There are as many definitions for thought leadership as there are people writing and thinking about it. Common themes do emerge however, such as genuine engagement, influence, and audience centricity (i.e., focusing on the audience). Thought leaders also are viewed as being on the cutting edge and revealing trends ahead of time.

It might be tempting to envision a major campaign to build and nurture thought leadership that uses all possible communications avenues including social media. After all, social media offers access to large numbers of people, and so it should be used for this purpose, right? In this case, there are some words of caution.

“I’m not so sure social media use is important — most larger companies get their senior executives on the speaker circuit and do it that way,” says Haydn Shaughnessy, with The Innovation Lifestyle and contributor to Forbes on the topic of enterprise innovation. “For smaller companies my advice would be to take a very clinical view of the content they want to produce — most companies are finding it hard not to push marketing messages but, instead, if you focus on contributing something really new, you stand a chance of finding an audience.”

Craig Badings, director at Sydney-based Cannings Corporate Communications and co-author of #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP Tweet: 140 Prompts for Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign, says companies should really be focusing on why they are embarking on a thought leadership campaign, who they are trying to reach, and where and how their audiences consume content.

“If, for example, your market is a small universe of 30-50 senior decision makers at listed companies in a certain sector, and they are not using LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and the like, why on earth would you need to be on social media?” Badings asks.

Realizing it’s not about advertising

Once an enterprise knows it should be using social channels for thought leadership efforts, it will need to learn how not to talk about itself. The truncated and fast moving nature of social media easily tricks companies into feeling an urgent need to promote themselves. But they could temper that urge by relying on an old editor’s advice to a young journalist: It’s not about you, and, who cares?

“It really comes down to content quality and not using this to push marketing messages,” says Shaughnessy. “Do you understand trends in your industry or customer base; ask, what research can you do to say something new about them, and then ask, who cares? At that point you are thinking about an audience, and that is the most important step you can take. Most white papers being churned out right now have no sense of who will read them. Really work on that.”

Leadership cannot exist without followers and, as a company moves itself to the background, thought leadership has the chance to take on the quality that makes it not just interesting, but perhaps even vital for those who do follow. There are divergent opinions on whether thought leadership should primarily be a marketing tool, whether it should stand on its own as a reflection of the company’s identity, or even be a little bit of both. Indeed, just perusing definitions of thought leadership reveals those that are marketing centered, and those that are not. But regardless of the view, there are guidelines that can serve any thought leadership effort if it evolves to include social media. At the top of the list is just being genuine.

Tips for using social

“Don’t try to fake it by leaving comments everywhere about a new white paper you’ve read,” advises Shaughnessy. “The time to think about channels is when you are thinking about audiences. If you do this properly, you will involve people in the channels early on — speak to bloggers and writers and get their views on your project. Heck, pay them to be involved as advisers. They are experts at how to reach people online.”

Badings advises against making your efforts too product centric and labeling it as thought leadership, saying, “the market decides whether you are a thought leader or not.” To increase success at garnering views and encouraging sharing, he recommends:

  • Using a process to ensure content is distributed across all appropriate channels and that it is search engine optimized;
  • Using visuals, including infographics, to take advantage of new patterns in content consumption;
  • Using tactics that make your content easily shareable and easy to link to.

Like so many other aspects of the face a company puts forth to the world, thought leadership ultimately does not exist in a vacuum. Whether expressed in traditional venues or through social media, it must be authentic and consistent.