Where Thought Leadership Ideas Should Come From

Jul 20, 2015

By John Kerr

What does “smart” look like?

Glance through the relevant Web pages of many organizations that pride themselves on their insightful thinking—consulting firms, research shops and (yes) think tanks—and you’ll see any number of different answers to that question. Here are a few of ’em:

  • Just the facts, ma’am: Research reports that are just that: mechanical recitations of what the data says, without much (if anything) of what the authors think it means, let alone what the intended readers are supposed to make of it.
  • The “me too but me better” approach: Articles that take a point of view you’ll swear you’ve read half a dozen times already—because you probably have.
  • Brochureware in thought leadership’s clothing: Papers that take a cocky stance but in no time at all have led the reader deep into promotional territory, with not-so-subtle plugs for the firm’s solutions and offerings.

But yes, you will find the gems that blow the doors off all recent thinking on a topic. They’re rooted in robust research and real data, timely because they speak to an existing headline issue, and alive with persuasive examples. That’s thought leadership.

Why can’t it all be like that, then? The short answers: because different organizations see thought leadership differently, and because many organizations have few or no best-practice paths for how they originate it.

The point is that there should be broad agreement about what thought leadership is and how it’s created (and, by the way, how it’s used).

First, the “what is it” question

Here’s a definition that has served Ergo Editorial well for at least a couple of decades: “Thought leadership means continually creating and communicating insightful and persuasive ideas that clearly distinguish [Company X] on the topics that matter most to its current and future offerings.” (Spoiler alert: “Ideas” doesn’t mean “plugs for the company’s offerings.”)

Expanding on that a bit

Thought leadership is a way of continuously differentiating Company X from its competitors by being seen and heard to be informative, innovative, challenging and relevant to current industry issues and challenges. It’s about using the power of insightful ideas to open doors with prospects, and new doors with current customers. It’s about consciously using insightful ideas to enhance the brand.

And now, the “how it gets created” question

Well, if you’ve got three days to spare, we’ll gladly elaborate on the myriad origins of strategic content and illuminate the points at which it veers away from being true thought leadership. For now, though, let’s just say there is a proven approach for generating fresh, provocative ideas that will set you apart from the competition. Drumroll, please:

It takes a troika

Great thought leadership usually does not come from this senior partner or that vice president or marketing director but from a little-recognized troika: smart subject-matter experts, savvy marketing pros and seasoned business writers, working together. Collectively, they’ve got what it takes to meet the terms of our definition. Each has a vital role to play. And when all three swap ideas in real time, thought leadership magic can happen. And does.

Watch this space. In future blogs, we’ll deconstruct our definition of thought leadership, examining how it can be used as a guide for development of best practices and a litmus test for what smart looks like.

Wouldn’t it be great if your strategic content was so consistently good that the “smart” question wasn’t even relevant for you?

Where do your thought leadership ideas come from? Tell us about it in the comments section!