So much of what you knew about thought leadership has changed

Thought leadership, that old chestnut of marketing communication, needs serious reconsideration.

Back in the days, the essays and podcast interviews you published during launch promoting how your company’s new product or service solves a problem could help get your executives in the media and focus make them in-demand sources for the press.

But not anymore.

In COVID times, audiences – and that includes the press – don’t react to these tactic-centric stories. You want to be inspired and guided by leaders who share the experiences that help understand the challenges we face today. Readers crave empathy. You need a personal touch.

You may be shy about sharing personal stories or your company may not want to take a public stance in this contentious climate. Fortunately, you don’t have to tackle the big issues head-on: just add humanity to your stories.

That doesn’t mean you should ditch your traditional approach. The old format for posts – creating posts, providing context, sharing examples, offering takeaways – still works. But executives who share a part of themselves in this setup and thus transcend the obvious will shine.

The challenge is to tell a story that reconnects thought leaders – as people – with the purpose of your business, while the insights they share continue to show how you solve problems for your customers.

Here are some stories we’ve seen that use such a framework:

  • An association of HR professionals helped its stakeholders navigate the changing workplace landscape when its CEO wrote a series of articles like this on “Prioritizing Every 4 Hours” asking executives to talk about how We all felt vulnerable as a result of the pandemic.
  • A brand strategist warned direct-to-consumer brands not to be complacent and opportunistic in the face of their COVID windfall, but rather to think about the future of their brands in a post-pandemic world that goes beyond the direct-to-consumer channel and positions they hold for growth.
  • One creative services marketer shared her story of trauma in her workplace that was not only tolerated but pushed aside, and how the pandemic and social justice have transformed culture. Their perspective showed a new wave of reckoning and reconstruction.
  • The head of a digital agency advocated industry-wide for companies to pay their employees for civic measures after his own company implemented its guidelines.

In the meantime, follow some guidelines from the old “manual” for thought guidance. Your essay, podcast, speech, or media interview can’t be so selfish that it sounds like a sales brochure. Your ideas need to be put in a timely context: if you don’t connect the dots for the audience, they’ll miss the point. And your opinion won’t be noticed if it sounds like everyone else’s: your voice needs differentiation.

Regarding the guidelines best applicable in the new era, here are five principles you can use to transform your thought-making into more personal conversations:

  1. Root your topic in your values. In a new survey of 5,400 professionals conducted by WorldatWork, the Total Rewards Association, 60% said it is extremely important to work for a leader with similar social beliefs. When your company clearly states what it stands for, tell a story that shows what you are doing to advance your point of view.
  2. Add a story about an actual person. Tell people when they can see each other in your story. Show someone – even better an employee – what actions you recommend.
  3. Make it new. Timing is everything. Create your story with what is happening around you now. You don’t have to deal with politics or climate change – you can comment on industry trends too.
  4. Solve a problem. Outline the challenges your audience is facing and offer solutions that they can either apply directly or use to formulate their own strategies. This approach will drive readers to learn more.
  5. Stay engaged and get noticed. To be known for important opinions, your voice needs to be nuanced. 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 requires steady, strategic ascent. Be consistent. A quote, article, or interview is not a leadership role. It is not even thought leadership. Long-term value lies in sharing your stories over and over again.

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