Is Thought Leadership Just a Buzzword?

Christopher G. Fox

From time to time, people will poke a bit of fun at me for using the phrase “thought leadership.” They will point out that it sounds like yet another buzzword, that it is overused or too vague to mean anything.

Most of these criticisms are entirely fair. Regardless, I find “thought leadership” to be the best term to use for various reasons.

First, whether or not “thought leadership” is aesthetically pleasing (and in my opinion, it kind of isn’t), common parlance prevails. A critical mass of people in senior roles within financial services and fintech know what “thought leadership” means, at least sufficiently for the phrase to be a conversation starter. The phrase can get the ball rolling about a particular kind of content-heavy, ideas-driven marketing and communications strategy. It does so more easily than any longer phrase, even if people have different or vague ideas about precisely what it means. After all, we run entire societies on ideas as differently understood as “freedom” or “social justice.” Those principles matter even if people understand very different things when speaking about them. Abstract nouns and phrases do not necessarily have exact denotative meanings but still have value in human interaction.

Second, as I’ve implied above, there isn’t a phrase in more standard English that covers the concept. No, “thought leadership” is not just content. It’s a specific genre, with specific norms for production and specific expectations from its audience. Even if the phrase is clunky, it means something differentially. It is not the same as a product brochure, a press release, a landing page, or a work of fiction. A broader term would introduce more confusion. A longer phrase would be a mouthful. And a different two-word phrase would take further explaining to make the distinction implied by “thought leadership.”

Third, “thought leadership” may condense many assumptions into a two-word phrase, but it still puts some useful reference points in place. The word “thought” sets up a contrast with what might otherwise be product or service marketing (i.e., highlighting features and benefits of a specific offering). The word also implies that the content includes a particular line of argument or point of view. “Leadership” further implies that the content helps bring people to a new understanding of a topic and helps advance a particular cause or way of doing business; it stands in contrast to more informational or educational content.

Based on these three points, I would say the problem with “thought leadership” isn’t inherent to the phrase and its potential buzzwordiness. It’s that people casually refer to other types of content marketing as thought leadership when it is actually meant to accomplish different ends.

Because the phrase seems to carry some cachet, many people use it for content that fits other categories better. Misuse tends to drain the phrase of further meaning. Using it correctly would restore some of that meaning.

As for its inelegance as a phrase, lack of anything better makes it good enough, despite the aura of pretentiousness “thought leadership” may suggest. Until a better phrase comes along and passes into common understanding, “thought leadership” serves the purpose it needs to.

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