The Marketing Strategist:

Ask ITSMA: Defining Thought Leadership

July 20, 2016

  • Ask ITSMA


Each month, ITSMA receives a number of queries through Ask ITSMA, a resource designed to give members a quick and easy way to get insight on important services and solutions marketing questions they face. In this column, we will publish some of our favorite questions, along with excerpts from our replies.

Question: We are just beginning to develop a thought leadership program in our marketing group and one of the challenges I have internally is making sure everyone understands our focus. Does ITSMA have a definition of thought leadership that we can use to help everyone get on the same page with the program?

Answer: Great question. Thought leadership is one of those terms that is used and abused endlessly in marketing. It’s almost as bad as solutions! But we do indeed have a definition that could be helpful:

A set of ideas that educates customers and prospects about important business and technology issues and helps them solve those issues—without selling.

It’s a tightly written definition and each element matters: a set of ideas…that educates…important issues…helps solve…without selling.

We also had a great discussion about defining thought leadership at a recent meeting of ITSMA’s Thought Leadership Council, a group that brings together senior marketing leaders and thought leadership program directors from 10 companies: Amdocs, CGI, Cisco, EY, HCL, Juniper Networks, Optum, PwC, TCS, and Wipro.

Although Council members have some different perspectives on formal definitions, we all agreed on a number of essential attributes, including:

  • Informed and credible perspectives on important customer issues, challenges, or opportunities
  • Relevance both to customers and to the firm (i.e., the firm can help address the issues)
  • Perspectives that are business-oriented and focused on business outcomes (not just technology or operations)
  • Approaches that are educational and non-promotional

Interestingly, we had less agreement on a common question in defining thought leadership: Does it really need to be new and different from other views or approaches already in the market? Some Council members believe that if a particular approach or point of view is not truly innovative, it could still  support effective, issue-oriented marketing but may not really be thought leadership. But others take a more expansive view.

One last comment on the definition: Companies with well-developed thought leadership programs often orient research, publications, and conversation toward more than one time horizon. For example, you might gear some effort toward relatively near-term challenges that customers are addressing within the next year or two. At the same time, you invest other resources in research and development to create compelling points of view on longer term trends or concerns that executives are only just beginning to consider.

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