How to Create a Thought Leadership Strategy That Supports True Innovation


February 3, 2015

Thought leadership is a common approach for companies wanting to establish credibility within their industry and stand apart from the crowd — and for good reason. It’s true that thought leaders tend to be the most successful professionals in their fields, and because of this, have more influence over their audience. The problem is that people throw the term “Thought Leader” around without any foundational evidence of what it truly takes to deserve the distinction.

Publishing content, in and of itself, does not make a person or a company a thought leader.

Thought leadership happens when brands move from talking about their product (1.0) to transitioning into solving customer problems (2.0) and then become trusted advisors (3.0). People trust thought leaders and turn to them for advice. When you’ve made this shift, you’ve moved your company from a commoditized buy to a consultative relationship. Price becomes less important. Marketers, pay attention — you want this to happen.

In order to get to a 3.0-level brand, marketers need to understand the difference between sharing a unique insight at one particular moment in time — sort of the “one hit wonder” of thinking — and what it takes to create the long-term sustainability of original ideas.

When I hear “thought leader,” I think of an individual or brand that audiences (inside, outside, and shoulder-to-shoulder) recognize as the foremost authority in their area of specialty, and who/that profits from this recognition. Stepping outside the norm and looking at the possibilities of what can be, is the fertile ground from which true innovation sprouts.

Spreading Ideas
That’s certainly the case with creating a scalable, sustainable thought leadership strategy. To successfully use content to benefit a thought leadership strategy, you have to understand what constitutes a remarkable vision, how to effectively capture attention and share it with the masses, and know the steps to take to move from idea to adoption. Innovation, regardless of how wonderful it is, can’t be successful without having an audience that accepts your ideas. You also have to be able to influence a change in behavior.

In 1962, a professor of rural sociology named Everett Rogers wrote a book called Diffusion of Innovation that couldn’t apply more to the crazy marketing world in which we’re living today.

The point of Rogers’s model was to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas spread through cultures. How people move through the steps to make a decision (knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation) has a direct impact on the phase of the innovation cycle that they’re in. As a marketer, you need to understand where people are in the spectrum of new ideas if you’re going to influence them. If you want to influence an industry, get in front of it.

Diffusion of Innovation
When it comes to accepting and adopting innovation, Rogers said that the people in every society (and I’ll extend that to industry) can be divided into five different groups, broken out as follows:

  1. Innovators – 2.5%
  2. Early Adopters – 13.5%
  3. Early Majority – 34%
  4. Late Majority – 34%
  5. Laggards – 16%



A diagram illustrating the stages of a startup's disruptive growth.


When it comes to positioning yourself (or your company) as a thought leader, you have to understand how to identify, engage, and influence those who lead the pack — the Innovators and Early Adopters — and to inspire the Early Majority to follow suit.

The Innovators are the first to adopt new ideas they feel make sense, and to move industries (society) in the direction of their vision. They’re willing to take risks and adopt new ideas, even though they may fail. They lead the bleeding edge.

Hot on their tails stand the Early Adopters. This group has the highest degree of opinion leadership among all of the groups. While similar to the Innovators, they prove more discrete in their choices because they realize that careful decisions will help them retain their leadership position. They’re driven by a vision and are willing to rely on gut feelings when an idea can’t yet be backed by proof.

As innovation moves to the Early Majority and beyond the impact diffuses. This is because others are coming into the mix and trying to replicate and imitate popular ideas, rather than contribute insightful, original opinions of their own. This clutters the conversation, creates noise, and confuses and frustrates audiences – especially customers.

Evolving Ideas into Thought Leadership
As you create your thought leadership strategy, it’s not enough to plan topics and then distribute them. You have to understand how ideas evolve to meet the needs of a more demanding and less risk-adverse customer base. Think of the leaps and bounds Innovators and Early Adopters have taken with mobile technology, and you’ll recognize that innovation doesn’t always mean product. More often it means business and delivery models.

If you don’t know where to turn or where to start, just as yourself: “If I were in my customer’s shoes, what advice would I be looking for?” This will open your eyes to the bigger questions that they have about where their industry – and business in general – is going. Now, work forwards and backwards from where you are today and where your customers need to be tomorrow. That’s what you do for them, you articulate a vision of what a different future could look like and then you become that trusted advisor that helps them get there. And that, ultimately, should be the impetus of every thought leadership strategy.

Tell me, what have you done that’s successfully moved you from a 1.0 marketer to a 3.0 trusted advisor?


About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.