Sometimes it seems that every subject matter expert aspires to be a thought leader. And why not? It seems like a great thing to be, like a “trusted advisor” or a “team player.”

But what does it actually mean to be a thought leader? How do you become one? Is it in fact a good marketing strategy for the professional services firm? The answers to these questions, and more, are what we will cover in this post.

Let’s start with an understanding of what thought leadership marketing actually is.

Thought Leadership Marketing Defined

Thought leaders are individuals or firms recognized for their specialized expertise and their influence on the development of their discipline. They are both subject matter experts and influencers.

Thought leadership marketing is the process of increasing the visibility of specialized expertise and accelerating market influence to accomplish marketing goals, such building brand strength or generating new business.

Thought Leadership vs. Content Marketing

Thought leadership is often confused with content marketing. Content marketing is a much broader discipline. It involves using content to attract, educate and close new business. Thought leadership is a specific strategy within the broader concept of content marketing.

For example, a firm might publish helpful content that explains confusing terms and concepts without offering any innovative or advanced thinking. Another firm may offer entertaining or humorous content. Both of these are content marketing strategies, but neither would be considered thought leadership.

Insightful, Forward Thinking Made Visible

Thought leadership involves more than expertise and an understanding of industry best practices.

It’s being the expert that brings a fresh, insightful perspective to a common problem or anticipates emerging trends. Often a thought leader’s perspective is at odds with conventional wisdom — even controversial. But a successful thought leader can turn that new insight into tomorrow’s best practice.

Now, having great insights is not enough. Those insights need to be widely visible if they are to become influential.

And this is where many potential thought leaders stumble. They have the expertise and the insight, but no one sees it. Think of it as invisible expertise.

Five Levels of Visibility

Our research has been able to identify five distinct levels of visible thought leadership. Each level has increasing levels of influence and impact.

Level 1: The Resident Experts

Recognized as an expert by clients, staff and colleagues that work directly with the thought leader, these individuals are not well known outside of their firm. External influence is minimal.

Level 2: The Local Heroes

Known in their local market or small industry niche, these individual experts’ reputations have moved beyond the boundaries of their firms. Occasionally they attract new business based on their thought leadership.

Level 3: The Rising Stars

These individuals’ reputations are moving onto a regional stage. They are becoming more widely known as influencers and are attracting new business and commanding higher fees. Influence is growing.

Level 4: The Industry Rock Stars

These are the nationally recognized names within their industries. They are influential thought leaders, and they draw top-tier opportunities to their firm. They are sought out as keynote speakers at major industry events and are often quoted in the press.

Level 5: The Global Superstars

These individuals’ visibility and reputation for thought leadership have developed beyond their niche and industry. Their influence extends to many industries and, in some cases, to the general public. Business flows to their firms, and major brands clamor to be associated with them. Their opinions can influence societies as a whole.

How to Develop Thought-Leading Insights

How do you develop the insights that move a field forward? While there is no formula that can guarantee you will become an insightful, influential thinking, there are meaningful steps you can take to take your expertise to the next level.

  1. Narrow Your Focus

Our research on high-profile experts shows that narrowing your focus greatly increases the likelihood of deepening your expertise. The narrower your focus, the faster your ascent to leadership.

The reason is pretty simple. Going narrower almost always allows you to accumulate experience and insight faster. That accelerates the process.

  1. Do Original Research

Conducting original research on a topic gives you a huge advantage. High-quality research produces new insights that can be applied to clients’ challenges and shared with others. It is one of the key paths to thought leadership. New research findings are the raw material of thought leadership.

  1. Take a Contrarian Perspective

A fresh perspective is another hallmark of thought leader level thinking. Perhaps it’s taking a client’s perspective on a challenge when everyone else is viewing it through his or her own lens. Or when everyone is headed in one direction, you explore the opposite view.

A contrarian perspective doesn’t mean being quarrelsome or negative. It means looking at a problem from a novel angle.

