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Thought Leadership Marketing for the Subject Matter Expert
What does it actually mean to be a thought leader? Is it a good marketing strategy for professional services firms? Get answers in this post.
OCTOBER 13, 2021
Thought Leadership Marketing for the Subject Matter Expert
Content Marketing Digital Marketing Any IndustryLEE FREDERIKSEN, PH.D.
Managing Partner Visit Bio More by this author
Sometimes it seems that every subject matter expert aspires to be a thought leader. And why not? It seems like a great thing to be, like a “trusted advisor” or a “team player.”
But what does it actually mean to be a thought leader? How do you become one? Is it in fact a good marketing strategy for the professional services firm? The answers to these questions, and more, are what we will cover in this post.
Let’s start with an understanding of what thought leadership marketing actually is.
Thought Leadership Marketing DefinedThought leadership marketing is the process of increasing the visibility of specialized expertise and accelerating market influence to accomplish marketing goals, such as building brand strength or generating new business. It is accomplished by creating insightful analysis and content and making that thought leadership visible to your target markets.Thought leaders are individuals or firms recognized for their specialized expertise and their influence on the development of their discipline. They are both subject matter experts and influencers. They lead the thinking of their field of expertise.
Thought Leadership vs. Content Marketing
Thought leadership is often confused with content marketing. Content marketing is a much broader discipline. It involves using content to attract, educate and close new business. Thought leadership is a specific strategy within the broader concept of content marketing.
For example, a firm might publish helpful content that explains confusing terms and concepts without offering any innovative or advanced thinking. Another firm may offer entertaining or humorous content. Both of these are content marketing strategies, but neither would be considered thought leadership.
Thought Leadership Must Be Made Visible
Thought leadership involves more than expertise and an understanding of industry best practices.
It’s being the expert that brings a fresh, insightful perspective to a common problem or anticipates emerging trends. Often a thought leader’s perspective is at odds with conventional wisdom — even controversial. But a successful thought leader can turn that new insight into tomorrow’s best practice.
Now, having great insights is not enough. Those insights need to be widely visible if they are to become influential.
And this is where many potential thought leaders stumble. They have the expertise and the insight, but no one sees it. Think of it as invisible expertise.
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Five Levels of Visibility
Our research has been able to identify five distinct levels of visible thought leadership. Each level has increasing levels of influence and impact.
LEVEL 1: THE RESIDENT EXPERTS
Recognized as an expert by clients, staff and colleagues that work directly with the thought leader, these individuals are not well known outside of their firm. External influence is minimal.
LEVEL 2: THE LOCAL HEROES
Known in their local market or small industry niche, these individual experts’ reputations have moved beyond the boundaries of their firms. Occasionally they attract new business based on their thought leadership.
LEVEL 3: THE RISING STARS
These individuals’ reputations are moving onto a regional stage. They are becoming more widely known as influencers and are attracting new business and commanding higher fees. Influence is growing.
LEVEL 4: THE INDUSTRY ROCK STARS
These are the nationally recognized names within their industries. They are influential thought leaders, and they draw top-tier opportunities to their firm. They are sought out as keynote speakers at major industry events and are often quoted in the press.
LEVEL 5: THE GLOBAL SUPERSTARS
These individuals’ visibility and reputation for thought leadership have developed beyond their niche and industry. Their influence extends to many industries and, in some cases, to the general public. Business flows to their firms, and major brands clamor to be associated with them. Their opinions can influence societies as a whole.
How to Develop Your Thought Leadership Strategy
Developing your strategy for thought leadership is the best place to start. If you get the strategy right everything else is easier. Without a strategy you are likely to be unfocused and much less effective.
Here are the steps to follow.
DEFINE YOUR TARGET
Who are you trying to reach? Is it a certain industry? A specific corporate role such as the CEO or CFO? Referral sources as well as target clients?
When you know whom you are trying to reach a lot of other specifics start to fall into place. But a word of caution is in order. Don’t be overly broad in your targeting.The narrower and more specific you can be the faster you will progress. Focus drives faster progress.
