We've come to a time when the notion of "thought leadership" has lost much of the value and meaning that once made it an important content marketing idea. Across industries—from consulting to financial services—business writers (i.e., bloggers) profess to be thought leaders because they have a passable level of creativity and strategic competence. But the fact that I write for the Whole Brain Marketing Blog doesn't make me a thought leader per se—nor should it.
Instead, try on this definition for size: Thought leaders not only think different; they do something different.
Your Company is Only as Helpful as Your Competitive Advantage
Just a few years ago, "thought leaders" were those leading their industries into the future by their experience, knowledge and, most importantly, their commitment to their company's points of difference. In other words, we reserved the term for the executives, senior practitioners, and entrepreneurs of our respective fields—people who truly were pushing for difference and understood their markets.
Where previously we would only recognize a few thought leaders in any given industry, today, more and more marketing departments ascribe thought leadership to their companies' daily operations—however standard or non-innovative they actually are. From a marketing perspective, your content will demonstrate thought leadership when you transcend normal explanation and become truly helpful to your readers: offering fresh insight and unique value that only you can offer because of the specialized and valuable experience only you possess. (In other words, not many interns qualify to be called thought leaders.)
"...your content will demonstrate thought leadership when you transcend normal explanation and become truly helpful to your readers..."
Instead of just writing content that anybody in your industry could (and probably will) publish, strive for content that demonstrates the nuance of your difference. It won't necessarily change how attractive the headline is, but it will move your writing closer to thought leadership, and your audience will be more confident in your ability to help.
Evaluating What Makes a Thought Leader
Now, of course, I've put myself in a bit of an odd situation; I am, after all, just an intern—not exactly a "thought leader" as I define it. And yet, here I am commenting and blockquoting as if I really know something about thought leadership. That, my friends, is the trick of being published. Unless you read my bio at the end of this page or glance at the back cover of a book, you'll begin consuming content (and maybe even find it helpful) from sources who really do understand the value of being helpful, and yet don't have much operational experience to help you out. They can write on the level that's appealing to prospects, but after a few days of consuming their content, you realize that their understanding is limited. That, from my (limited) perspective, is the difference between "intelligence" and "thought leadership."
As a college senior, part of the reason I've enjoyed interning at Weidert Group is because it's an agency that doesn't pretend everybody can be a thought leader; nor do we think thought leadership is enough to stay a dynamic player in inbound marketing. Our approach to inbound marketing is to draw on the thought leadership of our senior executives—people like Greg Linnemanstons, Weidert's president and Meg Hoppe, our creative director—who define, for the agency, the nuanced differences between the value added by Weidert and those of other agencies and approaches to marketing services. Then, we use their thought leadership to enable and educate an intelligent, well-equipped (often young) staff that strives to be as helpful as possible to prospects and clients alike.
Clearly, Weidert Group is just one of many inbound marketing agencies staking a claim in the value of attracting leads through content instead of interrupting their day with ignorable advertising. And, few agencies can pretend that sharing basic inbound marketing principles is really thought leadership. After all, no inbound agency can lay claim to inventing "Attract, Convert, Close, Delight." However, what we at Weidert Group try to offer is a specific approach for specific kinds of companies where our experience aligns to become thought leadership for the client. Our focus is in equipment manufacturing, distribution, finance & insurance, and A/E/C services. While I, as a junior staffer, like to think I could apply blogging and SEO skills to any kind of company, I've learned that our value isn't in being a take-anything kind of company.
Instead, (and I've seen this in action), Greg, Meg, and the rest of the team at Weidert Group show over and over again that the specific tactics (social media, blogging, SEO, analytics, monitoring, etc.) only really work when our experience and industry-specific strategy is valued by the clients we work with. That's what defines our thought leadership, and its what makes our approach to inbound marketing work.