Thought leadership, like the rest of social media, can be confused with PR so how do we keep them separate? In this ideas economy it's tempting to see thought leadership as PR, because ideas are ubiquitous, and seem to be about reputation, about bigger or better, more published, more tweeted, in short about the PR business.

Ideas are also, unfortunately, easy to generate.

In the ideas economy we have to move to a distinct thought leadership process, a process that promises something more than publication. We have to take ideas more seriously.

I think a thought leadership service has to show how it will lead to sales.

Practitioners have to be willing to be accountable for their distinct contribution to revenues. We can distinguish the value of ideas and thought leadership by talking directly about bottom-line issues. And we can force ourselves to think more in terms of a business discipline if we say, yes it's direcly about sales and revenues.

I think there are three key pillars of thought leadership as a discipline, if we set revenue increases as a target.

  • Concept – being able to create a small number of light touch concepts that describe change in the client's industry, that project that change into the future and tell people what the client's new role will be, how it will create or sustain a lead. Circles is a classic light touch concept telling us how Google intended to do something different from social networks (but so too was Buzz). The difference is Circles was strongly articulated and widely disseminated by Paul Adams. Google continues to articulate the vision, now around identity.
  • Affiliation – being known by the company you keep, creating affirmation through associating with the right companies, thought leaders and channels, developing and nurturing reputation through such third parties, these are pillar two. A client has to be brought into the right associations that can validate his or her ideas and sense of future direction. This is vitally important for companies entering new markets.
  • Product - being able to distill the thought leadership of a client into some productized version – a method, a model, a technique, a consulting model, a research simulation, a visualization.... some representation of the thought leadership that is tangible and saleable or being able to translate the key thought processes and ideas that exist in a product. If the thought leadership is not iterative with products then it can't really drive revenues. Cisco failed to iterate its thought leadership with its acquisition of Flip. Cisco abandoned Flip and its reasoning looked poor as a result.

Companies that can't get to product, that can't integrate their vision with product, won't survive on concept alone and probably don't need thought leadership services. Thought leadership must change the way you do business, be part of changing what you sell, or how you sell, how you seek or propose business, and MUST lead to an increase in revenue.

Any thoughts?