RESEARCH YOUR TARGET
Pay special attention to their business challenges and important issues and concerns. These will ultimately influence how you position your expertise and what issues you create your thought leadership content around.
What is thought leader (thought leadership)?
This definition explains the meaning of thought leader (thought leadership) and the characteristics that set thought leaders apart from industry experts and other smart people.
thought leader (thought leadership)
Mary K. Pratt
Linda Tucci, Industry Editor -- CIO/IT Strategy
A thought leader is an individual or an organization whose expertise in a certain area is highly respected and in demand by co-workers, colleagues, clients, customers, competitors and even outside interests.
Thought leadership generally pioneers new ideas rather than follow conventional wisdom.
They use their authority to influence their areas of expertise to generate revenue for themselves and for their organizations and to create value for entities that seek them out.
Thought leaders are generally among the most successful individuals in their fields or among the most successful organizations in their sectors. But a thought leader is more than an expert; a thought leader is authoritative and influential in his or her particular subject area.
There are, however, varying views on how influential and authoritative an individual or organization should be to be considered a thought leader.
Some would label an individual as a thought leader if he or she uses their expertise to influence colleagues within their own organizations or would consider an enterprise as a thought leader if it were setting standards among its narrow group of peer organizations.
Others believe individuals or organizations must demonstrate a more expansive range of influence to be considered thought leaders, labeling an individual or an organization a thought leader only after people outside the entity's own workplace or peer group see the individual or organization on the forefront of the subject.
Others say thought leaders can only be considered such if they're able to capitalize on their expertise and influence, thereby making money for themselves or their businesses based on their position as a leading and influential authority on a subject.
Examples of thought leaders
In the field of computers and IT, thought leadership abounds. Examples include two American pioneers of the personal computer revolution of the 1970s, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Futurist, prolific author and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the United States' highest honor in technology, in recent years has promoted the idea of a hybrid human brain whose biological thinking is enhanced by artificial intelligence and other IT tools. Clayton Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and widely recognized as the foremost authority on disruptive innovation, is a thought leader for companies being disrupted by digital technologies.
History of the term
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of thought leader was in 1887 by authors Lyman Abbott and S.B. Halliday, who in their biography of Henry Ward Beecher described the abolitionist as "one of the great thought leaders in America." The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was described as demonstrating "the wizard power of a thought-leader" in an article in the 1876 Theistic Annual. The term was revived in the 1980s by the business press. Wikipedia cites a 1990 story by Patrick Reilly in The Wall Street Journal marketing section that used the term "thought leader publications" to refer to such magazines as Harper's. Business guru Joel Kurtzman, a managing senior fellow at think tank Milken Institute and himself considered a thought leader, is often credited with coining thought leader in the 1990s when he was editor in chief of Strategy+Business magazine.
Thought leader vs. expert
Thought leaders are experts in their particular subject area (or areas), and it is this expertise and firm command of a subject that helps them establish themselves as authorities on the given topic.
In that way, they are, indeed, subject matter experts.
However, while thought leaders are almost universally subject matter experts, not all subject matter experts are thought leaders.
What separates the two groups is how they use their expertise.
Subject matter experts use their knowledge and skills to perform to the highest standards. They may also teach or mentor others, but they share their expertise by presenting the current understanding of the information.
Thought leaders, in contrast, use their knowledge and skill as subject matter experts to push their subject of expertise to new heights and to drive innovation. In other words, they inspire others and lead their audience of followers to do the same.
Characteristics of thought leaders
There's no one trait that defines a thought leader, although researchers, consultants and others who have studied this topic identify a number of characteristics that most thought leaders tend to have. They say thought leaders generally show that they are authentic and have vision. They are influential and capable of inspiring others to follow their lead.
They're not afraid to go against the status quo, and they embrace change.
Why thought leaders are important
Thought leaders are critical to advancing any particular professional area or any specific business sector to a higher level of achievement. As such, they help drive innovation and discovery. But, as noted, they typically also help generate new business and revenue for themselves as individuals and for their companies. Enterprises that are thought leaders can count on that status to help bring clients and customers to them, as those clients and customers believe that they're getting a superior service or product because it comes from leaders in that space.