The term “thought leader” is tossed around a lot, especially online. We often hear about people being thought leaders, driving changes and steering trends. Before you can become one, you must understand what this particular role means and why it is important.
Defining a Thought Leader
With any buzzword, it can often be tough to pin down its origin and true meaning. With some research, here’s what I found.
Forbes: “A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.”
Although the term technically dates back to 1887 when it first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, it gained popularity in the late 80s and early 90s when it was revived by marketers (Wikipedia).
Why Thought Leaders Matters
While the term may not be new, it certainly has taken on new significance in the Internet age. Now we have thought leaders in the form of entrepreneurs, technology gurus, and influential bloggers.
Being a thought leader is more than just being an expert in your field or area of specialization. It also requires that you are an innovator and a cutting-edge thinker. You need to always be looking ahead, not backward. When people turn to thought leaders, it is to discover the next big thing or a new perspective on a current trend, not for regurgitated, recycled ideas.
According to Forbes, “It’s a truism that thought leaders tend to be the most successful individuals or firms in their respective fields. Furthermore, in the research literature, there’s a general consensus that being a thought leader… can make a very significant and positive difference.”
When it comes to marketing, thought leadership matters because prospects always want content or information over products. Or, as Oracle puts it, “prospects want your perspective, not your product.” Furthermore, any knowledge you provide ends of being part of the larger sales process—interested parties who turn to you for information are more likely to turn to you for services.
Becoming a Thought Leader
Let’s be honest, being a thought leader sounds pretty amazing, so who wouldn’t want to be one?! First, in this day and age, nearly anyone can claim to be a thought leader, so what is the magic formula? To truly be a thought leader you need a combination of experience and innovation, and you must share information, essentially letting people know you are pioneering and that you're knowledgeable through your work. While you don’t necessarily have to publish a book, (although many successful thought leaders do), you must engage through blogs, articles, social media, speaking engagements, and other media.
Also, you cannot rest on your laurels—you must continually seek to expand your knowledge and thought processes. Rebecca Lieb, advertising analyst at Altimeter Group, agrees: “Rather like achieving academic tenure… thought leadership requires a continuum of wisdom, accomplishment, and a body of published work that stands the test of a degree of time.”
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