"Thought leadership" no longer applies

We need a new term for "thought leadership."

We need a new term for "thought leadership." At an informal focus group I helped facilitate this week, a marketing executive talked about the role of content in driving sales at his technology company.

I had always assumed that the standard thought leadership vehicles, such as blog posts, Op-Eds, surveys, and white papers were deployed primarily for acquiring new customers - either indirectly through brand building, or directly through lead generation. But this marketer told us that thought leadership at his company is most important in validating the decision to choose a certain product or partner. The real value of content, in this marketer's scenario, came towards the end of the prospect's review of the options available to them - and often before they have had any discussions with the brand.

So after the prospective customer learns about the features, reads the reviews, and checks the price, they will look to thought leadership to affirm the less tangible assets of the brand. Potential clients look for answers to nagging questions like, What are its values and ambitions? Who are its stars, and what is its culture? Where is this company headed, and do I want to go with it? Is this a company I can be sure will not embarrass me and my CEO?

Marketers spend a lot of time pushing for content that will fulfill this promise. Communications must be at the forefront of defining the messages and the means by which they are delivered. There needs to be integration between the sales process, executive positioning, and the new "corporation as media company" strategies. Employees need to be empowered behind a common purpose, but with intellectual freedom that ensures authenticity and innovation. Communciations is the natural convener of this dialogue between the C-suite, marketing, human resources and beyond.

We also need a new name for "thought leadership". The term is too passive, and suggests a silo around a very particular expression of a company's values and intellectual property. A company and its brands are defined and redefined at every stakeholder interaction, all of which influences ongoing engagement. Communications can take this opportunity to recast its role in meeting business objectives.

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