So you’ve heard about “thought leadership” before. You might have even used the phrase yourself.

But what does it really mean?

I’ve seen folks going so far as to call out so-called ‘thought leaders’ for putting out fluffy and bullshit content. So does that make ‘thought leadership’ just another buzzword? Not necessarily. Thought leadership is not a fluffy blog post that drones on about, well, nothing. And it’s not about bragging, either.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic put a chokehold on our entire world and life as we have known it, anyone on the Internet could publish a few blog posts and call themselves a thought leader. The pandemic and resulting thirst for original information exposed many a thought leader for repackaging old ideas into new ones. However, those left standing are truly shining this year.

But being a thought leader is not about being famous or earning showers of accolades from every corner of the Internet. So, what IS ‘thought leadership’, really?

What Is Thought Leadership?

Let’s take a few definitions of thought leadership from the biggest hitters, including Seth Godin and Russ Klein.

Seth Godin’s definition of thought leadership is to be an inspiration to others. To inspire others, one must take a stand on a controversial topic. That takes courage.

Russ Klein, the CEO of the American Marketing Association, places utmost importance on being original for those who aspire to be thought leaders.

While these definitions make excellent sense, I have my own perspective about thought leadership. I’m not saying that my own definition of thought leadership is mutually exclusive to Godin’s and Klein’s definitions.

To me, thought leadership is about answering the biggest and most vexing questions in your industry. You go out of your way to help not only your customers, but also your competitors and businesses complementary to yours.

In my view, thought leadership is about being present every day, answering questions, asking who needs help, and offering help. If you do this consistently—day in and day out—customers, colleagues, and other industry leaders will start to remember you. Then they will start coming to you for answers, and over time, they will see you as their go-to guy for any questions or problems in the same industry.

That, to me, is thought leadership.

So How Do I Become a Thought Leader?

It takes time, patience, and a willingness to help others without expecting anything in return.

It ain’t bragging. It ain’t bashing your expertise over your readers’ heads. I’ve seen many so-called thought leaders shouting on the Internet about how they’re the expert, they have all the answers, and people should kneel before them—only to get crickets in return.

That doesn’t work. It’s like yelling into the middle of a hurricane.

The best way to start is by listening to your customers. Just listen. That’s it. It’s really not that much different from “leadership” where great leaders are known to listen to their followers. A bad leader acts unilaterally without listening to others or understanding their situation.

In my opinion, Hubspot does a pretty good job breaking down the concrete steps towards becoming a thought leader in your market:

  • Listen
  • Ask questions
  • Talk to them as “people” (not as “leads” or “prospects”)
  • Understand them better
  • Answer their questions

Finally, if you listen well enough, you might find common questions and concerns that most of your market shares. Only then, you can begin creating content with a clear strategy to answer these questions and address these concerns.

Why Bother Taking These Steps to Become a Thought Leader?

At this point, you might be asking why we should even bother going to these lengths to become a thought leader. It’s hard to measure thought leadership because other than vanity social media metrics, there isn’t a clear cut way to quantify this. It may be difficult to attribute revenue to thought leadership (but some smart marketing executives have found ways to drive revenue with thought-leadership content among other types).

Plus, we have other metrics to worry about, like qualified leads, conversions, customer lifetime value, retention, churn, and all that.

So where does thought leadership fit in a data-driven marketing strategy?

I’ll say this. While I am all for data-driven approaches, not everything has to be about numbers. Not everything can be distilled into a singular metric that goes up or down, based on performance.

Yes, I get that it’s hard to sell that to your CEO and other executives, but here’s the thing. Thought leadership isn’t just about metrics. It’s about your brand. Why do you think companies pour so much into building their brand?

If you can get people to know you, like you, and trust you—and stay with you when competitors invariably try to snatch them away—is that not worth the effort to build your brand, and by extension, your thought leadership?