Is your thought leadership really “thought followership”?


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It seems as if everybody wants to be a thought leader nowadays, and to publish insights that are going to somehow miraculously transform market perceptions and make the sales process easier.

A growing share of marketing budgets is being directed towards this goal and being used to create, publish and share white papers, executive briefings, blog articles, events, podcasts, videos, webinars and the like.

But there’s a problem: if (as I believe it should be) the primary purpose of these “thought leadership” investments is to cause the consumer of the information to think differently, the vast majority of this investment is utterly wasted.

Take the current GDPR bandwagon as just one contemporary example. No matter how tenuous the connection, vendors are holding webinars, publishing guides and milking the subject for all that it is worth (and more).

To my shame (justified as being strictly for research purposes), I’ve listened to and downloaded a bunch of these so-called thought leadership initiatives from multiple sources. But the effect I’ve observed is the same across a wide range of other subjects, as well.

Nothing new to see here…

Most of these pieces have nothing new to say. They re-hash messages that others have already shared. They quote (sometimes accurately) sources that others have already put into the public domain. They leave the audience scratching their head and wondering if they have actually learned anything new as a result, or what they need to do next.

And, of course, in the case of GDPR and so many other subjects, the reader has learned nothing new and derived little-to-no useful value from the experience. Most disturbingly of all, the reader hasn’t been educated in any meaningful way.

If you agree with my definition of thought leadership as something that causes the reader to think and act differently in some meaningful way, then the vast majority of this stream of lazy regurgitation is thought followership at best.

Too much of today’s so-called “thought leadership” is really unoriginal, unstimulating and undifferentiated thought followership. It does nothing to establish a unique perspective or a distinctive point of view. It is, truly, unworthy of the label.

Stepping away from the river of drivel…

And yet the river of drivel continues to flow. I know I’m not the first to rail against this – Doug Kessler’s legendary SlideShare tirade against Marketing Crap has now clocked up over 5 million views.

But by the evidence of most of the latest deliverables, B2B marketeers – under pressure to deliver “thought leadership” from executives who would probably be unable to recognise the real thing if it punched them in the face – are still focusing on quantity and not quality and rehashing old data or cobbling together a lightweight SurveyMonkey quiz rather than conducting truly original, thoughtfully scoped research that generates genuine insight.

Don’t get me wrong: there is some highly distinctive thought leadership being generated out there – material that is genuinely capable of moving minds and stimulating the reader to take action. It’s just that it is so depressingly rare.

As for the rest, I suspect the problem starts with the brief (assuming that one was developed in the first place) and is then compounded by forgetting Blaise Pascal’s self-admonition “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one”.

Leave them wanting more…

Genuine thought leadership, at least from my perspective, is well-targeted, succinct, to the point, stimulates the reader to actually think differently about some important topic and (perhaps most important of all) leaves them wanting to learn more.

And this surely is the point and the purpose of real thought leadership: it is merely a stepping stone on a journey of discovery and not a destination of itself. As well as educating, informing and entertaining, it must act as the prelude to an engaging conversation about how the ideas might be applied in their own organisation.

I make no judgement about the role of thought leadership in B2C markets, but in complex B2B sales, thought leadership needs to be both the catalyst and the lubricant for a substantial and significant ongoing sales dialogue.

Stimulate a conversation…

And that, of course, means that we must equip and enable our sales people to progressively personalise the themes in our generic thought leadership campaigns to the specific interests and priorities of individual organisations and stakeholders.

Frankly, even if we do an outstanding job of creating genuine thought leadership, our efforts will be wasted if the right conversations don’t then follow.

So, here’s what I’d recommend: if you’re determined to do it well, make sure that your thought leadership programme is focused on a clearly defined target audience. Make sure that you have a clear picture of how they might be thinking about the subject today and how you intend to change their perceptions. Spark your reader’s imagination. Tell them something important that they didn’t already know. Be clear about what action you want to stimulate your newly-enlightened reader to take. And make sure that your sales people are prepared and equipped to continue the conversation.

Do that, and I don’t doubt that you will stand out from the crowd – and will be seen by your audience as an organisation that is capable of inspiring them to achieve more (with your continued support) than they had ever previously imagined. You will, truly, have led their thinking…

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


  1. Writing about new ideas is one thing- acting on them is entirely another, Anyone can say “What if…”, but it takes someone to react and take the first step towards achieving innovation.
    The Walt Disney Imagineers are always thinking “what if”, but they investigate and research ANYTHING that may be out there that could lead to progress and new attractions. If truth be told, the whole of the Disney company has been doing things a bit above the norm since their inception, Walt Disney himself was one of the greatest thinkers around, yet he realized that it took many others to see and share his vision for moving forward
    If one person learns from someone else’s blog and then has an “Aha!” moment, acts on it, and THEN shares out a new take on an old theme, that’s progress!

