How Marketers Define Thought Leadership in 2020 [Research]

There are few topics that spark more passionate debate among marketers than thought leadership (except, perhaps, the Oxford comma).

  • What does thought leadership mean?
  • Can anyone be a thought leader?
  • Can a brand be a thought leader or should this term be reserved for individuals?
  • How are marketers approaching thought leadership? And, more specifically, what’s working?

We teamed up with Andy Crestodina from Orbit Media and SurveyMonkey Audience to better understand marketers’ take on this topic. (You can also read their take on the findings. Andy uses this data to define thought leadership and Colette Des Georges from SurveyMonkey Audience explores the role data plays in thought leadership.)

Our thanks to the 481 marketing and PR pro who responded! (As a sidenote: I am referring to our respondents throughout this article as “marketers” for simplicity).

Our goal with this research is to spark productive conversations about thought leadership in 2020. Do you agree with the findings — or where do you think we, as an industry, have an opportunity to grow and improve?

Which qualities are most essential for thought leaders?

The one question we were most interested in answering was this: What are important attributes in a thought leader?

As you can see from the chart below, the most essential quality a thought leader should possess is being easy to understand (83%).

Interestingly, this has nothing to do with what the person is actually saying, but rather, it’s all about how they are saying it.

Other qualities marketers consider to be essential include:

  • Challenging the way someone thinks (64%)
  • Publishing data to validate their position (61%)
  • Saying something new (60%)

My take: What I found most interesting in the data were marketers’ differences on what’s more essential in thought leadership: having a strong opinion or including controversy and unpopular viewpoints. 88% of marketers think thought leaders should have strong opinions, yet only 64% think thought leaders should say things that are unpopular or controversial.

Having a strong opinion and being unpopular seem like two sides of the same coin, so why do marketers react so differently in these two areas?  Is opinion deemed a positive and controversy seen as a negative?

How important is it for thought leadership to make an impact?

We also wondered if thought leadership content needs to lead to an action — for the marketing team and for the audience.

As you can see in the chart below, marketers think it is more important for thought leadership to drive someone to take an action than it is for it to positively impact their marketing.

My take: One definition of leadership I like is that it is “the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal.” Implicit in this is action, and it’s encouraging to see that marketers want their thought leadership to do something.

Can purely educational content be thought leadership?

How-to content is ubiquitous in the content marketing space (and, it can be quite effective), but is it — and should it — be considered thought leadership? The majority of marketers say it can be.

As another datapoint, we also asked marketers what content formats they consider to be effective thought leadership. As you can see from the chart below, educational content tops the list. Marketers think this is more effective than any other type of content, including the evaluation/identification of trends and research reports.

My take: As shown above, marketers believe thought leadership should help readers take an action — and educational content is one way to do this. That said, I don’t think the vast majority of educational content is thought leadership. How-to content that re-hashes ideas that have been covered ad nauseum and don’t provide any new insights shouldn’t be considered thought leadership.

Instead, if you want to create educational thought content, strive to say something new, challenge the way someone thinks, communicate it in a way that is easy to understand, and lead the reader to take an action.

Who should be considered thought leaders?

By far, respondents think experts are most qualified to be thought leaders. A third of respondents think anyone can be a thought leader.

Related to this, we also wondered if “thought leader” should be a term saved for individuals, or if a brand can be a thought leader as well. The majority think brands can be thought leaders.

My take: From a practical perspective, I’m not surprised by these findings. Most marketers work for brands for whom “thought leadership” is often a goal.

However, I think people better relate to people than to brands. Apple was Steve Jobs. Microsoft was Bill Gates. Even if your brand does want to be a position of thought leadership, find those individuals who can be the face of your brand.

Which individuals work best? Experts. (And this person may be you.) These individuals have deep knowledge in their space to know what has been discussed. This is essential, because they need this background to offer something new or challenge people to think in a new way.

And, remember this: Educating people, even if not in a way that could (yet) be considered thought leadership, can help you become an expert.  I love this quote that James Clear shared in a recent newsletter:

“The person who learns the most in any classroom is the teacher. If you really want to learn a topic, then ‘teach’ it. Write a book. Teach a class. Build a product. Start a company. The act of making something will force you to learn more deeply than reading ever will.”

Does ghostwriting thought leadership impact its quality?

If there is one question that shows the most tension, it’s this one: Does ghostwriting thought leadership impact its quality? About half say the quality is impacted, while the other half does not.

