The term thought leadership has begun to occur so frequently over the past 7-8 years that it’s coming to mean many things. Initially, the concept began as the natural outgrowth of educative marketing—the concept of developing relationships with prospective customers by engaging them with non-promotional and industry oriented conversations.

In short, value-added information, coming from an expert source point of view. Next, thought leaders forged their way into the public relations and journalism arena, becoming the go-to sources for research, insight, and interpretation of the latest news and industry trends.

And finally, successful thought leaders have achieved the Holy Grail of marketing and public relations: When a customer is ready to step up and make a purchase, having been educated and nurtured along the area of need and interest, they turn to their most trusted source: the thought leader individual or organization who has guided the listener and participant along the path of understanding, with no hype or promotion and with no strings attached.

Yes, thought leadership is an effective way to build reputation, awareness, and even SEO power and personal brand. But all of these things can (and should) be achieved through classic content marketing as well.

True thought leadership is a much rarer thing. As expressed by Marketo co-founder Jon Miller, true thought leadership is about providing ideas that require attention, that offer guidance and clarity, and that can lead people in surprising and unexpected directions. For example, Seth Godin, who epitomizes the concept of true thought leadership, began his career as a journalist.

As time progressed, his role evolved. Instead of reporting and analyzing the news, he began to create it. He wrote and spoke about ideas that were innovative and provocative, that demanded thoughtfulness and provided education. Ideas that became a precursor for change.

Functionally, thought leadership is comprised of the following actions:

  • Authorship. In every case, thought leaders write. Whether by themselves, or (in most every case) with the help of collaborators and assisting experts, thought leaders are active in content creation They are columnists, bloggers, and authors of reports, indepth articles and full length books. For example, EveryoneSocial’s CEO, Eric Roach, is a frequent contributor to leading trade publications including iMedia Connection, Social Media Today, Social Media Examiner, and even for Forbes. None of these articles promote, but all are designed to educate and guide best practice thinking on critical issues such as Employee Advocacy and Social Media Amplification.
  • Authentic PR. Yes, thought leaders engage in PR. For the most part, this is not the old school PR of hype and promotion. True thought leaders engage fully in the world of authentic PR—they are the that appear in interviews, on podcasts, as the interview guests on broadcast programs and news.
  • Speaking. Thought leaders present. Many are highly paid keynote speakers. Many speak and present through webinars, webcasts, or broadcast programs. As they speak, they teach and inspire. Their ideas are compelling. Their audiences come away not necessarily entertained, but highly enriched and are educated and motivated towards specific and measurable business and personal change.

In summary, true thought leaders are expert communicators of the highest classification. They have reputations that are easily findable in web search and are both thorough and accurate. In the areas they are expert in, they are a “part of the conversation,” regionally, by industry, and even worldwide.

True thought leaders are present in the online communities where their audiences live. Many are involved in the major social media programs. But all are at least accessible and visible to the audiences who can benefit from their expertise.

Their visual image is a positive representation of the individual and their message. Not all thought leaders are style mavens nor do they necessarily possess great beauty. But they have learned to present themselves in a way that reflects their personal and professional personality and style. They have learned to put their best foot forward within their unique and personal brand.

Most importantly, true thought leaders are expert in the creation of social influence, market and industry understanding, and perception, and in marshaling that perception toward specific actions and change. Social Selling. What is your own call to action for your community and prospective customer base?