According to LinkedIn, there are 1.2 million people who class themselves as thought leaders. Whilst I’m sure this number is accurate when it comes to the number of people who think they are, I’m not so sure we can take this at face value. Instead, I would argue that only a handful are actually reputable.
Indeed, a study undertaken by global management consultancy McKinsey, found that just 1 per cent of senior business leaders can justifiable be described as ‘experts’. It’s a damning assessment, but one that subsequent research has by and large supported.
What defines a thought leader?
The idea of a thought leader isn’t a newly coined term, we’ve been at the mercy of experts who can guide us with their profound knowledge since the dawn of time. But it wasn’t until 1994 before we actually had a term to describe those who are the all-seeing almanacs in their field.
In an article penned for PwC, Joel Kurtzman said: “A thought leader is recognised by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate.”
In other words, a thought leader is someone who can take our problems, pain points, needs and wants and provide tangible solutions and in-depth understanding of whatever challenges are currently being faced for an individual, business or industry.
Ultimately, it’s about being able to build on the masses of thinking in your area of expertise, and creating content that provides context, relevance and value to your audience.
Why is the market so saturated?
COVID-19 has thrown all of us into the deep end and, in all fairness, none of us had a clue what to do, and the need for someone to give us clarity intensified three-fold.
But the problem was that suddenly every Tom, Dick and Harry ‘knew’ the answer, and they all began to shout about their solutions at the same time. And while a few of these voices were, and still are, certainly worth sitting up and taking notice of, many of them were not.
In fact, a large proportion of senior businesspeople, from C-Suite Executives to Managing Directors, think that a lot of thought leadership out in the ether isn’t fit for purpose – all style but little in terms of tangible substance (waffle).
In Clearly’s recent market research, it was found that 40 per cent of these leaders described the current ‘thought leadership’ content they are exposed to as ‘appalling’, ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ at best. To add further insult to injury, 38 per cent said it was ‘poorly written/produced,’ with 33 per cent bemoaning the ‘lack of relevance or topicality’.
Arguably worst of all is that many of these ‘thought leaders’ are only being given airtime because they say the same thing repeatedly. 42 per cent of senior leaders described content as repetitive with 29 per cent of those flatly saying that it’s all very ‘boring’.
Anyone can claim to be an expert if they bang the drum enough, because surely if they’re talking about something this much, they must know what they’re talking about?
Also, no matter how much you try to avoid something or someone, if they just keep cropping up on your feeds, timelines and news, it’s going to be difficult to ignore them. They become, whether you like it or not, memorable – even if what they’re saying is total baloney.
If you’re actually worth listening to, how do you cut through the noise?
Like with anything, it can feel impossible to wade to the top of a saturated market. But as with any sort of business, market or trade, the ones that get noticed are those who break boundaries and answer the questions of their audience, instead of just talking about themselves and their inflated ego.
So, when it comes to thought leadership, what is important?
Be relevant instead of evergreen
At times like this, it’s important that your audience feel like they are being given relevant and timely information that will help them in the here and now. 69 per cent of business leaders will engage much more with content that is applicable to them and their business.
In times of crisis, people don’t want to be ‘sold’ to, mainly because money is tight and focuses are on sustainability not investment, so now is not the time to be shouting about how great you are, it is about working with your audience to help them navigate through the dark.
In times of crisis, business and personal values change dramatically, either because of the need to survive, or the want to adapt and flex to keep a steady ship. COVID-19 has put greater emphasis on people’s health, physical and mental, spending time with friends and family and other networks on a much more frequent basis.
They want the content they absorb to reflect these new values, and they want to engage with authors that understand and want to forge authentic relationships with their audience-base. Consumers don’t want content for content’s sake, the preference lies in less content with more added value.
Show and tell
Opinion-based commentary, whilst still important, has taken a step back since the COVID-19 outbreak, with over half of audiences instead favouring real-life case studies, interviews and original research.
Again, these aspects of content and thought leadership give a much more authentic experience for consumers, they can read content from real people who are in the same boat as them, providing genuine advice and answers to personal or industry pain-points.
The current pandemic has changed how we engage with content, it has made us more savvy to the influencers mindlessly flogging products and the ‘thought leaders’ shouting about their so-called expertise.
Consumers are also much less tolerant to self-aggrandising, hyperbolic content that is focused on selling rather than engaging and supporting, and those authors will be very quickly discarded not to be revisited again.
However, the current period also represents an opportunity for brands like never before to demonstrate their value and relevance to the customers and consumers of most importance to them.
Their support is what has enabled these businesses to get to where they are today, and that same sense of brand loyalty will be called upon once again when growth is on the horizon once more.
By Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, MD and founder of Clearly PR