Reframing "Thought Leadership"


Marketing is full of jargon and buzzwords.

I think "thought leadership" is often one of those fluffy, ridiculous things.

By itself, the term is like a pat on the back. A stroked ego.

It doesn’t mean that anyone is being led. Leadership is not a title - it is earned.

Truly earning it takes time - years, even. Repeating it over and over, standing behind it.

Any quote or article is just a thought from one person. When we think “this would be a great piece of thought leadership,” we’re really just using a buzzword. And when used as a buzzword, the produced content is probably fluff. This point is obvious when an article receives little attention.

Let’s frame “thought leadership” differently. Any time the word is about to slip out, we need to catch ourselves - and be explicit in what we really mean.

“Thought leadership is the perceived advantage a company achieves in the minds of its stakeholders in relation to a theme or topic that is of central importance to its business.” - Andy Lark

The mindset for this content may be to convince decision-makers of the knowledge and expertise behind products, services, or solutions. The content demonstrates a real understanding of something - industry or stakeholder challenges and opportunities. A clear and compelling vision of not just what should be done in the future, but what current and future capabilities will make possible.

This type of content shouldn't be developed for content’s sake.

It should serve a purpose. And that purpose is to reach the right audience, at the right time, with a powerful story or point of view.

Below is a brief set of considerations for what this means in practice:


  • I see “thought leadership” as supercharged content – stronger because it has knowledge, experience, and a real person's voice behind it. Not just a company logo.


  • Why are we making something in the first place?
  • What do we want to achieve?
  • Who is the voice of this content? Why?
  • What do we want the audience to do or feel?
  • Are we creating messages, models our outlines that make things simpler, easier to understand and act on?
  • Are we confusing the ends and the means?

Low-Value Content

  • Anything and everything that could be pushed out to the world, whether that is a branded ebook or an employee article.
  • A company can have hundreds or even thousands of items like this. That doesn't mean all or even any of it will be be relevant and credible to anyone. The team must work to determine what the small set of best items are.
  • A report from Kapost found that upwards of $958 million is being wasted each year on “inefficient and ineffective content marketing.” A large reason for this is that most of the obvious low-hanging content fruit has been produced and, according to the report, brands are wasting significant funds producing redundant content that doesn’t stand out. More bluntly, I'd call it garbage that just clutters digital feeds.

Better Content

Every piece of "content" should be:

  • Written with a specific audience in mind. Focus on what our customers really care about, not a product- or solution-first approach and lazy tie to broad issues. What are their pain points? Content should either educate them on the must-know things to overcome a challenge, or be utility-focused, like a free template, kit, workbook, or collection of assets that tangibly helps them execute.
  • Written through the voice of one of an actual person, and posted with their photo or attribution
  • If you want to have a persistent industry voice - and to demonstrate how you are “making a dent,” the content must come from the voices of employees. When 500 people are giving their point of view on their work, with a nod to the company, others start to see the company as a whole in a similar way.
  • Present a unique point of view. Thought leadership without a unique point of view is just an echo of conventional wisdom. People want to be challenged. If you're not sparking debate or conversation, you probably aren't saying anything new.
  • Be well researched or substantiated. Thought leadership without real research is just opinion, and opinions are a dime a dozen. Show buyers serious research. Survey and interview customers and prospects. Produce serious case studies.
  • Link to another piece of information or utility
  • It it thumb-stopping?
  • Does it spark discussion?
  • Would people actually care?

A Content Hub

Many companies have a section of their website dedicated to hosting content, making it a destination for thought leadership. Build whatever features you want! For example, one piece of content can suggest the next item a reader should visit. Another example is showing the average time to read an article. A content hub can be the overarching umbrella for blog articles too - the two don’t need to be separate.


A typical blog is just that – typical. Boring. Not truly social by design. Probably on-brand, but not something people would bookmark or subscribe to.

If you have one, however it is hosted, it should be infused with social components:

  • An interesting, clever name that relates to our brand
  • Social share buttons on the main page
  • Social share buttons on each blog post
  • Social infused throughout


Some companies choose Medium to be their central blogging platform, and have a group of individual contributors under a Publication.

  • Here is an example, and here is another
  • Medium articles display the average time to read a post
  • Users can highlight and share specific parts of an article, such as a quote
  • Medium can help empower employees and partners; they feel ownership by having their own platform account and following, unlike a generic blog profile.
  • Medium articles under a Publication can also serve as a newsletter (see ad below)


This site has potential to spread thoughts, but is difficult to scale because:

  • You should continuously monitor for questions you can answer with confidence
  • For any individual question, it is uncertain how many other people have the same interest and will come across the answer you posted (despite all your keyword research)


  • You can make it, but they probably won't come.
  • Your employees / executives can post content - your audience still might not see it.
  • If something is really that amazing, use paid channels to distribute it.


  • As much as possible, distribute your content in ways you can actually track.
  • "This ad reached X people, with X clicks, led to X sign-ups / conversions."
  • Be specific. Don't just end the conversation with "we want awareness."
  • What does that actually mean? Impressions? Clicks? Sales?
  • Measurement framework for the path of an individual piece of content or ad
  • Brand Health metrics (e.g., sentiment, awareness, recall)


Whether it is the content or the creator (the "leader"), I'm wondering how the language of this can be improved/evolved.

A better term to replace "thought leadership" might be:

  • An interesting, unique, credible...
  • Opinion
  • Point of View
  • Sharing Ideas
  • Thoughts
  • Considerations
  • Recommendations
  • Challenging beliefs or assumptions
  • Being a credible source on a subject (e.g., in a community or even larger scale)
  • Consistently providing insight on a particular topic so you are viewed as an expert when needed as a reference for research, events, interviews, implementation, etc.
  • Having a large body of work and a unique perspective on a topic/industry.

I don't like terms like:

  • Authority
  • Expert
  • Influencer

Additional Reading

Thought Leadership is Not Enough

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"You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means."  

Inigo Montoya

Inigo Montoya

The Princess Bride

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