March 20, 2023
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Op/ed: Putting the leadership into thought leadership


By David Rodewald

Thought leadership is the marketing tactic in which executives advocate for an industry trend or issue. Done right, it comes across as non-promotional and serves to open or change the minds of a key audience to new innovations or solutions.

It’s becoming an increasingly important aspect of a company’s marketing strategy, but in my experience, many executives are uncomfortable about the idea of being thought leaders. I first found this out when I worked with the CEO of a multinational corporation. I was trying to convince him that he needed to give a keynote speech.

What ultimately won him over was a meeting in which he and a dozen top managers were discussing the issue. During the discussion, everyone in the group came to the realization that they could name the management of every company that they respected or admired. That dramatic moment helped convince the CEO to see just how important high-profile leaders are to building a company’s brand.

Many executives, while they are fine talking to Wall Street, are reluctant to engage in activities aimed at building their company brand with consumers. Today, it’s more difficult to get away with that attitude, because executive thought leadership is becoming an increasingly important element in marketing and branding.

Thought leadership is a key element in content marketing, one of the top trends in brand building. Content marketing is delivering informational and compelling written or visual content that attracts regular readers or is easily found via search engines. Content can include news, video, white papers, e-books, infographics, case studies, how-to guides, question and answer articles, photos, and so on.

When this is done right, a prospective customer sees you as an expert which increases the likelihood they will do business with your company.
Content-marketing initiatives can range from a regularly updated blog to “microsites” targeting specific customer types, to full-blown, magazine-style sites such as American Express’ Open Forum for small and medium businesses.

Content marketing gives executives an outlet for raising their profile, and provides a platform for changing market perceptions or promoting a new way of doing things.

Another CEO who I work with really gets this. He’s in the middle of turning around his company, which had promising technology, but needed time to commercialize that technology. While that was underway, the company’s brand suffered from stagnant sales, mounting losses and a dramatic drop in stock price. But now, the product is launched and sales are picking up. The company has had several rounds of financing and has seen a modest increase in its stock price.

But even with this good news there are angry investors and competitors trying to discredit the company. So, the CEO carves out time on every business trip to meet with key industry media and analysts, telling and retelling the story to ensure that the opinions held by customers or partners reflect the company’s promising future.

If your management profile and visibility could use an upgrade, here are three activities that can help:

Speak at conferences (and say something memorable). The value of a speaking slot at an industry conference goes beyond how many business cards you collect at the end of the talk. If you are speaking to the right crowd, they will remember your company for years. Press and industry analysts will be there to hear from you as well. But don’t expect the keynote on your first try, as conference organizers like to see a track record of successful speaking. In fact, one of the problems I had with my multinational CEO was that he didn’t speak often, and so I had to convince the show organizers that he would be a draw before I could convince the CEO. Putting in time on panels helps you to hone your speaking style and build a resume, so that you can win the high-profile keynote slots when your company takes off.

Start a blog. The technology behind publishing a blog has become as easy as word processing. Blogging is a great way for a CEO to communicate company strategy, momentum and direction. Most CEOs are privy to customer desires, industry trends and strategic elements that are interesting to customers, partners and industry influencers. But, writing content on a consistent schedule is still a challenge. Task your PR or marketing team with building a blog editorial calendar to put some deadlines and structure to your program, and also to optimize the content so that it can be easily found on search engines.

Meet with industry influencers. In many industries, there are analysts, columnists or other influencers that help move the market to adopt new ideas or technologies. Get to know them with face-to-face meetings. Present an update on your company and some news about your industry. The goal of the meeting is relationship building, which can lead to referrals, speaking opportunities or news articles. These meetings can be part of a structured press and analyst tour, or you can create a list of influencers and meet with them two or three times per year as part of your regular business travel.

Being part of a branding effort like this may feel uncomfortable to some executives because it borders on self-promotion, or maybe it’s not a part of that leader’s innate skill set. But if your business depends on thought leadership to help change the minds and hearts of the market, there is no substitute.

• David Rodewald is managing director of The David James Agency, a tech industry public relations and social media agency in Thousand Oaks. Contact him at