At first glance, the two concepts are quite similar. Thought leadership is about building up extraordinary expertise in a specific field and assuming a pioneering role. This role can be assigned to either a company or a person. The goals of this strategy: attention, commitment, trust and ultimately a positive influence on customers, business partners, multipliers and one’s own employees. If this tactic works, the companies benefit massively from their new position: They are regarded as pioneers and innovators and are also rewarded with advance trust for new topics.
Influencer marketing, on the other hand, is about the same goals, but the path to achieving them is different. One uses those who have already built up a sufficiently large reach and commits them to activating their networks. This is much faster than generating reach yourself, but at the same time has serious disadvantages. The fundamental question therefore arises as to whether a large reach also necessarily means a large effect: Are influencers really in a position to influence their followers in the long-term? This is definitely not always the case. Therefore, scattering losses are often accepted from the outset if the overall range is large enough. At the same time, however, the question arises as to what extent the important factors of attention, commitment and trust can actually be attributed to a contribution within a campaign and thus to the ordering company. Or whether they might be aimed more purely towards the influencer.
In terms of costs, neither model has an advantage. While influencer marketing is often expensive, a thought leadership project can also generate high costs.
Thought leadership marketing as a solution
In other words, both have advantages and disadvantages. So why not combine them and, above all, exploit the benefits of both concepts? Some companies are actually doing this already. Current thought leadership projects often no longer focus on the organization as an opinion leader, but instead focus deliberately on people from top management to the CEO. These people are developed systematically in terms of their external perceptions: They receive personal profiles in social networks, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, which are regularly updated, they blog, write books, speak at conferences and give interviews in leading industry media. Of course, this has always been the case to a certain extent, but not in this strategic direction and with specialized service providers, for example for channel input and writing thought-leader content.
As such, this approach is also different to the brand ambassadors, who often have to manage without much support from the employer. They often even have to struggle for the time it takes to communicate and build up the networks; there is usually a complete lack of a well thought-out strategy within corporate communications.
Some international examples show how well thought leadership can work, such as Tesla founder Elon Musk or Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. Both position themselves very offensively and provide for discussion and opinion-forming with polarizing statements. Musk won 21.9 million followers on Twitter with his topics of autonomous cars, space travel and his critical stance towards artificial intelligence. Jeff Bezos has only 575,000 followers with e-commerce, media and space travel compared to Musk, but high interaction rates clearly show that he is not only a thought leader, but also fits into the influencer category.
And even if the CEO doesn’t have a name that’s as well-known as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, it may still be a good idea to develop him or her into a thought leader and influencer. After all, no other person represents the company more than the boss.