Thought leadership might not be what you think it is


Product marketers as the stewards of original ideas


Quiz time: Which of the following would you classify as “thought leadership?”

A) A blog post by a CEO touting the company’s innovations

B) A well-told story by an executive on how she overcame a challenge in her career

C) A presentation by an expert offering the latest best practices for a fundamental business process

D) None of the above.

If you answered “D) none of the above,” you are correct!

“Thought leadership” is something that you’ve certainly heard of — and employed — if you have anything to do with enterprise technology marketing efforts such as presentations, field enablement, and strategic campaigns.

Here at Sappington, we’re often asked to infuse thought leadership into our clients’ work, particularly in our collaboration with executives and product marketers. The challenge is that this term has been bandied about so much that its meaning has become fuzzy at best.

It’s time to clearly define thought leadership as a singular concept that deserves a central place in the overall strategy of enterprise technology companies — one that should be fundamental to the work of those responsible for shepherding brands and products. 

What thought leadership is NOT

Often, “thought leadership” is simply viewed as content marketing with a more impressive title. And while content marketing is a useful tool, thought leadership is distinct — with distinct benefits.

Talking about your product — even if your CEO is doing the talking — is generally not thought leadership, either. In fact, most true thought leadership doesn’t focus on products at all, but on unique ideas and innovations.

Thought leadership is not driven by sales and profit goals. Instead, it is a long-term strategy that not only builds the brand, but also pushes it to the forefront. Business success is a natural result of this, but not a cause or a “why.”

Finally, thought leadership isn’t a mere tactic or a box to be checked off on a marketing plan (e.g., “Let’s have an ad buy, an email blast, and some thought leadership” or “Did you get me that thought leadership I asked for?”).

Why is true thought leadership important today?

Over the history of business, companies operated in an atmosphere where information was scarce, and often closely guarded. In that environment, original thought was both less common and harder to discover. With technological advancements, we now have the opposite problem. We are awash in a sea of data and we desperately need a way to filter, prioritize, and take the appropriate action.

In the age of Twitter, it seems everyone is a “thought leader,” but, ironically, we’re still hungry for original thought.


True thought leadership, if correctly packaged and communicated, provides an opportunity for a company to offer the kind of clarity needed by both customers and industry players. It’s the expression of fresh ideas that can cut through the noise, catapult a company or leader to the forefront of important conversations, and ultimately grow mindshare that eventually results in market share. 

What does good thought leadership look like?

Thought leadership should manifest as a strategic program to communicate the ideas and innovations that are created by leaders within your company. It’s an opportunity to inspire, to influence, and to take the lead on big industry conversations.  

In order for thought leadership to be effective, it needs to be:


Thought leadership should offer unique, fresh lines of thinking. It should ask bold questions and deliver intriguing answers or possibilities. Any leader can have her say on the issues of the day, but effective thought leadership helps shape big-picture conversations and provokes epiphanies. It also helps support and express the unique overarching vision of the company.


Thought leadership captures real ideas from real people. Those ideas need to be a part of the person or company — it will quickly become obvious if they are not. It’s almost impossible to deliver consistent and effective thought leadership unless the message is backed by real substance and conviction. The thought leader needs to have been there, experienced it, taken the journey, and come out the other end to share the learnings with others (because the term “leader” implies that there are those that will follow).


Thought leadership should not only be interesting, but applicable. If you want to capture the attention of your audience, your ideas should be relevant to them. Whether sparking new approaches, offering solutions, or presenting a fresh perspective, thought leadership should be usable by your audience in dealing with real-world realities, rather than pie-in-the-sky theory.

This is the reason why so many people viewed the earlier days of TED talks as thought leadership — and rightly so — because they were generally original, authentic, and provided a means of action. And they never sold products.

What thought leadership should ultimately do for your company

Thought leadership isn’t just an intellectual exercise or an expression of individual ego. It has real long-term benefits for companies.

When you do it right, thought leadership:

Creates long-term value

Thought leadership should offer ideas of value that can in turn help your audience create value. A consistent and well-executed thought leadership strategy also creates value for your company. Offering a greater vision, expressed through thought leadership, makes your brand greater than the sum of its parts.   

Inspires trust

By its very nature, true thought leadership is authentic. And authenticity inspires trust, especially in a world where customers are savvy about sales pitches. Offering honesty and sharing a larger vision can not only break through those belief barriers, but turn cynics into brand champions.

Sets your brand apart

Authentic thought leadership goes beyond branding to make a company stand out from the pack. This kind of differentiation is critical in today’s enterprise technology market, where parity among products exists on many levels. Thought leadership can help potential customers see beyond functions and specifications to the important ideas behind the product. 

So, who’s really responsible for good thought leadership?


One could say that the thought leaders themselves are responsible, but that’s not the whole picture. Product marketers — as those accountable for the overall success of a given product or service — are integral to bringing thought leadership to life.

In order to be effective, marketers need to respect the strategic nature of thought leadership. Thinking about the overall goals must come before planning the details of how thought leadership will be delivered.

When thought leadership is designed as a structured, strategic program, it transcends products and individual leaders, and allows marketers to capture and share the big ideas that are important company assets.

And it’s time to stop viewing thought leadership as a moment in time confined to a podium, a mic, and a single thought leader. Product marketers should be thinking about how to roll out original, provocative ideas that merit attention in almost any format or forum, whether blogs, video series, articles, or social media.

Thoughtful thought leadership

Thought leadership deserves more thought — and more leadership — than it currently enjoys. In the crowded enterprise technology space, it can be an effective way for a company to break away from the pack, but its full potential often goes untapped.

The good news is that every company already has the building blocks for a strong thought leadership program. All businesses have leaders with original thoughts, perspectives, ideas, and innovations to offer. As it is now, these valuable assets are often sorely underused. A deliberately designed thought leadership program harnesses the power of these ideas to drive success.


Read about how to activate thought leadership

Thought LeadershipErik Wirsing