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So Much of What You Knew About Thought Leadership Has Changed

Thought leadership, that old marketing communications chestnut, needs a serious rethink.

In the before times, the essays and podcast interviews that you rolled out during launch to tout how your company’s new product or service solves a problem could help propel your leaders into the media spotlight and make them sought-after sources for the press.

But no more.

In COVID times, audiences—and that includes the press—are not responding to those tactics-centered stories. They want to be inspired and guided by leaders who share experiences that help make sense of the challenges we face today. Readers crave empathy. They need a personal touch.

You may be timid about sharing personal stories, or your company might not want to take a public stance in this contentious climate. But, thankfully, you don’t have to tackle the big issues head-on: Just insert humanity into your stories.

That’s not to say you should toss out your traditional approach. The old format for contributed posts—set up thesis, provide context, share examples, offer takeaways—still works. But leaders who share some of themselves in that setup, and thus transcend the obvious takeaways, will shine.

The challenge is to tell a story that connects thought leaders—as people—back to the purpose of your business, while the insights they share still show how you solve problems for your customers.

Here are some stories we’ve seen that take advantage of such a framework:

  • An association for HR professionals helped its stakeholders navigate the shifting workplace landscape when its CEO wrote a series of articles like this one on “Setting Priorities Every 4 Hours,” urging leaders to talk about how vulnerable we all felt as a result of the pandemic.
  • A brand strategist cautioned direct-to-consumer brands not to be complacent and opportunistic in the face of their COVID windfall, but to think about the future of their brands in a post-pandemic world that transcends the direct-to-consumer channel and positions them for growth.
  • A creative services marketer shared her story about a trauma she experienced in her workplace that was not merely tolerated but brushed aside, and about how the pandemic and social justice have now changed the culture. Her perspective showed a new wave of reckoning and rebuilding.
  • The head of a digital agency made an industry-wide plea for companies to pay their employees to take civic action after his own company put its policy in place.

All the while, keep in mind a few guidelines from the old thought-leadership “handbook.” Your essay, podcast, speech, or media interview cannot be so self-serving that you sound like a sales brochure. Your ideas must be put into a timely context: If you don’t connect the dots for audiences, they’ll miss the point. And your opinion won’t stand out if it sounds like everyone else’s: Your voice needs differentiation.

As for guidelines most applicable in the new era, here are five principles to help turn your thought leadership into more personal conversations:

  1. Root your topic in your values. In a new survey of 5,400 working professionals conducted by WorldatWork, the Total Rewards association, 60% said working for a leader with similar social beliefs is extremely important. Once your company clearly articulates what it stands for, tell a story that shows what you’re doing to promote your point of view.
  2. Include a story about an actual person. People relate when they can see themselves in your story. Show someone—even better, an employee—taking the action you’re recommending.
  3. Make it newsy. Timing is everything. Frame your story with what’s happening now around you. You don’t have to take on politics or climate change—you can comment on industry trends, too.
  4. Solve a problem. Lay out the challenges your audience is facing, and offer solutions that they can either apply directly or use to formulate their own strategies. That approach will keep readers coming back for more.
  5. Stay engaged and stand out. To be known for having opinions that matter, your voice must have differentiation. You can’t sound like everyone else. Be clear, and you will become a sought-after influencer in your space.

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Gaining authority takes a steady, strategic climb. Be consistent. One quote, one article, or one interview isn’t thought leadership. It’s not even leadership with thoughts. Long-term value lies in sharing your stories over and over.

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