By Carla Johnson published October 22, 2013

Why Your Thought Leadership Strategy Should Make You Uncomfortable

model of innovation cycleThought leadership strategy is a common component of content marketing — and for good reason. It’s true that thought leaders tend to be the most successful professionals in their fields, and thus exert the most influence over potential followers. The problem is that the term “thought leader” is often thrown around without any foundational evidence of what it truly takes to deserve the moniker.

By the abundance of anecdotal evidence, it would appear that a large volume of content is one criterion that justifies the definition. Another seems to be sharing a unique insight at one particular moment in time — sort of the “one hit wonder” of thinking — rather than long-term sustainability of original ideas. 

When he created his masterpiece, “The Thinker,” French artist Auguste Rodin created a man in an awkward, unnatural, and uncomfortable position: sitting, with his right hand on his left knee, supporting his chin.

Take a minute and try to replicate this position.

It’s awkward. Unnatural. And uncomfortable. You have to think just to get into that position.

When I hear “thought leader,” I think of an individual or company that audiences (inside, outside, and shoulder-to-shoulder) recognize as the foremost authority in their area of specialization, and who/that profits from this recognition.

To be deserving of the title of thought leader, you have to get familiar with an awkward, unnatural, and uncomfortable position. And, you have to get comfortable with discomfort itself, because that’s the fertile ground from which innovation springs.

Spreading ideas

That’s certainly the case with content marketing. 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 good, can’t be successful without acceptance and influencing 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.

Rogers’s model sought 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) directly impacts the phase of the innovation cycle they’re in — information you need to know before you can create thought leadership content that will capture and enrapture them.

Diffusion of innovation

When it comes to acceptance and adoption of 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%

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 it becomes diffused, as others come into the mix and try to replicate and imitate, rather than put forth insightful original opinions of their own. This clutters the conversation, creates noise, and confuses and frustrates customers.

Content’s role

As you create your thought leadership strategy, it’s not enough to plan topics and then distribute. 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 — often it can mean delivery, as well.

To be a true, sustainable thought leader, you have to remember Rodin and get comfortable sitting in the awkward right-hand-on-left-knee pose. Because there’s always something to gain from getting out of your comfort zone — not just in down times, but especially when the going’s good.

Where do I begin?

If you don’t know where to turn or where to start, just think “What Would Rodin Do?” He’d probably put people and industries in an uncomfortable position and force them to think about what matters to them, how to look at things differently, and articulate a vision of what a different future could look like.

And that, ultimately, should be the impetus of every thought leadership strategy.

To learn more about content’s role in innovation and thought leadership, read Joe Pulizzi’s new book, “Epic Content: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, & Win More Customers by Marketing Less.”

Author: Carla Johnson

Recognized as one of the top 50 influencers in content marketing, Carla's latest book, Experience: The 7th Era of Marketing, with CMI's Robert Rose, teaches marketers how to develop, manage, and lead the creation of valuable experiences in their organizations. Carla serves as the Vice President of Thought Leadership for the Business Marketing Association (a division of the ANA), and is an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute, the ANA, and Rutgers University. A frequent speaker, Carla also contributes to industrywide news outlets, forums and conferences on the future of the B2B marketing profession, leading through innovation and storytelling. Learn more at Type A Communications and follow her on Twitter at @CarlaJohnson.

Other posts by Carla Johnson

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