Talk to communications staff working at research-driven organizations, and almost all of them regard thought leadership as if it were a precious metal — rare; concentrated (usually in one or a few subject matter experts); often first discovered by accident; as likely to grow throughout the rest of the organization as gold through alchemy; and with a value wholly dependent on validation in an extremely volatile marketplace (themedia).
I think about thought leadership instead as a renewable resource and your organization as the ecosystem producing it. Get the system of nurturing, production and virtuous feedbacks right, and you can have a steady and growing supply of insight flowing from your organization’s staff that you can distribute to your own marketplace (all the way from prospective customers to policymakers) as well as funders, partners and (yes) media.
This is strategic thought leadership — as a strategic practice, initiative and pillar of your organization’s overall strategy.
Most research-driven orgs trying to grow their thought leadership are doing so through tactically:
- First, they’re trying to increase the supply of their thought leadership content through training their staff (e.g.,public speaking, social media effectiveness, improved interview skills) or ghost writing
- Second, they’re trying to increase demand for their thought leadership (through stepped-up pitching to journalists and editors).
There’s nothing wrong with these efforts. But they’re only baby steps along the path to building a thought leading organization.
So what defines thought leading organizations?
- Their insights and analyses are top of mind for the decision-makers they want to influence.
- That’s because those insights and analyses are fresh, compelling, solutions-oriented and have a clear point of view.
- And because these organizations see thought leadership as a strategic pillar, not a marketing ancillary — essential to their missions and their business objectives.
- So they have thought leadership strategies and programs that produce great content, frequently and rapidly and in ways that feed into the differentiated identity of the organization.
- They promote their thought leadership in campaigns about ideas and solutions, not just for individual pieces of research.
- They measure their impact in hard numbers that support a business case — not soft stories.
- They’ve removed all their internal blockers to thought leadership — not just unnecessary approvals, but lack of incentives, lack of clear roles, lack of supportive culture, and any misalignments with their strategy, positioning, brand story or messaging.
- They also know who their real thought leaders are — not necessarily the same people as the organization’s leaders — and they have a pipeline program dedicated to developing their skills and assessing thought leadership gaps across the organization.
- Finally, all of these organization’s strategic functions — from comms and marketing to sales and development to hiring and retention — are exploiting thought leadership content to its full value.
These bullets might seem daunting. They aren't in practice. Implementing a thought leadership ecosystem is mostly a question of organizational strategy, alignment and commitment, along with having one or two key resources running the thought leadership program.
A chief scientist at a leading non-profit recently told me: “Everyone has papers. Thought leadership is what gives you market edge.”
Market edge is what's really rare for research-driven organizations. The ones that have it don't do thought leadership as a hobby.