“Thought leader” has become a derided buzzword, a magnet for mockery in Medium, and a label, like “hipster,” that people cannot give themselves. But, what if critics have it wrong? What if thought leaders are so powerful we’re blinded to their achievement? Perhaps thought leadership is a superpower for marketing executives who understand it. To illustrate, let’s try a game of word association:

If I say, “the theory of evolution,” you name ____.
If I say, “the invisible hand,” you name ____.
If I say, “the civil rights movement,” you name ____.

Likely, your answers are Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and Martin Luther King Jr. They are real thought leaders. They are not people who wrote a blog article once per week, posted it on LinkedIn, and then Tweeted out the link. If they lived and worked today, they probably would use social marketing! But that’s not the point.

No, these are people so intertwined with ideas that we cannot read the words without thinking of their names. Thought leadership isn’t a prescribed set of marketing activities. Thought leadership is owning an idea so thoroughly that it cannot be divided from your identity.

Great Marketers Naturally Become Thought Leaders, Right?

When marketing executives are tasked with becoming thought leaders or creating them, they set the bar too low. Thought leadership becomes a confused exercise in promoting oneself and a brand rather than radical, creative thinking.

Real thought leadership is rare. Most of our ideas are unoriginal. It takes grit to coin an idea and map a mental world no one else has visited.

Unfortunately, the mindset today seems to be, “Let’s talk about a buzzy idea wherever people will read a few sentences, click our link, and maybe buy our stuff.” With good enough technology, you can track those clicks and eventually link a purchase to that moment of discovery. Boom, you established a funnel, proved the ROI of your blog post, and promoted your personal brand.

That’s social marketing, not thought leadership!

So What’s the Difference?

Thought leadership elevates social marketing to its highest potential and most dignified impact. Thought leadership is the reason you recognize names like Tim Ferriss, Cheryl Sandberg, and Gary Vaynerchuk – social marketing only helped their ideas become prominent.

Thought leadership is about what, social marketing is about how. Ideas are fire; social marketing is gasoline.

Few among us try to solve the mysteries of biology or create a new political order. That doesn’t mean we should depreciate our ideas and load the social marketing machine with fluff.

Most people reading this blog are highly competent at something. You know what to do in high-pressure, consequential situations. You’re an expert through repeated experience, wild experimentation, and careful observation. Don’t give us the ‘10 Tips on Driving _____’ when you don’t know anything about the blank.

Where Should We Go From Here?

B2B marketers feel intense pressure to jump on the trends their competitors promote, to glorify the latest buzzword analyst firms invented, and to sell their product every chance they get.

Instead, give us thoughts that you alone can create. Try to own an idea and its corollaries. I bet it will bring in more leads, awareness, or whatever you seek from social marketing than rentable ideas everyone else can Google too. Measure the results, then tell me if I’m wrong.

We all have access to cheap, reliable machines of mass attention. Soo enough, we’ll all be able to track whether our social marketing builds a funnel, delivers an ROI, or accomplishes other business objectives.

Don’t try to ‘do’ thought leadership. Become the name next to an immortal idea.

Becoming a better social marketer and thought leader is reward in and of itself, but would you like to tie awareness marketing to revenue? Learn more about how to do that by checking out our on-demand webinar, Measuring the Power of Your PR.

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