Big Story


The world has become a very crowded marketplace of ideas. From traditional media to e-commerce and social media channels, promotional messages about products, services and new ideas hit you by the second. Cutting through the clutter to win the attention and trust of stakeholders, raise an organization’s profile, boost its reputation and differentiate it from its competitors require much more than our regular PR activities. The ability to develop and implement successful thought leadership campaigns is now a priority for PR professionals who desire to succeed.

In this article, I intend to explore what thought leadership really is, the types of thought leadership PR professionals should embrace and the key secrets at the back of every successful thought leadership campaign.

Thought Leadership: Yesterday and Today

Joel Kurtzman, the founding editor of  Strategy + Business Magazine, published by Booz and Company, an American Consulting Company, is credited for coining the term “thought Leadership” in its present day popular usage. He named the one-to-one interviews the magazine had with high-profile business people, academics and authors “Thought Leader Series”. To Kurtzman, a thought leader is someone who has some new ideas that are worth sharing and that have practical applications.

Not much has changed since 1994 when Joel Kurtzman coined the term. Today, thought leadership is associated with big ideas, compelling viewpoints and insights into issues or problems delivered by an individual or a company in different content formats to a targeted audience. According to Michael Brenner, “thought leadership is simply about becoming an authority on relevant topics by delivering the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience.”

A New Definition

I prefer to define thought leadership as the exalted position that an organization enjoys in the minds and hearts of its stakeholders and potential clients for constantly putting forward valuable, original and evidence-based information, data and other content pieces that challenge existing notions, resolve pressing issues and solve significant problems for its target audience.

Here are the key takeaways from this definition:

  • Thought leadership is content-driven, but it is not the output which is the content you develop and disseminate that constitutes thought leadership. Rather, it is the result you get from stakeholders after consuming the content.
  • You cannot confer a thought leader status on yourself or your organization. It is earned based on the superior advice or counsel you deliver to your stakeholders through content, and by behaving in line with your content ideas.
  • You cannot be a thought leader in every topic; you can only be one in topics related to your expertise.
  • With quality content, you can set yourself or your organization apart from competitors by demonstrating that you are a reliable adviser, counselor and go-to-resource on issues that matter to your stakeholders.

Thought Leadership versus Content Marketing

It is easy to confuse thought leadership with content marketing. Both are content-driven, but they play different roles in the content eco-system. Thought leadership focuses on all stakeholders of an individual or an organization and is concerned with cultivating the reputation of an individual or an organization as a trusted authority in an industry or in a field of human endeavour. It focuses on achieving the strategic goals of an organization or an individual. Thought leadership is what PR professionals do.

Content marketing, on the other hand,  is customer-centric. It is concerned with generating leads and guiding prospective customers through the sales funnel. Its focus is on enhancing sales. Content marketing is what marketers do.

You cannot confer thought leadership status on yourself or your organization. It is earned based on superior advise or counsel you deliver to your stake holders through contents.

Three Types of Thought Leadership

Jason Miller, in his e-book, The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to Thought Leadership, identified three types of thought leadership, namely: industry thought leadership, product thought leadership and organizational thought leadership.

Industry thought leadership is achieved when an individual or an organization stands out in its industry as a go-to resource for news, trends, issues and other forces shaping the industry it operates in. Sharing ideas, insights and emerging opportunities to help members of the industry recalibrate their thinking and skills to navigate changes in the industry is crucial to success in this type of thought leadership.

Product thought leadership comes from sharing best practices, how-tos, strategies and roadmaps that align with the services or products an organization offers. It also focuses on how best to use such ideas to solve problems in ways never thought of before. The aim of this type of thought leadership is to provide the best solutions to customers.

When thought leadership content focuses on driving an understanding and appreciation of an organization’s vision; that is, when it shows its uniqueness, innovation and culture, what you get in the end is organizational thought leadership. Jason Miller cites Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings’ 126 page slide deck that outlines how he hires, fires and rewards employees as a good example of organizational thought leadership content.

Producing and disseminating a mix of thought leadership content that touches on the three types can provide a variety that minister to the different interests and needs of your stakeholders. But it is always better to stick to an area where you have the most competence and can deliver value to your target audience.

The Secrets of Success

It would be a fool’s errand to embark on a thought leadership campaign without an understanding of the keys to success. In the course of my research, I have found that the following are the key secrets behind any successful thought leadership campaign:


A thought leadership campaign without an understanding of the issues and problems affecting your target audience is doomed to fail. It is through research that you identify the issues or problems in order to determine the hot topics that will address those issues.

Research helps you understand the stakeholders you are trying to engage vis-a-vis their pain points and unmet needs, their interests, the sources of information they rely on and trust, their attitudes towards your organization as well as their values and lifestyle. This is critical to understanding what concepts, ideas or topics will resonate with them. It also helps you determine the distribution platforms that will get your messages comfortably to them.

How do you give credibility to a provocative, out of the world points of view that squarely challenges conventional wisdom? How do you prove to the world you know what you are saying? It takes research to provide data and facts to validate and back up your claims.

