Thought Leadership Strategy

What is Thought Leadership?

By Starr Million Baker

Say “thought leadership” in the tech or energy industries and you’ll be launched into a discussion about content. After all, if a leader has a thought that wasn’t posted on LinkedIn or captured in a story on with Axios, did it even happen? Probably not. Herein lies the issue — is thought leadership about the leader, or the sharing of the thought?

Coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, the founding editor of Strategy+Business, the concept of “thought leadership” has taken on buzzword status in recent years. Kurtzman contended thought leaders were business executives — men and women with “distinctively original ideas, unique points of view, and new insights.” Today, thought leadership has come to be synonymous with smart content marketing strategy.

INK believes in a mix of both: leaders make the best thought leaders, and the best thought leaders produce excellent fodder for smart content marketing.

Why do you need a
thought leadership strategy?

So why put in the effort? For starters, thought leadership builds brand awareness and credibility for the person and the company.

For example – there’s no doubt that Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has positioned himself (with the help of some very smart marketers, I’m sure) as a thought leader in the tech space. Of course, Microsoft was well-known before Nadella. But it’s his success in transforming Microsoft from a legacy IT company to a leader in cloud innovation that has helped make Microsoft the model for business adaptability.

How do you know Nadella’s thought leadership has been successful? When you read media coverage of the CEO, you’ll find themes like resurgence, reinvention, and transformation almost every time.

A thought leadership strategy also can impact recruiting and even sales, if you do it right. From a sales perspective, it can open doors and pave the way for new relationships. According to Daniel Rasmus, founder of Serious Insights and author of Listening to the Future, “Thought leadership should intrigue, challenge, and inspire even people already familiar with a company. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should enhance existing relationships.”

How to Get Started

Your first step should be to identify your company’s primary thought leaders. You might jump straight to your C-suite executives, but in our experience, this isn’t the case for every business. We’ve had clients find success with both executive thought leadership and by leveraging a bench of subject matter experts.

The key to pinpointing thought leaders is to follow the breadcrumbs toward passions and areas of expertise. Where these intersect with your business, industry trends, and customer needs, you’ll find your thought leaders. Do you have a director of engineering who’s developed a more efficient way to run their operations while still driving innovation? Or a chief technology officer who is an expert in next-generation cybersecurity?

Once you’ve assembled your team of thought leaders and taken stock of the topics and trends they’re willing (and excited) to speak to, make sure you’re prepared for the following.

Have a point of view

Are you interested in reading or learning about a perspective you’ve heard a million times over? Of course not. Your thought leaders should have an interesting and unique point of view. That’s what makes them thought-provoking and visionary.

Don’t be afraid to be contrarian

The reality is, conflict sells. There’s no need to ruffle feathers or oppose the standard just to gain attention. But if you have a nonconforming thought leader in your organization, shine a light on them.

Be proactive

A proactive thought leadership strategy can take the form of sharing ideas through earned, owned, and shared marketing channels. Or, by combining your company’s unique data with expert analysis, you can publish original research tailored to your target audience. Think reports, infographics on social media, or the now-familiar webinar.

But also be reactive

This is where knowing your thought leaders’ areas of passion and expertise pays off. Monitor breaking news and rising trends, and be prepared to jump on an opportunity for your thought leaders to comment with their point of view. Media and analysts are looking for trusted sources they can quickly quote.

Thought Leadership Strategy:
Tactics and Channels

You have your thought leaders. You have your forward-thinking perspectives. How do get them out into the world? Here are the tried-and-true approaches we take at INK.


From LinkedIn posts to contributed articles, thought leadership content is often a smart starting point for a thought leadership strategy. Why? It’s completely within your control.

Establish your topics, organize an editorial calendar, and get to publishing. This is where you can leverage all of your owned channels for distribution — your company’s website, social media accounts, videos, podcasts, email, and more.

Original research

Aggregating unique company data to identify trends, make predictions, or report on customer behaviors and market occurrences is extremely valuable. Particularly if no other company has the same insight. This doesn’t have to involve giving away business secrets, but do explore what information might be sharable with your product teams or CTO.

Speaking and events

Finding speaking opportunities for your thought leaders is a great way to earn third-party validation while also boosting their visibility and credibility. Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel when drafting submissions. Repurpose some of your existing blog topics and original research reports, when relevant.

Public relations

From newsjacking to working with industry analysts, public relations pros have several tactics for getting their company’s thought leadership into the right hands (or in front of the right eyeballs). Next time you’re reviewing your CEO’s quote in an upcoming press release, ask yourself — is this visionary? Bold? Or does it follow the same cookie-cutter format journalists see every day?

Pitfalls to Avoid in Your
Thought Leadership Strategy

Before you hit the ground running on developing your own thought leadership program (or enlist an agency to help you), take note of what you should steer clear of. These are some common missteps we see from marketing teams when rolling out a thought leadership strategy.


The best thought leadership doesn’t sleep. With the current pace of media, when you pause your efforts then pick back up again months later, you’re losing valuable relevancy. Whether publishing articles, speaking at events, or contributing quotes and expertise to media and analysts, it’s important to be consistent. Your thought leaders will remain top of mind, and your content will have a better chance of showing up at the top search engines. 

Milquetoast takes

Your thought leaders don’t necessarily need to be polarizing, but their perspectives won’t make an impact if they’re bland. Be aware of your content or quotes getting watered down to the point of boring. For risk-averse people and businesses, this can be especially challenging. In these cases, it can help to present a point of view far outside the norm, and then give them the chance to dial it back.

Having nothing to say, but talking anyway

This goes right along with being bland. If you’re trying to respond to a rising trend or big news moment, but your thought leaders don’t seem to have an opinion — it’s probably best to pass. Commenting or sharing content just for the sake of it is usually a waste of your time and resources. Wait for the opportunities that will set you up for success and serve your goals.

Not considering the audience

Evaluate every thought leadership opportunity with your target audiences in mind. Is it going to reach the people who matter to your business? Prospective customers, investors, partners. If you create that perfect piece of content or craft a hard-hitting quote, it’s still only as valuable as the people who see or hear it.

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to setting your thought leadership strategy. But with the right roster of visionaries, subject matter experts, and maybe an agency partner to help you wrangle and carry it all out — the payoff in awareness and trust is well worth it.