Four steps towards thought-leadership

As anyone who has ever gone on a forum knows, the cacophony of information on the Internet can be used to prove just about anything.

Facts, schmacts – as Homer Simpson so adeptly puts it, having the facts is not enough. If you want your ideas to stick, you have to convince people that you are worth listening to.

Leading the debate

It is no surprise that as the Internet and social media developed, communication, reputation, and brand perception became more and more important. Companies wanted to lead the debate rather than participate in it, and thought leadership became a buzzword.

Thought leadership – using creativity and knowledge to innovate, shape trends, and redefine the industry – is something that many companies strive for, but few actually achieve.

Turning over a high revenue does not equal thought leadership, and often companies that think of themselves as thought leaders are not perceived that way by their customers. This is the case for brands like Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, a study by Harvard Business Review has shown.

For Apple – the company that consistently tops Fortune’s list as most inspiring company – the opposite holds true: it holds only a minor market share for smartphones and computers. But when Apple’s CEO takes the stage, the world holds its breath, because Apple is considered the leading tech company.

Figure 1. Smartphone market 2014 Q4
Figure 2. PC market 2014 Q4

Of course, not every company can expect to drive the Internet insane whenever it launches a new product. But why is it so hard to become a thought leader?

There are four crucial steps for leading the debate: it takes awareness, perseverance, investment in content, and sound strategy. In short, it’s hard work – but if you pull it off, it pays off.


The first step towards thought leadership is awareness, both of what’s going on in your company and in the market around it.

Simon Sinek, who we like to point to at ZN, argues that to inspire, a company needs to flesh out the “why” – why does a company do what it does? While most companies know what they do and how they do it, only very few know why it is they do what they do. You need to flesh out your unique message, that passion that drove you into the business in the first place. If you want to be a thought leader, you have to be crystal-clear on what you are trying to say.

But knowing the why is not enough – you also have to be aware of the zeitgeist. Ideas and innovations that are not in tune with industry trends and developments in customer preferences will inevitably fall flat. Innovation often encounters resistance from within a company, but refusing to align with the zeitgeist brings real dangers.

Let me illustrate this. One great example is General Electric, which ranks #9 in Fortune’s list. GE moved from traditional communications towards a full digital strategy under the direction of Linda Boff – it came alive with tools like Vine and BuzzFeed to be entertaining and inspiring.

GE understood that rather than resisting development, aligning communications with the digital zeitgeist held many promises. In an age of transparency, visibility, and awareness, people will not do something because you tell them to; they will only listen when they believe that what you have to say is worth listening to.

Microsoft, on the other hand, failed to tap into its understanding of the spirit of the time. Years before Apple did so, it developed a tablet PC, but the project was swept under the rug by internal politics and corporate in-fighting. Talk about a missed opportunity.


Thought leaders have vision, set long-term goals, and persist in their efforts to achieve them. In the late 1980s, Apple (although used ubiquitously, it remains the best example) avoided getting dragged down by petty discussions because it believed it was revolutionizing the industry.

Becoming a thought leader inevitably involves having an opinion on trending topics, where the industry is headed, and maybe even scary subjects like sustainability and politics. Taking a position on an issue is crucial: followers don’t want a recap but a unique sneak peek into the brain of your organization.

Of course, this takes time. You cannot be a credible source if you never speak out about your expertise; you cannot expect your first tweet to go viral.

And there will be blowback – as some of these fails by companies on social media show. But effectively handling a crisis can seriously boost your reputation – like the great customer service of American Airlines. And remember: you’ll never be able to please everyone, unless your content is so far on the safe side that you’ll lose all interested followers by default.

Content worth sharing

In the good old days, attention used to be plenty and content would be hard to come by. Someone would read the same book over and over. But in the age of tweets, news feeds, status updates, and e-readers, content is everywhere, and attention is in short supply. The question then becomes: how do I make my content stand out? Why would people listen to what I have to say?

Online, everyone is a writer, but few are storytellers. To make people listen, you have to tell a story that people care about. A story that brings out the unique features and the human aspect. Moreover, a story is so much more than just text – all your senses should come into play. As the following video shows, this is not just common sense, but there is an actual science to storytelling:

Good strategy

In a digital age, thought leaders are visible, authentic, and accountable. Trying to become a thought leader, however, involves putting yourself out there, opening doors to new dangers and threats.

But no one said it would be easy: it will be a long journey that takes strategy at every step of the way. This is more than a couple of incidental tweets to reach some far-out visionary goals; becoming a thought leader involves drawing up realistic prognoses and carefully mapping out your campaign to connect it to your goals.

A thought leader aims to stay ahead of the curve, spotting trends and developments that others haven’t thought about yet. And in the world of Internet and social media, where new and untapped opportunities lurk behind every corner, avenues for thought leadership are plenty. Now I think that’s worth the try.

What do you think it takes to be a thought leader? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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