I first remember hearing the terms “thought leader” and “thought leadership” in the late 2000s, when I was well into my career as a LinkedIn strategist. In today’s Digital Era, they are an integral part of the business lexicon. Fueled by social networks, thought leadership has immense vogue and is coveted by scores of ambitious professionals and growth-driven companies. I view thought leadership as a natural offshoot of the Social Media Revolution, a global movement that is driving behavioral change and sparking unprecedented innovation.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment at which the Social Media Revolution took hold. But when it did, we knew it. And like it or not, we were forced to reckon with what came to be called a disruptive technology. With this new technology came exploration, and businesses—even those that were reluctant and skeptical—began to investigate the upside of the social platforms.
Back in the day, businesses were preoccupied with cracking page one of Google while riding out a failing global economy. Prior to 2008, few organizations indoctrinated social media into their culture strategy. In retrospect, most were living in the Dark Ages, not yet ready or willing to adapt or adopt. Or perhaps they were blissfully unaware.
A great awakening occurred in 2010 as increasingly more brands realized that they indeed had powerful channels through which they could capitalize on their intellectual properties. It was at this time that LinkedIn emerged as the de facto social networking site for professionals (as opposed to just a haven for job seekers), enabling them to reach a greater audience and generate demand. Focus shifted to the LinkedIn profile as the primary access point on businesspeople.
It soon became clear that in order to compete, businesses had to take up residence online. Those that chose not to participate found themselves losing ground or out of the conversation altogether. Those that delayed their acquiescence operated at at disadvantage. Those that tilled the soil, dug in, and grew deep roots blossomed into thought leaders.
The Birth of the Idea Economy
The Thought Leadership Movement is, for the most part, a rhythmic progression, one that started slow but built up steam. In the early going, not everyone was on board with social media. As the pace of business quickened, the value of information soared, and the competition for attention intensified. Professionals increasingly gave in to learning the platforms and began to extrapolate from their observations. There was no longer any barrier between the real and virtual worlds.
In the early 2010s, the focus shifted to value creation and the fashioning of ideas to generate business opportunities. With their newfound digital literacy, prosperity seekers tapped their creativity, reinvented themselves, and spearheaded new initiatives. LinkedIn became the medium through which they could liberate a unique perspective, position themselves as domain experts, and engage with an ever-expanding professional community.
Whereas many professionals were interested in leveraging the new media, they did not convene merely for the purpose of learning how to build social networks or amplify a personal brand. Suddenly, one conference after another sprouted all over the world. Businesspeople mobilized for events; consultants published books and white papers; speakers competed for stages. There seemed to be no shortage of gurus, specialists, and mavens hawking workshops, webinars, and seminars on improving this skill or that. The rush to wisdom was on.
Fast-forward to the time of this writing, and the professional development industry is booming. The tempo of the Thought Leadership Movement has increased and the activity has reached frenetic levels. Legions of aspiring thought leaders are asserting themselves in the marketplace, in their LinkedIn profiles, and in the blogosphere. They are assembling informed communities, designing value delivery systems, and converting their insights into revenue. Welcome to the idea economy.
The Three Pillars of the Thought Leadership Movement
I believe that the Social Media Revolution spawned the Thought Leadership Movement, which in turn gave rise to three (3) distinct sub-movements, which I now call pillars, that brands must leverage today to keep competitive and profitable. I have isolated these as: 1). Brand Storytelling, 2). Content Marketing, and 3). Community Management. Each sub-movement birthed a unique array of strategies that, when executed in concert, can drive thought leadership.
1). Brand Storytelling – Telling the Story
Brand storytelling of a business entity (e.g., a person, a company, a venture) describes a sequence of interrelated events, and the manner in which they are captured, constructed, and recited. A business story is born through deep introspection and assessment, and gains context through experience. The developing brand story is rooted in an organization’s guiding principles and ultimately becomes a reflection of its culture.
Story is a device that captures both minds and hearts, one that enables both a cerebral and a visceral connection to a person, group, company, product, or service. In social business, where a hands-on customer experience is not possible, you must appeal to the intellect and emotions of your target audience. Thought leaders understand the power of story and the importance of creativity and originality in telling it.
Social media encourages us to be storytellers, yet storytelling is not easy work. The commitment entails the search for a brand narrative—that is, the words, phrases, and anecdotes that shape perceptions and add context. As the story evolves, a path clears to telling it in the most positively impacting manner.
In the Digital Era, businesses are encouraged to make their stories the message. Effective brand storytelling establishes thought leadership, engenders trust, and moves product off the shelves. The brand story is the cornerstone of thought leadership. Without it, the other two pillars will be unable to bear weight.
2). Content Marketing – Selling the Story
Content marketing involves the creation, publication, curation, and distribution of relevant content (written, visual, graphic, auditory, etc.) across multiple platforms with the specific purpose of acquiring and retaining customers. Examples include brochures, blogs, essays, white papers, e-books, case studies, infographics, webinars, videos, podcasts, and so forth. The goal of content marketing is to generate demand for a product or service that leads to a sales conversation.
