I sometimes wish that Thought Leadership were called something else. First the phrase smacks of business jargon, and second, I don’t like having to explain it to half the people who ask us what we do.
Third, it’s easy to poke fun at. Whether or not a particular piece of content is thought leadership, or a person or a firm is a thought leader, is something that the market decides. Thought Leader is not a title you can anoint yourself with (until you are one, and then you don’t need to). This leads to comments like those in a recent Economist article where they called the phrase, as applied to consulting firms’ own marketing materials, annoying and boastful. (The author was apparently oblivious to the Economist’s own website boasting of its thought leadership prowess).
But there isn’t a better phrase for it. For instance, content marketing encompasses things which aren’t thought-leading and, and custom publishing usually produces content that is exclusively not thought-leading.
Thought leadership content is distinct from other content. Those of us who spend our working lives producing it, studying what is effective, and discussing with executives what they value in it, know what it is. We can debate an exact definition, but a good enough working one (for the commercial world) is “Material that explains or illustrates a complex business problem or opportunity, and how one might address it.” There are several essential quality hurdles that it must satisfy in order to be effective, one of which is that it says something that no-one else has said before. That is, it is insightful.
Anything less is not thought leadership, and if it purports to be so, deserves ridicule. But material which does meet the standard is distinct, valuable, and deserves to have a name.
Which, until someone thinks of anything better, will probably be thought leadership.