Thought Leadership Marketing is an Oxymoron

Thought leadership is a common marketing topic, but unfortunately thought leadership is not a common outcome of marketing. Part of the problem is that thought leadership marketing has lost all notions of actual thought leadership.

Gartner defines thought leadership marketing as “the giving — for free or at a nominal charge — of information or advice that a client will value so as to create awareness of the outcome that a company’s product or service can deliver, in order to position and differentiate that offering and stimulate demand for it.”

The problem is, knowledge of what a product or service can deliver or its differentiation does not establish real thought leadership.

Here is the definition of thought leader provided by Wikipedia: “Thought leader is business jargon for an entity that is recognized for having innovative ideas.”

Again, from Wikipedia, a distinguishing characteristic of a thought leader is “the recognition from the outside world that the company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates.”

I see the following as the key points:

  • Thought leadership is recognized. A company or individual cannot be a thought leader in a vacuum.
  • Thought leadership is expansive. Thought leaders understand their own business, clients needs and the larger market context.
  • Thought leadership is pushing boundaries. They do not simply follow market opinion, they have original ideas.

In today’s B2B marketing, the way thought leadership marketing is used is an oxymoron. Here are examples of thought leadership marketing I have seen:

  • Company 1. Licensed analyst content to promote on its site and via advertising to capture leads.
  • Company 2. Captured leads with required registration by promoting case studies to senior IT executives.
  • Company 3. Made a bold leadership position claim, supported with solution-focused content.

Each of these programs falls short of establishing these companies as thought leaders.

Company 1 is only reinforcing the analyst’s position as a thought leader. This may be an effective lead generation tactic, but it isn’t thought leadership.

Company 2 is following the Gartner thought leadership marketing model, but they are focused on their own solution and are not sharing a category perspective. In addition, the registration requirement limits distribution, sharing and discussion, making it nearly impossible to build broad recognition for the results they have delivered.

Company 3 is an example of what happens when marketing is charged with positioning a company as a thought leader without support of the broader organization. Advertising develops messages that claim a thought leadership position, but it is not backed up by the company’s activities. Company 3 has undermined their potential by focusing their communication on creating a position they do not defend.

A Better Alternative

Imagine how different these programs would be if each company was focused on being the number one answer to the following question:

Who is the one company you would want to speak to before wagering on what the most important industry innovations will be in the next five and ten years?

I do believe real thought leadership marketing is possible, but very few companies are embracing this view of it. Innovative ideas and perspectives, broadly discussed and distributed, are key to thought leadership. Content, the focus of so much of today’s thought leadership marketing, should simply be one medium for their dissemination.

Your turn. Can marketing establish thought leadership, or is thought leadership marketing an oxymoron? Share your view or your experience with thought leadership marketing in the comments below or with me on Twitter.

About Eric Wittlake

I am a digital and B2B marketer with a background in online media and analytics. I work with B2B clients on media and integrated marketing programs. You can connect with me on Twitter at @wittlake or in the comments here on my Digital B2B Marketing blog.

8 Responses to Thought Leadership Marketing is an Oxymoron

  1. Susan Fantle says:

    You’re right. The term “thought leadership” is being misused by just about everyone, including me.

    What I think most B2B marketers are trying to accomplish (that they think is thought leadership) is to have their companies seen as a resource prospects can turn to for guidance on how to solve a specific business challenge. In other words, “I can contact ABC Company for help with this problem because they will give me objective guidance whether I buy their product or service or not.”

    It’s not thought leadership. It’s trust.

    • Susan, thanks for the comment. Trust is incredibly valuable. I wish you had been in the #bizforum debate on Twitter last week on emotional and rational decision in B2B, sparked a post here last week and a fair amount of followup discussion as well.

      But we need to call it something else. Being trusted and having a vision are not necessarily linked.

      Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, thanks!

  2. Jeff Ernst says:

    Eric, so true. People use “thought leadership” to describe any type of content marketing. Core to the definition of thought leadership I’ve created at Forrester is that it conveys a big idea or compelling point-of-view on issues your buyers face. In fact, would welcome your feedback on 10 attributes of thought leadership that seperate it from content marketing or educational marketing:

    • Jeff, thanks for taking the time to read and comment, I really appreciate it. Thanks for the link to your 10 attributes, looking forward to digging into a framework that makes more sense than the one I quoted from a different analyst firm above!

      A side note: a great testament to the ability of social media to connect. Before getting involved in social media, I never expected an analyst or writer I follow to read something I wrote. Appreciate you taking the time!

  3. Rob Leavitt says:

    Thanks Eric, a nice piece. I totally agree with both of your main points, that thought leadership as a marketing idea has been seriously abused but also that thought leadership is indeed possible if developed appropriately. The bastardization of the term is similar to the “grade inflation” that pervades so much of society these days, like calling any half-decent athlete a “superstar.”

    To my mind, real thought leadership is the presentation of a substantially new approach to a serious business problem that is backed by credible evidence of successful deployment. It’s a high bar, and actually much higher than Gartner’s definition which is essentially just promotional marketing dressed up with a “value” orientation. Forrester’s definition is a better one; the criteria laid out by the Bloom Group are better still. Content marketing can certainly be useful, and using content marketing to educate prospective customers is a great thing, but it ain’t necessarily thought leadership.

    • Rob, thanks for the reply. I was actually a little annoyed when I read Gartner’s definition. Really, thought leadership marketing is simply telling people what you can do for them instead of publicly pounding your chest and screaming “we are number one!”?

      I spent a little bit of time with Forrester’s definition late this afternoon, certainly a dramatic improvement, and thank you for pointing me to Bloom Group as well.

      What I struggle with is how ‘proven’ does thought leadership need to be? For example, what Neville Isdell (and others) are doing with the idea of Connected Capitalism is clear thought leadership in my book. Although their are some examples, it certainly sits in the idea category, not the proven innovation category, in my opinion. Is real thought leadership what shapes the far reaches of your roadmap, or must the ideas you rally around today support a near-term application that can quickly become visible in your product?

      Thanks for the comment and information, I appreciate it!

  4. Eric, good article and it echoes what I have been saying about the difference between content marketing and thought leadership on my blog for some time.

    A further point I’d like to make is that thought leadership is all about perception – perception of your market not you or your brand that you are a thought leader in your field.

    It is only when that perception has been formed that you or yoru brand earn the trust to which Susan refers. Once that trust is earned is when you realise the significant benefits a true thought leadership campaign can accrue for the business.

  5. Pingback: 14 ways B2B marketers can establish credibility. | B2BMarketingSmarts

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