A brand’s story has many moving parts. As the individual elements of the story fuse together, the thinking turns to the selection of the most appropriate channels through which to market it. Whereas successful content marketing hinges on several factors, and lends itself to deep statistical analysis, the goal is to propel the story into the minds and hearts of a target audience and stimulate engagement. Inventive content marketers positively impact their thought leadership by consistently and artfully promoting their value, building eminence, and generating bias toward themselves, their companies, and their offerings.
The inevitability of change—within a niche, an industry, a market segment, or an enterprise—drives the content marketing strategy. Communicating change in a timely manner through content is an important piece of the thought leadership framework. The brand story is in constant flux. Those who monitor, interpret, and respond well to change, and extol their merits in the process, will be viewed as authority figures. Social business is a study in continuous adaptation.
3). Community Management – Living the Story
The proliferation of online communities has been one of the most remarkable outgrowths of the Social Media Revolution. The transfer of societal norms to the virtual world imposes new rules of engagement—both in business and in life—ushering in new challenges in managing groups of people. The principles and processes of community management lend themselves well to social networks. A thought leader effectively manages an ever-expanding professional network by consistently creating value within it.
A brand story is strengthened and validated in front of a community. As the Thought Leadership Movement gained momentum, professionals in increasing numbers took to the interactive space, bent on raising their profiles and capturing the attention of organizational decision makers and economic buyers. They exerted force on the social media, fearlessly conveying their value through content. Over time, through repetition and community involvement, they gained recognition and became inextricably associated with their product, service, company, skill, or niche.
LinkedIn changed the social dynamics of thought leadership acquisition by leveling the playing field, enabling brands to continuously demonstrate their expertise and accelerate the development of key relationships. An online platform was unifying the real-world business community. Through the myriad of networking events, and the aforementioned boom in conferences and symposia, professionals were able to brand in the moment, grow their communities organically, and a reach a wider, more receptive audience.
The Commutative Law of Thought Leadership
Discernible and identifiable thought leadership can also be expressed as an equation, representing the total sum of the measures of the power of the brand story, the marketing effectiveness of that story, and the degree to which the story inspires and influences sharing as follows:
THOUGHT LEADERSHIP =
Brand Storytelling + Content Marketing + Community Management
The Future of the Thought Leadership Movement
At this juncture, there can be no questioning the appeal of thought leadership. The infrastructure is in place to support those seeking to showcase themselves in an authentic, purposeful fashion. In coming years, as businesses seek greater efficacy and scalability in communicating their message, we are going to hear a great deal about brand storytelling, content marketing, and community management. More and more businesses will retreat from a self-imposed complacency, attach significance to their digital affairs, and embark on the thought leader’s journey.
Professionals will become more selective in their connecting behaviors, and invest more time and energy in organically growing their networks. Thought leadership will surge through the nurturing of key relationships, which will uncover value in evangelism marketing, social influence, and social sharing. Selling a product or service will become increasingly experiential, displacing the traditional focus of lead generation and pipeline building,
Assuredly, new outlets, new methodologies, and new strategies will come on the scene. More professionals will answer the call of thought leadership and take steps—some gradual, some drastic—to raise their profiles and create a business case for themselves through content. Agile thought leaders will adjust their platforms accordingly. In time, the three sub-movements of The Thought Leadership Movement will blur at their edges and coalesce, lending credence to my hypothesis:
The impact of a thought leader is directly proportional to the power of the brand story, the effort expended to tell it, and the integrity to live it in front of a discerning audience.
♦ The marketing strategies bred by the Thought Leadership Movement are not new. Businesses have been telling and selling their stories for centuries. The Digital Era has merely retooled the vocabulary, connected everyone with everything, and enabled collaboration in ways that could have never been imagined.
♦ Thought leaders are driven by a passion for story, transferring knowledge, and building engagement-rich communities. A well-crafted brand story fuels the content engine; well-marketed content shapes perception and drives engagement; a well-managed community determines the impact of said content through discussion and sharing.
♦ The process by which thought leadership is acquired is not arbitrary. To lead by thought takes discipline, perseverance, and courage. People will change their destinies through their pursuit of thought leadership. Thought leaders will change the destinies of others.
Since 2006, JD Gershbein, CEO of Owlish Communications, has helped advance the collective awareness of LinkedIn and inspired opportunity-oriented professionals in all walks of business to step up and achieve on the site. His ability to spark others to action has earned him the moniker of “The LinkedIn Catalyst.” JD is considered one of the world’s top thought leaders on LinkedIn, and a pioneer in the design and delivery of LinkedIn education. He is also a globally acclaimed social business psychologist, keynote speaker, and frequent broadcast media expert on LinkedIn for business. Additionally, JD is adjunct professor of marketing communications at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business, where he is advancing social media marketing as an academic discipline. In addition to his blog, The Wisdom Zone, JD is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Forbes.
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