One overlooked area of social media is the way companies think and speak about themselves in honest moments, how they try to convert deep reflection into new perspectives. The overlooked area is real thought leadership.

The way Apple mastered the use of evangelism, how Nokia relates to its ambassador communities, how CISCO has failed to package or convey its thought leadership in crucial areas, these are the ways companies connect with us emotionally but also intellectually. It's how an increasing number of companies want to be seen in the social arena. But what is thought leadership, really?

I want to distinguish thought leadership from journalism. This is not about writing articles. And from PR, it's not about collateral.

Companies are looking to genuinely differentiate themselves and develop material that truly leads - leads their industry in some critical way, opens a new perspective for their employees, shows the company in a new light that is not hyped or gamed but is a genuine reflection of a company rethinking its place, products and brand.

Thought leadership has to have this definitive quality - it illustrates leadership. It's not just about being smart, and nor is it about personal branding, though both of those are important. Nor is an attempt to create a leadership image.

It is leadership.

The intellectual climate of the enterprise is becoming the real barometer we judge them by – their thought leadership, in short, really matters. So we'd better make sure that the ideas we convey take on the right mantle.

Yet thought leadership gets too little of our attention even as companies sign up to it as a strategy. We debate leadership as if it is a function like conducting or driving when in fact it is a dispersed cerebral act that needs to find adherents, co-advocates, friends around the web.

So what does thought leadership consist of, how is it used, how does it work? Do we know?

Evangelism is not thought leadership, even though Apple’s evangelism methods now have a Wikipedia page all to themselves.

The idea of evangelism however was a piece of thought leadership. It was widely emulated. It set out a path, by example.

Nokia tried to replicate the evangelism of Apple with its Ambassador program, beginning with the S60, the earliest of its smartphones. Here’s how Nokia explained the Ambassador program to its users.

Our Nokia community needs heroes, those with a healthy dose of enthusiasm for the brand. You don’t have to report to anyone, but participate in your own time to build up our community of Nokia users.

It didn’t work!

The problem lay not only with the fact that Nokia tried to ape Apple. It also lay in the fact that it is not rooted in any intellectual context. Nokia’s voice in sophisticated markets lacks a critical edge of reasoning. Its voice is about ‘turnaround’ – not about us and our choices.

With Apple, in the old evangelist days, the product proposition was fundamental; it was about the ethics of choice – Apple or the system; the product was an investment in superior usability, in who matters;  it was part of a David and Goliath tale. It polarised people and gave those with a conscience only one choice. Crude leadership indeed but very effective.

In contrast CISCO has not adopted evangelism or ambassador programs (other than in its social responsibility marketing) but instead made its investment in thought leadership.

I believe CISCO’s recent problems are in part caused by not thinking through what thought leadership is.

For example CISCO has entered the enterprise collaboration market with QUAD, in my view the outstanding E2.0 platform, but has failed to spell out a leading vision for how the enterprise needs to change, how it will change and how technology, particularly QUAD, can support change. Similarly ‘the human network‘ was neat but it was a vision for CISCO’s future rather than ours.

So great product, great idea, but neither are thought leading. Thought leadership though is very clearly the missing ingredient and its absence might explain the fact we know so little of QUAD and why Cisco keeps bining projects like FLIP.

Thought leadership is critical because companies are entering new markets (in CISCO’s case from technology infrastructure to people infrastructure) as part of the global product refresh and due to the effect of hyper-innovation. If that’s your challenge, thought leadership is indispensable. But thought leadership has to be just that – leading.

In my view, as a brief summary, it needs four things to work well:

  • The enterprise has to be entering new markets where it also needs additional credibility
  • The thinking has to lead change not contribute to a status quo
  • The thought leadership has to be integrated with products and/or services
  • It needs to identify the competition, however subtly, and say why you will win the battle

Social media represents the channels through which thought leadership has to function but as yet I fear we have an unarticulated view of it. Thought leadership passes as opinion, PR and evangelism when it is anything but.