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Thought leadership: there's more to it than just buzz

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When we develop strategic communications plans for our health and healthcare industry clients, thought leadership is invariably one of the strategies we recommend. And most likely, we’re not alone.

The more the term “thought leadership” gets batted around though, the more it is most likely to be misused and misunderstood. So, let’s clarify what thought leadership is. According to Michael Brenner, author of “The Content Formula,” thought leadership is simply about becoming an authority on relevant topics by delivering the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience.” Brenner’s definition makes sense and is probably the one that most marketers align with.

Daniel Rasmus, author of “Listening to the Future,” takes this definition even further. He says, “Thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship. It should intrigue, challenge and inspire even people already familiar with a company. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should inspire existing relationships.”

Thought leadership is used mostly in a B2B context, such as healthcare IT for example, because of the complexity and length of the decision-making process in B2B environments, says Brenner. In this context, thought leadership provides a number of benefits to brands and organizations. A few of them include:

  • Brand affinity
  • Enabling a company to insert itself into the conversation early in the buying journey. It introduces an organization to key audiences and lets them get to know you better.
  • Your organization’s thought leaders begin to develop more of a social relationship with your target audience. They become people customers and prospects can get to know and, hopefully, relate to.

Most of the time, organizations will enter into thought leadership with the idea of creating marketable content that can be used for generating leads. But there’s a much deeper, more visceral purpose behind thought leadership that most companies who engage in it probably don’t think about. Successful thought leadership should be about a big idea that ultimately changes how people perceive a company, an industry, or the world in general. It also means walking the talk and demonstrating thought leadership – not just about social issues, but through workshops, panels, presentations, leading societies, etc.

Rasmus explains that thought leadership should be audience-driven. In other words, an organization that invests in thought leadership should know what it wants from those who consume it. And, while most companies pursue thought leadership to ultimately generate revenue, recognition and respect should be among a thought leader’s top “wants.”

Following are a few key rules of engagement for companies and individuals who enter the thought leadership arena:

  • Thought leadership should be created to enhance brand value, not revenue – many companies pursue thought leadership strategies to generate leads and ultimately, paying customers. But as Rasmus points out, access to thought leadership should be free, not gated (e.g. providing access to a white paper only after someone provides their contact information.) First and foremost, thought leadership should sell ideas, not products and services. If your ideas provide value and are meaningful, buyers will come to you.
  • Educate your audience. Successful thought leadership must have perceived personal value, so it is important to tell your target audience something they don’t know or provide a different perspective on a topic. If the recipient of the information doesn’t see value in your thought leadership, they most likely won’t pursue a relationship with your company.
  • Market your thought leadership – Thought leadership needs a campaign to promote it, both internally and externally.
  • Have patience. Thought leadership doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it lead to immediate sales or revenue increases. It takes time and consistency to build trust and a following, depending on your industry, your investment in it and the value of the ideas you communicate.

When executed well, thought leadership can be a powerful tool in building respect and value for your brand, growing your target audience and ultimately, generating revenue. With this type of power and influence, thought leaders need to be thoughtful leaders. Remember: what you choose to do with your platform will define how you are viewed by those who consume what you write or speak about.


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