
One way to start is by appointing internal team liaisons who can identify and mentor potential junior thought leaders while keeping executive business priorities in mind. As specific authors and storylines emerge, remember to incorporate creative assets to bring their thoughts to life.
Increase authenticity through mentorship
The problem of communicating with authenticity is age-old – and it clearly hasn’t been solved yet, because we’re still talking about it.
One ongoing challenge is that being truthful and transparent is only half the battle. Brands also must be perceived that way by their audience. It’s a dynamic that will only become more complicated as the use of tools like ChatGPT gets more common and consumers grow increasingly wary of the voices behind the content they encounter.
Leaders recognize that a brand doesn’t just have one story it can tell – or a single voice that can tell it. By expanding thought leadership to include more voices from within your organization, you can increase authenticity in two ways: by diversifying the perspectives you share and by taking a “practice what you preach” approach.
Success means more than just having a valuable vision – it must be thoughtfully executed, too. Give the microphone to people who implement your company’s initiatives and let their voices speak to the brand’s value from their insider points of view.
Ways to proceed
Implementing a thought leader mentorship program can help you identify, train, and shape those voices so they can communicate more authentically and effectively. New and aspiring thought leaders should be coached on overall brand guidelines and business goals, while still being encouraged to hone their unique points of view. Providing regular feedback and scheduling group workshops are other ways to reinforce the quality of their thought leadership efforts.
Support advocacy with guidance and assets
Not too long ago, marketers believed they needed to produce a high volume of content to achieve their goals. Then they debated quantity versus quality, decided quality was king, and looked to strike a balance between the two. It’s been an endless conversation with an important truth at its heart: No volume of content or high bar for its quality will matter if you aren’t distributing it effectively.
Employee advocacy is an invaluable tool for content distribution. It becomes even more powerful when employees are encouraged to share the content they create on their own channels and platforms. As thought leadership opportunities expand across the organization, so too will effective organic distribution.
Ways to build it
Even if employees are eager to share their work – and the efforts of their peers – distribution should not be left to chance. It also shouldn’t be left to the last minute. As new thought leaders are coached on effective content creation, they should also support the production of unique visual assets and be advised on best practices for distribution – including receiving your brand’s social copy guidelines, instruction on when and where to share, and guidelines on how to respond to feedback.
Take your thought leadership forward
Of course, these efforts may not go perfectly right away – or every time. But as any good leader will attest, leadership is as much about humility as success. As you build and refine your process, expect mistakes, own them, and move forward with new insight. It’s the only real way to ensure you build something effective and something that will last.