He called it the "X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System." And during the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Douglas Engelbart introduced his prototype to the world. Using an totally primitive 192 kilobyte mainframe computer located 25 miles away, Engelbart astounded attendees with how he was able to control everything on the screen with the touch of, well, a mouse — the name the device eventually would embrace.
The interactive, user-friendly information access systems that Engelbart unveiled during the conference would forever change the computing world. The mouse. Windows. Shared-screen teleconferencing. Hypermedia. GroupWare. While seemingly light years ahead of his time, Engelbart was a thought leader before thought leader was the term we affixed to people who incite change.
Joel Kurtzman, now with the Milken Institute, coined that term and definition for a thought leader in 1994 as a theme for a series of interviews he conducted as editor and chief of Strategy + Business magazine. Kurtzman defined this person as someone who had ideas "that merited attention."
"Thought leaders have a critical advantage, because if they're guiding the discussion in their industry, people are obviously drawn to them," says strategy consultant and author Dorie Clark. "But you also have to have a solid strategy to monetize and harness the potential for growth. To bring it to the level of an individual, you can be the smartest tech blogger in the world, with a huge readership, but unless you can figure out how to translate that into income (advertising on your site, speeches at conferences, a book deal, etc.), you'll stay poor. The same goes for companies that are thought leaders in their industry. Apple is the extremely obvious one, for elevating their ethos of design excellence."
Perhaps few individuals lived this out more than Steve Jobs, who became a living, breathing example of what is was like to be a thought leader in everything he did. It was no secret: Steve Jobs wanted to the change the world. That he did on such a grand scale is what history will continue to record. Channeling the words of Wayne Gretsky, Jobs once likened his vision for Apple to the hockey legend's vision on the ice: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."
Evidence of Jobs' thought leadership is apparent in the many products he helped pioneer, from the Mac, to the iPod and iTunes. Revolutionary and standard setting — that is where his thought leadership mojo pushed him to be. Jobs understood long before we did how important "devices" would be to our future. Staying two steps ahead of the curve transformed Apple into a market leader, eventually setting the foundation for brands such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the list goes on.
Taking the bulls by the horns
Being recognized as a thought leader in your industry is a major step toward increased credibility for your business and its products/services. It also can help you stand out from your competitors. Are you more likely to trust and purchase from a company whose leaders are recognized as industry experts or from one whose leaders you know nothing about?
Lori Rosen believes the strongest attribute your company or brand can have is being a market leader or thought leader, preferably both. Rosen, founder and president of The Rosen Group, a Manhattan-based public relations firm, also is the managing partner of Swiss eTailer Blacksocks U.S., and executive director of the Custom Content Council.
"In today's competitive landscape, you need to be a market leader and a thought leader," Rosen says. "Some of the most successful brands today — Google, Apple, Nike, Wal-mart, Microsoft, Facebook, Coca Cola, McDonald's — are all market leaders, and in varying degrees, and for better or worse, thought leaders. I believe that thought leaders and market leaders are becoming more and more one in the same."
Rosen believes that to be successful, and to create long-term capital and value for your company, you must be both. "Thought leader companies have gravitas; they are viewed as more substantial; they are perceived as bringing more than just a product; but ideas, substance and several layers. They are more human, and as a result, they are able to bring an emotional element to the company, which has intangible benefits."
All about the content...
In an ever revolving marketing landscape, ideas of substance are built on the information a company and/or brand provides — and how often. "Content is a game changer for thought leadership positioning of a company or organization," Rosen says. "Brands now are able to communicate directly to their customers through magazines mailed to their homes, online content delivered through email, blogs, video, and of course, social media, which provides additional and varied distribution channels."
Rosen provides some examples: "An ideal thought leader is someone who takes the word 'thought' seriously. For example, organic food market leader Whole Foods and its CEO John Mackey, which extend its brand beyond stores and into being an advocate of healthy living. Founder and CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh was an early adopter of Twitter and a market leader in the ecommerce world. He was able to communicate the company's positioning, underscoring its generous return policy, through lots of tweets and subsequent speeches and interviews."
Joe Pulizzi is a leading author, speaker and strategist for content marketing. As founder of the Content Marketing Institute, he has become an evangelist for doing content marketing the right way. From where he sits, being a market leader refers to a company being the leader in overall sales/revenue for its particular market. A thought leader is a firm or individual who is moving the market in certain directions from an attention standpoint, not necessarily revenue.
Who will be the winners on the new landscape? "I believe that those companies who best capture the attention of the market from the information they develop and distribute position themselves for the best chance to capture revenue," Pulizzi says. Still, even though thought leaders have a better opportunity at market leadership, it all comes down to product selection and execution. There will continue to be increasing churn in which companies are the market leaders. More market leaders will have the opportunity to become thought leaders. And more market leaders who don't put the processes in place to become thought leaders may lose their leadership position."
5 steps to owning thought leadership
Former presidential campaign spokeswoman and branding expert Dorie Clark knows a thing or two about how thought leadership is created through exciting and relevant content. Here are five ways you can start branding yourself as a leader.
- Start a blog — It's the easiest way to demonstrate clear expertise.
- Start a video blog — Video is prioritized by search engines (and as broadband has become ubiquitous, customers often prefer it)
- Create a schedule — Content creation often slips, as more urgent business needs take over your day. Build a schedule to make it happen.
- Leverage Twitter — It's a great way to publicly acknowledge your customers, colleagues, and other stakeholders by sharing their content or giving shout-outs.
- Make it the responsibility of everyone in the company — Sure, it's great to have "a voice" for your Twitter account. But you should get everyone involved in one way or another. For example, film a fun video about what it's like to work in your warehouse, showing off exactly how efficient the company is and how customers can expect overnight delivery.
The Jobs' Way — How to become a market leader
The late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, holds that rare air of being both a thought leader and market leader. The secret to his success is no secret at all. When asked how a brand can own its market, he offered three simple steps.
- Own and control the relevant technology in whatever market you serve, either patents or other proprietary protections.
- Immediately adopt and implement better technologies or whenever they become available, regardless of whether another organization currently is using them.
- Be the first to use a technology or create a category for a product; then, make it an industry standard.
Your five-step plan for great content
Joe Pulizzi, author, speaker and founder of the Content Marketing Institute, believes that great, consistent content is the key to branding yourself as a thought leader in your marketplace. Here is his five-step plan to great content.
- Clearly define your target audience.
- Define what their pain points are as they relate to the products or services you offer.
- Create your content strategy by using information you can share with your customers that's not about your products and services and will solve their pain points.
- Develop relationships with key influencers in your industry to help distribute your content.
- Integrate your content into all of your marketing and continually listen to customer feedback; then repeat.