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The importance of thought leadership in marketing and PR is certainly nothing new. But I’m constantly amazed how many brands get it totally wrong!

In an increasingly digitally driven world, thought leadership continues to be an excellent way to reach out to key decision makers, but it’s not as easy as you might think.

The truth is that developing good thought leadership is hard. Why? Because to make it work you have to go beyond simply relaying intelligent anecdotes, you have to stop selling to your audience and convey the expertise that you have or that resides in your organisation.

You have to build industry thought leaders. However, if done correctly, thought leadership is one of the best ways of engaging with your audience. It gets them talking with you on topics they feel passionate about, bringing a multitude of other benefits.

So what’s the secret?

Thought leadership 101

To answer this question we have to take a step back and face the truth. Companies that look to use thought leadership set out with clear goals, to sell products or services and generate leads.

So whatever else it does, thought leadership needs to effectively drive this desired action. Now I’m never going try and persuade you that the best thought leadership isn’t trying to sell anything – we are all in business after all and need to be ‘hitting the numbers’.

But, if your thought leadership is going to be successful you have to devote the vast majority of your content to the thinking, not the selling.

The second and probably most important thing you have to get before embarking on a thought leadership campaign is management buy-in. To do this you have to be crystal clear about why you are doing thought leadership in the first place.

When selling thought leadership to your CEO, CFO or even CMO, forget about the soft benefits like ‘market buzz’, ‘enhanced reputation’ and ‘speaking opportunities’ and focus instead on that universal language: money. And make sure you have a few real-life examples to back you up.

Pick companies similar to yours that you know have increased revenue due to more active thought leadership activity and take along a few stats if you can.

Looking for inspiration

Focusing on how other companies go about doing thought leadership isn’t just useful when speaking to the board; it’s good practice for developing your strategy too.

Take a company like Cisco, for example. Its website is filled with ‘conversation, conversation, conversation’. Ditto Intel. The Intel developer forum is particularly good at promoting, facilitating and conveying clever thinking. But be warned, it can go the other way too.

Look at T-systems; a well-designed and clean platform with thought provoking headlines, but it very quickly goes straight into selling mode and you lose interest.

So, decide which companies you would like to emulate. Who in your sector does it best and how can you add your own unique twist to what they are doing?

The key to great thought leadership?

I’ve heard it called the ‘Pareto’ rule, but I think it’s just common sense: good insight and observation that’s communicated well and is relevant to your audience.

This will get your readers interested in your brand and what you have to offer. It’s all about what you say to your audience, the value you can add and building trust and respect. Do all that and you’ll quickly see the ROI.

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Published 25 November, 2011 by Rob McLeod

Rob McLeod is Head of Planning at Realise Digital and a guest blogger on Econsultancy. 

8 more posts from this author

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