My take: In retrospect, there is some bias in this question, considering that some people answering this survey are likely ghostwriting thought leadership content for others. It only makes sense that they agree it does not matter if thought leadership is ghostwritten. (Next year, we plan to ask if respondents ghostwrite content.)

And, there are several ways to approach ghostwritten content. For instance, there is a big difference between interviewing someone and shaping their ideas into an article versus editing a piece. Editors can help make the piece easy-to-understand so it’s accessible to more people, which is a key quality marketers value.

Do thought leaders need a large following? An active one?

Next, we wondered about the importance of having a following. Does the size of the audience matter? Does a thought leader need to have active followers who share and discuss their ideas?

As you can see, the majority think thought leaders need to have an active following but not a large one.

My take: I think marketers have this right. It’s far more important to have an active audience than a large one. Communicate with your community (even when you don’t think you have time), share information and, more importantly, be part of the conversation.

Do marketers strive to be thought leaders?

The last thing we wondered: Do marketers want to be thought leaders? About half of marketers do.

My take: I wasn’t sure what to expect with this question, but when you look at the qualities marketers associate with thought leadership — saying something new, challenging the way people think, communicating in a way that is easy to understand, having an active following, etc. — it makes sense that so many strive to be this person for their audience.

Is thought leadership a priority for marketers?

Once we got marketers’ feelings on what thought leadership is, we wanted to understand if and how they use it in their organizations.

66% of marketers (317 respondents) say that thought leadership is a priority for themselves or the brands they work for.

The marketers who are using thought leadership report various levels of success. Only 26% of respondents consider their thought leadership to be very successful — and an additional 65% say it’s moderately successful.

My take: Regardless of effectiveness, the vast majority will continue to invest in thought leadership efforts over the coming 12 months. This is an indication of how integral the concept of thought leadership is for those organizations that invest in it.

How do marketers want their thought leadership to evolve?

So what does thought leadership look like for those who are using it? Which qualities do marketers’ thought leadership programs currently include — and what do they want to add in the future?

The element currently included most often in thought leadership is data. As someone who believes in the power of original research, it’s encouraging to see that so many marketers understand the importance of data in thought leadership.

The story I think is most useful for marketers, though, is in the qualities marketers want to incorporate. The most popular items marketers want add include:

  • Challenging the way our audience thinks (50%)
  • Saying something new (42%)
  • Including strong opinions (42%)

The biggest debate that wages on is: Should thought leadership include unpopular/controversial viewpoints?

My take: The changes that marketers want to make to their programs often align with the elements they consider essential in thought leaders.

What types of content are marketers using for their thought leadership?

The most common way marketers are pursuing thought leadership is through social media posts.

Interestingly, only about half are publishing their own original research, even though 73% report they are using data to validate their position. My assumption is that people are citing research from others. My question to you: Wouldn’t you want to be the source people point to?

 My take: Although this article doesn’t go into depth about what those who say their thought leadership programs are very effective do differently than those who say theirs aren’t (that’s for another article), it’s interesting that the very effective cohort reports lower usage of every tactic on this list except for podcasting and original research. This is another reminder that doing more does not guarantee success (and, in fact, can often hinder it). Figure out what works well and do more of that.

What results have marketers seen because of thought leadership?

Marketers who use thought leadership report many marketing-related benefits, most notably website traffic, leads and subscribers.

My take: I see this in so many marketing surveys, but it’s frustrating that marketers are paying so little attention to backlinks. Backlinks, especially from sites that have a higher domain authority than yours, are key because they are a signal to Google that your site has authority. This is something more marketers should be tracking and pushing for in their thought leadership programs.

Where to go from here?

The more I analyze, discuss and consider the results, the more pensive I become. As Andy asked on a call, “Looking at the results, is thought leadership considered to be the same as content marketing? Should it be?

When you look at the qualities marketers think are important in thought leadership — communicating in a way that is easy to understand, challenging the way someone thinks, publishing data to validate their position and saying something new — and how they deliver it — educational content — it feels like many are conflating these marketing approaches.

And I wonder again: “Should they be so similar?”

I think the qualities marketers say are essential for thought leadership are a great start, but I think we can challenge ourselves to do better, to try more. Let’s get comfortable getting more uncomfortable.

But really, I want your viewpoint. What do you think of these findings? Where do marketers have it right and where can we be doing more?