  2. Hi Bob Apollo,

    Thanks for sharing this post. In past, I have read many books and articles about “thought followership”. But the way you have explained it is awesome. I usually browse this site and would love to read your inspiring articles.

    Keep inspiring us like this.



  3. Agreed that through leadership, in CX and EX, should be about”moving minds and stimulating the reader to take action”. It’s also to offer proof of results and application that takes professionals beyond day-to-day operating and decision-making complacency and risk aversion. While the ‘Marketing Crap’ label seems a bit extreme, acknowledge that there is a lot of banal, non-groundbreaking material around, often just repackaged with a pretty bow. A colleague of mine used to say that, like building the better mousetrap, you could create the most innovative, nutritious, new age dog food in the world; but, if dogs don’t like it and won’t eat it, what’s the point? Your thought leadership recommendations are directly in line with that sound advice.

  4. Love the title Bob! It instantly begs the question of ‘what is thought leadership?’

    I’m pondering your definition of “stimulates the reader to actually think differently ,” and the question as to what the expectations might be of a ‘thought leader.’ Is a thought leader an expert or an innovator? Is a thought leader someone you turn to for knowledge and insight, or someone you turn to for new ideas?

    Socrates and Buddha never quoted each other. Is that what qualified them as thought leaders? But then again, Stephen Covey rehashed a bunch of people’s stuff, and few would question that he was a thought leader.

    You seem to be suggesting that, when someone cites wisdom or ideas that have already been cited, it disqualifies them as a thought leader. I’m not convinced that’s accurate.

    Great food for thought – thanks!

  5. I agree with you, as a thought leader.
    However, I find most people do not want to see new thoughts, and are happier reading more of what they know. There is nothing wrong with this, but it leaves little space for reading new thoughts.

  6. Shaun, I’m all in favour of citing existing wisdom or ideas – but the result is (IMHO) only “thought leadership” if the writer then makes a new connection, or offers a new inference, that leads the reader to recognise something that hadn’t been apparent before. I think a true thought leader is someone people turn to (and follow) because they offer genuinely revelatory insights. And yes, I know that’s a pretty high bar to set. It’s just that I believe we should feel depressed by how low the bar is set today by many inaccurately labelled thought leaders and thought leadership pieces…

  7. Bob – makes complete sense to me. Perhaps the distinction lies in the word ‘insight’.
    I also agree that the bar seems to be pretty low for ‘thought leader’ in terms of how it is referenced. I wonder if that is a product of self-assignment – like people who refer to themselves as gurus.

  8. It seems tinny and self-serving when companies proclaim their content ‘thought leadership’, but that’s what is happening. And for readers, It’s illogical to consider opinions ‘thought leadership’ based on the originator telling us so. It would be more genuine if the honorific ‘thought leadership’ were conferred by others. Clearly, there are no standards, and no pragmatic definitions of ‘thought leadership,’ so for me, the term lacks meaning. It’s almost always marketing fluff.

    An article I wrote on this topic in 2009 echoes a similar sentiment: Thought Leaders: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know!

  9. Agree the term thought leadership is overused, but the same could be said for any other self-serving marketing term.

    I’m not sure it matters much (to readers) whether something is called thought leadership or followship. What they are looking for is helpful or educational content.

    Sometimes helpful content is something truly new or “leading” in that it hasn’t been published before. That’s pretty rare.

    More commonly, helpful content is designed to give the reader useful advice on how to deal with a challenge.

    I rarely see white papers or e-books explicitly labeled as “thought leadership.” That’s a term used by content marketers internally to describe educational content, as opposed to promotional content.

    Basically, “thought leadership” is code for “we’re not trying to directly sell something in this document, but we hope readers will have a good impression so we can try selling something later.”

    The example of GDPR is classic. Sure, there’s a lot of the same ‘ol same ‘ol out there. But if I search for some insight on the topic, land on a vendor’s site, and then fill out a form to get a helpful document, it doesn’t matter to me that the same info was published by 100 others. It’s still helpful content that is “leading” me to make a better decision.

    I think Bob’s advice is spot on:
    1. make sure that your thought leadership programme is focused on a clearly defined target audience.
    2. Make sure that you have a clear picture of how they might be thinking about the subject today and how you intend to change their perceptions.
    3. Spark your reader’s imagination. Tell them something important that they didn’t already know.
    4. Be clear about what action you want to stimulate your newly-enlightened reader to take.
    5. And make sure that your sales people are prepared and equipped to continue the conversation.


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