Research could takes many forms, from dedicated discussions with senior executives and other internal experts, in-depth interviews with external experts, surveys, social media monitoring, focus groups to analysis of secondary data, desk research and thought leadership team brainstorming sessions. The key to using research effectively in thought leadership campaigns is to know which of the methods best fits your bill.

2.Clear Goals and Objectives.

Goals are the final outcome of any campaign. A clear goal sets the tone for a successful thought leadership campaign. It determines the objectives to be pursued, the topic(s) to focus on and the communication platform to use. For instance, if your goal is to support your company’s marketing strategy, your key objectives will revolve around strengthening relationships with clients, educating the public about your products and services, driving web traffic, enhancing customer engagement and improving sales.

One of the goals of Deloitte’s thought leadership campaign is to engage senior executives of companies. And the key objective is to advance the conversation on a broad spectrum of topics of interest to executives. This is delivered using a special platform known as Deloitte University Press, a pre-eminent channel that offers original articles, reports and periodicals that challenge conventional thoughts and gives practical recommendations in a language that suit senior executives of businesses and government.

3. Strategic Alignment

I have not known a successful thought leadership campaign whose objectives failed to align with the strategic goals of the organization.

In this era of fast-paced change and ever more complex society, clients and other stakeholder’s are besieged with economic, social and environmental issues. Smart companies are realizing that meeting their strategic goals require much more than innovative, high quality products. What they do is to tap into social themes that resonate with their stakeholders and deliver solutions by way of insights, new perspectives and new ways of solving the problems, and doing so in a way that help them achieve their strategic goals.

IBM did this with its Smarter Planet Campaign. It tapped into global concerns such as city infrastructure and global water management by putting forward compelling and provocative points of view that reached CEOs, city leaders and top government officials. This helped IBM to strengthen its market position.

A thought leadership campaign without an understanding of the issues and problems affecting your target audience is doomed to fail.

4. Topic Alignment

Successful thought leadership campaigns are delivered through topics that align with the products or services an organization offers. Accenture’s services include integration of digital assets, software and other digital services. Its thought leadership topics are digital marketing, analytics and mobility. PayPal is a digital payment solutions company. Its CEO, Dan Schulman shares his experiences on the different ways a cashless society will operate. General Electric’s Ecomagination Campaign launched in 2005 addressed issues around climate change and “Green” consciousness which aligned with its broad range of environmentally friendly products such as efficient locomotives, jet engines, wind turbines and water purification systems. Thought leadership topics that do not align with the expertise, products or services that a company offers confuses its reader, and therefore cannot achieve the desired results.

5. Quality Content

Content quality, not quantity, is the seed of success of any thought leadership campaign. And it is defined by the taste and preferences of stakeholders. If they want blog posts, video, case studies, research reports, speeches or articles then that is what you should give to them.

Remember that promotional contents are turn offs. Your stakeholders need insights, in-depth analysis of situations that affect them, and new ideas for solving their problems, not company or product promotions distinguished as thought leadership content. Original, factual contents delivered in a way that captures their attention is all they want.

Contents that convey a novel and compelling point of view also work. Take the case of Unilever, for example. With its vision to double the size of its business while reducing its environmental footprints and increasing its social impact, it shattered the traditional believe that making profits and attending to social issues are diametrically opposed to each other. Through its Sustainable Living Plan Project, the company began work to drive transformational change on those societal issues that matter to its business and the world. This is a sea change from what we used to hear from businesses. It is a novel idea that sinks in with its stakeholders.

6. Innovative Content Distribution Platforms.

One earmark of successful thought leadership campaigns is the capacity to meet readers and clients with contents, exactly where they are. Identifying the platforms your target audience uses is crucial to success. You may also create new ones that appeal to their specific needs.

Identifying and taking advantage of speaking opportunities, publishing research reports, articles and books, and hosting events such as roundtables, breakfast gatherings and town hall meetings are great conventional platforms. Others are dedicated web pages or thought leadership micro-sites, Op-eds, video, info graphics, blogs, data visualization and focused social media campaigns.

Creating innovative platforms can yield enormous dividends. Deloitte is a case in point. With its Mass Open Online Courses platform, it amassed 15,000 enrolments for its course on Additive Manufacturing, driving tremendous engagement with its thought leadership materials. You can do the same.

7.A Formidable Thought Leadership Team

Every successful thought leadership campaign starts from the top. Having a team with the CEO as the Chief Thought Leader is the best thing you can have. It guarantees moral and financial support from top management. More so, he brings to table a deeper understanding of trends and challenges in your market. This helps you to develop insightful contents that touch the hearts of your audience.

The CEO alone cannot do the magic. You need subject matter experts both internally and externally, to make the team formidable. Sometimes, effective collaboration may be all you need. This has been the case with Holmes Report. For some years now, it has collaborated with the University of Southern California’s Centre for Public Relations to produce definitive research reports of trends in the Global Public Relations industry. This has positioned it as the go-to resources for trends, issues, news and events in the Public Relations industry globally. Thought leadership is not a fad that will go away anytime soon. It has come to stay. PR professionals who want to remain relevant will have to learn and master its secrets of success. After all, “there is no success where there are no secrets”. So says John Kramer.