What it means to be a true thought leader in finance

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A buzzword dissected
By Susan Burchill, staffer. 26 October, 2017
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Being a thought leader is by no means a new thing. Nor is it unique to the finance industry. Since the dawn of time there have been venerable members of industry whose wisdom and experience are such that they’re routinely asked to speak at events, contribute to media and write books.

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These days though, thought leadership has ballooned into something huge and inescapable because you don’t need to write a book, or be invited to speak at an event, or be interviewed for a magazine. You just do your research, organise your thoughts, publish them on a digital platform and push them out through your social media channels. It’s one of the tenets of content marketing.

And the pressure is on to be a thought leader within your industry, not just because you have something useful to say, but because the profit that flows from being a thought leader is now a necessary part of the definition.

What is a thought leader today?

One of its earliest iterations came in 1994 when Joel Kurtzman, who was then editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business magazine, wrote, “A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

Like most buzzwords that are nurtured in the social media hothouse, thought leadership has lost its meaning a bit. But what we seem to agree on is that you don’t need to be a CEO, or have 50 years experience in your field. You do need to be able to provide some deeper research (on a subject that aligns with your company’s DNA), or give those “unique insights” that Kurtzman spoke of.

Or, your insights might not even be unique – you just articulate an old idea to give it new meaning or make it more engaging.

Regardless, you need to get it into channels where people are already consuming this kind of information, and you need to be contributing there regularly – be committed to the cause.

What thought leadership isn’t

It isn’t corporate PR and it isn’t selling according to Fast Company, it’s a “pre-sales conversation”.

It isn’t chock full of industry jargon. That would make you look pompous and unoriginal.

It isn’t all things to all people – it’s talking about a specific problem, aimed at a specific audience.

It has also been suggested that calling yourself a thought leader in your bio doesn’t mean you are one. Thought leaders are what other people call you. It’s an honour you earn, not one you give yourself.

And you can’t have hair if you’re a thought leader. Apparently.

Who’s succeeding at thought leadership?

Thought leadership ultimately bestows respect and recognition on brands and people. It’s an “entry point to a relationship” as Fast Company describes it, and an enhancer of relationships. It helps people get to know you, builds trust over time, and helps you attract a following. Of course, there is the revenue benefit as well.

Not all brands fully understand the demands of thought leadership. Here are seven Australian, US and UK examples you could learn from.

1. ANZ’s Blue Notes blog - With a senior journalist as managing editor and contributions from company executives, chief economists and journos, it’s described by Contently as a “thoughtful approach to thought leadership”. Blue Notes doesn’t publish “self-serving” content and they don’t need to run their articles by compliance or legal (because they don’t have a consumer focus) – which helps. Twitter and LinkedIn are their amplification channels.

2. UBS Unlimited - UBS’s thought leadership platform aims to challenge established thinking and ask “uncomfortable” questions in its videos and long-form articles, partnering with publishers like Vice Media, Vanity Fair and Motherboard to reach millennial entrepreneurs. Notably, Unlimited has reached more than 5 million people via social media.

3. AMP Capital – Oliver’s Insights - Billed as “specialist commentary by AMP Capital's head of investment strategy and chief economist, Dr Shane Oliver”, these pages deliver fast-paced opinions on key market issues and investment trends, and the occasional observation on Oliver’s personal life. The blog successfully humanises AMP Capital and paints a colourful picture of a man fully absorbed in his chosen subject matter. Oliver is also a Twitter master.

4. Wells Fargo’s Weekly Economic & Financial Commentary - PDFs give expert perspective on economic data, with insights into “current U.S. and international events that affect the economy and financial markets”. It’s not pretty, but it’s meaty and reliable.

5. PNC Ideas Hub - A no-nonsense source of “actionable information” aimed at helping people “maximise the value of their businesses” with videos, webinars, white papers and economic reports.

6. Blackrock Investment Institute - Publications and data visuals in this hub deliver “investing insights and analysis across asset classes, investment strategies and borders.” Subject matter includes investing, risk management, portfolio construction and trading solutions to help portfolio managers manage their funds and maximise their own investment results.

7. Aberdeen Thinking Aloud - It’s Aberdeen's way of communicating their latest insight, opinion and thoughts on global macro events and investment strategies
with “a point of view that challenges convention”. Find out more about Aberdeen's zero to hero content journey and how they win with owned and paid media.

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When Susan was a youngster she didn't know what she wanted to be, but somehow she fell into advertising; then digital was invented so she worked on websites for a while. From there it was a small leap over to TV producing, scriptwriting, promo writing, and some copywriting.... Then when content marketing became a 'thing', she somehow fell into that. It's worked out ok so far - luckily she's always landed on soft things.