Thinkers AND Doers: Converting “Thought Leadership” Into Leads and Referrals

I’ve started to wince when I encounter marketers talking about “thought leadership marketing” as a lead generation strategy — usually in conjunction with a pitch for blogging.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? You’re smart, and smart people win clients right? Well, sort of…

Unless your objective is to obtain an academic position, sign a book contract, build a seminar company, or become a professional blogger, thought leadership marketing is not the most direct or cost-effective route to success.

Crafting journal-worthy blog posts and white papers with the frequency and consistency required to attain a thought leadership reputation is a time- and resource-intensive endeavor. If you’re going to make that investment, be clear about what you’re doing and why.

If your objective is winning new clients, thought leadership does not drive leads and referrals. Results do.

However, thought leadership builds credibility and helps explain how you achieve your results. It is powerful and valuable because it can close deals.

How “thought leadership” helps win business:

  • Demonstrates insight, expertise and intellectual rigor
  • Demonstrates persuasiveness
  • Imparts third-party credibility
  • Reassures current and prospective clients, and validates their choices

Best of all, thought leaders are more likely to get speaking gigs, and speaking gigs beget more speaking gigs — now THAT’S where you generate leads and referrals…


  1. I think the author is indicating that thought leadership content (just like any other content) can help company’s nurture leads, not necessarily produce leads. A marketing automation system can cookie a customer or prospect and lead score them according to the content they consume.

    I for one believe that thought leadership is particularly helpful in the beginning stages of the buy cycle. If distributed via social media or other electronic means, it’s a great way to engage the prospect at the beginning of the cycle. As you slowly build the relationship, your marketing automation system can provide content to them that fits their needs (those needs are slowly learned and earned by every interaction -whether tracked (online) or not (conferences, events, etc.).

  2. Don’t be so fast to dismiss thought leadership status. In some fields like the law, people and businesses are paying large sums of money to someone for their judgment. Nothing more, nothing less.

    And that judgment is put on display by doing things that demonstrate one’s thought leadership – speaking, writing, chairing and participating on association committees, networking etc. Today, effective blogging allows one to demonstrate their thought leadership.

    Sure results matter, but if you don’t get yourself out so I and others can see your thought leadership and judgment on display, we’re not going to start looking at your results.

    As a lawyer of 30 years and having practiced for 20 years, I’ve been hired as a lawyer by a lot of good clients and I have hired a lot of good lawyers. I hired lawyers to represent me or my companies. And I’ve hired lawyers to join me as co-counsel on cases and transactions I was working on for clients.

    I got to know of those lawyers because they were thought leaders and then I looked at their results. And it should come as no surprise that the thought leaders have a pretty high batting average when it comes to getting results.

    I hired lawyers as thought leaders who had the respect of the 7th Circuit of Appeals Judges and Clerks to argue cases I was lead counsel on. Why? Because the lawyers had the respect of the Judges and Clerks who sat in the Federal Appeals Court in the Dirksen Federal Building where my client’s case was going to be decided. Those lawyers earned the respect Of Judges and Clerks by teaching, writing, and provoking commentary on the law. I paid those lawyers $50,000 or $75,000 for their thought leadership to oversee the written appellate briefs and the oral arguments. If it was a contingent fee, the lawyers would have earned substantially more.

    Note that today, those lawyers are being hired because Appellate Judges and Clerks read such lawyers blogs. Why? Because those lawyers are thought leaders.

    When I represented banks before the FDIC, I hired the thought leaders who drove legal discussion on banking regulatory issues and as a result were well respected by the FDIC and the US Attorneys office which represented the FDIC as their lawyers. The lawyers I hired made large sums of money when I hired them.

    We all use different words to describe things Jay, but blowing off thought leadership as a form of business development to those seeking “academic positions, to sign a book contract, to build a seminar company, or to become a professional blogger” as you say seems very shortsighted.

    • shatterboxvox says:

      Thanks for engaging on the topic.

      How can a post that emphasizes (in boldface type) that thought leadership is “powerful and valuable,” and then goes on to describe in greater detail how it helps win business, be accurately described as dimissive of thought leadership as a form of business development?

      The influence and value of genuine thought leaders derive from their singularity. That singularity derives from the difficulty of attaining genuine expert status in a field crowded with smart and accomplished people. So why do marketers pitch thought leadership positioning programs to every client? They can’t all be thought leaders, else none of them are — just one of many.

      Thought leadership through blogging, to the uninitiated, appears to offer lower barriers to entry, but as you know, creating and sustaining a high-quality blog requires more than superior learning and judgment. You have to be interesting, or entertaining, or uniquely insightful, or powerfully persuasive, or visionary — or all of the preceding. And it’s a significant investment of time and resources.

      Hence the three main points of this post:

      1. Thought leadership marketing is not the most direct or cost-effective route to success. There are other marketing modalities that can generate leads and revenue more quickly and with better ROI.

      2. If you’re going to make that investment, be clear about what you’re doing and why.

      3. Thought leadership builds credibility and helps explain how you achieve your results. It is powerful and valuable because it can close deals.

      I vigorously promote and pursue thought leadership marketing 1) where genuine differentiation and recognition by peers is credibly achievable and 2) where thought leadership is important to clients (i.e. civil litigants and criminal defendants likely care more about winning than articles, speeches and blogs). What I dismiss are facile approaches to and and ill-advised pursuit of thought leadership marketing.


  1. […]  One example of this hesitance to link thoughtleadership to ROI or leads can be found in this post by Shatterbox in response to that same presentation.  The author brings up some valid points, but in a comment […]

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