thought leadership(This post first appeared in Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey (SWMS), which produces research and analysis that helps tech PR pros pitch more effectively. SWMS interviews editors, studies their work and produces research and analysis that helps tech PR pros land coverage and build relationships. Learn more here. mediasurvey.com/about)

Everyone and their brother seems to be looking for “thought leadership” these days – the unique, thoughtful insights that show you understand the technology you sell and the industry you’re selling into better than anyone else. In a recent Gartner survey close to a third of respondents said “…a form of thought leadership is the single highest driver of marketing-qualified leads (MQLs).”

But how do you extract compelling thought leadership from a technical specialist whose job is to be down in the weeds with the chip registers, whether to use linear regression, logistic regression or linear discriminant analysis in AI, or the ins and outs of Agile Vs. DevOps?

Here are four thought leadership tar pits I fall into with clients and tools I use to get out.

Morass One: “What do you mean by thought leadership?”

It’s not fair to ask a technical expert to deliver something you haven’t defined. My thought leadership elevator pitch goes like this:

  • It must present a new way of thinking about an old problem, a new question your customers should be asking, or even just define a problem most people can’t see yet.
  • It must be new thinking about how information technology can meet business challenges. If you’re repeating questions (or answers) the reader can get elsewhere it ain’t thought leadership.
  • It is about your customers and their challenges rather than your products or services. If you must mention your capabilities or customer success stories, limit them to proofs of your new thinking.
  • Even if you don’t have (or don’t want to share) a complete soup to nuts solution, you must explain why your thought leadership vision is plausible.
  • And you must tell the reader how to get started realizing this vision.

Morass Two: The Spec Sheet Syndrome  

You ask a product manager for thought leadership and get one – or worse, two or three – PowerPoints filled with product details (support for all leading hyperscalers, internal benchmarks like how many Tbytes of data they moved to the cloud, or vague benefit statements like “Increased efficiency and reduced data pipeline TCO.”

I counter with questions such as:

  • What is better, different, less expensive, more flexible about your tools or capabilities vs. your competitors?
  • How did these technical features or process frameworks increase the scale, efficiency, quality or agility with which the customer met their business challenge?
  • What lessons did you learn that others can use, regardless of the technology involved? (Push beyond technical details (“We used X sharding method for the database”) to business-relevant lessons (“We asked the sales teams what 20 percent of the data would produce 80 percent of the benefits and migrated that data first.”)
  • Push the customer engagement team or the customer to quantify the business benefits. You may not get specific figures, but you can probably find a safe range like “millions of dollars in savings” or “…at least 20 percent increase in customer satisfaction.”

Morass Three: Actually, All We Have is This Case Study…

The symptoms are similar to Morass #2 except your subject matter expert can tell you only about their use of one product or service for a one customer for a specific need. However spiffy the solution and how pleased the customer, this is a single success – not thought leadership for achieving repeated success.

I ask questions such as:

  • What makes this customer’s challenge, and our response to it, typical of a broader trend? For example, the need to effectively merge CRM systems after an acquisition, for pharmaceutical companies to use AI to speed drug development, or to migrate a legacy development team to DevOps?
  • What techniques, lessons or “tricks” did we learn in this engagement or deployment that could help others in the same boat? (Bonus points for lessons that are not specific to your product or service.) For example, rather than “Our machine learning platform helped us integrate more data types than anyone else,” you want something like “We started small and defined the business problem up front to keep us on track.”

Morass Four: We See the Problem But Don’t Have a Solution

Symptoms include statements like “We’re planning to address that in a future release,” “Everyone’s waiting for guidance from the regulators” or “We hope to fix that with our acquisition of vendor XYZ.”

Questions to dive deeper:

  • Even if we don’t have the “holy grail” answer, can we describe the problem in enough detail to hint at some answers? (“Five top reasons security is chronically underfunded and what our customers need to free up budget.”)
  • Explain why the common framing of a problem is wrong. “Struggling with scaling your machine learning project? That’s because they work best when they stay small and nimble.”
  • If you can’t answer one question, answer another that presents new thinking. For example, there’s plenty of back and forth about the best ways to deploy DevOps (the merger of development and operations teams.) Configuration management vendor Puppet took a different tack, citing survey results to argue that the term “DevOps” itself is too vague, and that more function-specific terms (such as DevOps for system administration or application development) delivers better business results.

Rinse and Repeat…and Repeat…

I wish I could say these tips will instantly unlock the gates of earth-shaking technology and market insights. Be ready to instead patiently explain all this multiple times to the same players in the same project before their eyes light up and they get it.

The good news is they often appreciate the extra effort you put in to bring the good stuff they know to market. As a PR or marketing person, this exercise also lifts you above the run of the mill hacks willing to happily repeddle the latest buzzwords. You are providing, if you will, thought leadership about thought leadership.

(What’s your secret sauce for extracting thought leadership from your best and brightest?)