  1. Mash Up Your Expertise

Sometimes great insight comes from applying the methods and thinking from one discipline to another: putting two seemingly unrelated fields of expertise together. For example, what happens when you apply design thinking to accounting services?

  1. Interact With Other Experts

Having a good working relationship with other experts helps you in a couple of important ways:

First, it gives you access to the most advanced and influential thinking. Influential thought leaders talk with each other. You help each other get smarter.

Second, your colleagues become your amplifiers. They add credibility to you through their association with you. You are a part of “the club” of influential experts, and they will often share your latest thinking or refer new business to you.

Making Thought Leadership Visible

The challenge with expertise in general and thought leadership in particular is that they are invisible. You can’t tell a thought leader by how they look.

Nor does declaring yourself a thought leader make you one. It could just as easily backfire.

Instead, thought leadership must be demonstrated. Generally this happens in one of three ways:

  1. Direct Interaction

This approach involves working with people directly, perhaps as a client or coworker — interacting with colleagues in meetings, in educational settings or at conferences. The interaction, however, must allow the professionals to demonstrate their competence.

Interacting at a cocktail party or networking event probably won’t cut it.

The interaction needs to be substantive enough that people can sample the thought leader’s expertise. Think of it as an expertise appetizer.

  1. Writing

Writing the definitive best-selling book on a topic is the gold standard of thought leadership. But if a book sounds overwhelming, there other ways that you can convey your expertise through writing. Articles in trade publications, blog posts, white papers and executive guides can also communicate your insights and build your reputation.

Of course, not all writing builds thought leadership. As a matter of fact, if done carelessly, it can easily reveal a real lack of leadership.

  1. Speaking

Public speaking is another good way to demonstrate thought leadership. For many experts, speaking engagements are their single best source of new business leads.

Live speaking events are also a great way to meet new people and get fresh input. Sometimes audience questions can be a source of new insights and inspiration.

Sharing Your Thought Leadership

How do you spread the word about your thought-leading content? There are a wide variety of potential techniques to share the insights you are developing. A good cross section of the most popular techniques is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Online and offline marketing techniques


Notice that the figure illustrates a balance of traditional offline techniques, such as networking and speaking engagements, and their newer online counterparts, such as social media and webinars. Interestingly, for each offline technique there is a corresponding online technique.

The most successful firms understand where their potential clients look for thought leadership and make their content visible in those channels.

How Your Firm Benefits From Thought Leadership Marketing

Thought leadership not only benefits the subject matter expert but also the professional services firm they are associated with. Many of these are intuitive, but our recent research study on high-visibility experts has documented them in some detail.

  1. Faster Growth

Thought leaders’ single biggest impact is their ability to drive firm growth. Highly visible thought leadership attracts clients who want or need greater expertise. The leads are more qualified and easier to generate. Prospects close more quickly with less effort and greater success.

  1. Higher Billing Rates

There is a direct relationship between the visibility of a subject matter expert’s thought leadership and the billing rate that expert is able to charge. This relationship is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Relative hourly rates buyers will pay, by Visible Expert level


  1. A Stronger Brand

If you can combine thought leadership with greater visibility your brand will become significantly stronger. That brand not only drives growth and profitability, it also creates a more valuable firm.

And when you make thought leadership one of your primary marketing strategies, you create a strong differentiator (specialized expertise) and a powerful strategic focus.

  1. Attract the Best Talent

The best people want to work with industry leaders. Thought leadership is a great way to demonstrate the quality of your firm and attract employees who themselves want to become thought leaders. In a time when top talent is in high demand, thought leadership is a potent recruiting tool.

  1. The Best Opportunities Come to You

Leading subject matter experts not only attract the best new clients and the most talented people, they also yield the best strategic partners and business relationships. When other organizations look to an industry for potential partners they look first for thought leaders.

Leading brands tend to want to work with other leading brands. High visibility experts report that they have their pick of teaming relationships, marketing partnerships and other strategic business opportunities. Thought leadership marketing not only helps you get ahead, it also makes it easier to stay ahead.