What Thought Leadership Looks Like

4 min readJun 24, 2014

It’s about the eco trip, not the ego trip.

Joseph Bentzel, Platformula1

Emerging category leaders in the anything-as-service (XaaS) economy rely heavily on branded content to drive adoption of their platforms, products and services by both enterprise customers and distribution partners.

For this reason it’s important to be able to differentiate between commodity content marketing and true thought leadership.

Here are 3 indicators I use to make the distinction.

1. From Transacting to Transforming

Commodity content marketing is about transacting. Real thought leadership is about transforming. What do I mean by that. It’s simple.

The rise of commodity content marketing has become closely tied to downstream digital campaigns that are designed with the clear goal of driving some kind of transaction—- i.e. subscribing to a freemium or trial SaaS app, installing a mobile app, signing up for a newsletter, etc.

Thought leadership is not about that. It’s about driving the transformation of established market landscapes (or the emergence of new ones) through fact-based articulation of new ways of doing things.

Here’s a compelling example—-a 5 part series from 3Scale, an API management as a service provider.

In the series, Steve Willmott & Craig Burton drill down on multiple dimensions of why having an API strategy is no longer an enterprise ‘nice to have’—-but is in fact a must-have for competing and winning in the digital age. And it’s not about a mono-dimensional ‘call to action’ designed to trigger a sales pipeline event—but a multidimensional call to transformation that catalyzes and scales partner and ecosystem participation.

2. From Big Data to Big Signals

Commodity content marketing often wears ‘big data’ on its sleeve. Real thought leadership unpacks and processes big data to expose the ‘Big Signals’ or patterns that reside inside the data—-thereby making it strategically actionable.

Here’s an example from Mirantis, a leader and pacesetter in the OpenStack cloud community and provider of a new ‘private cloud as a service’ offering. OpenStack is a leading example of ‘open source 2.0’—- or what I call a new breed COSA, i.e. Corporate Open Source Alliance.

In high-growth, high-velocity cloud markets, OpenStack COSA success is driven by the need of both emerging and established IT market leaders to compete more effectively with AWS in public cloud—-while simultaneously giving birth to a new enterprise hybrid cloud ecosystem.

In this post (and the associated analytics), Boris Renski of Mirantis takes the time to unlock the Big Signals inside OpenStack member/contributor data by participating company. It’s a must read for upstream partner marketers and business development professionals who see the OpenStack COSA as their opportunity landscape of choice.

3. From Thin to Think

Real thought leadership does not present to a reader as ‘thin’ content. It’s an evergreen articulation of, and advocacy for, a particular point of view that is designed to get you to think. Here’s an example from Appirio, a global software implementation services firm and crowd-sourced development pioneer.

In this blog post, John Gorup of Appirio builds on Appirio’s core value proposition—-that SaaS is not a canned software consumption model—-but regularly requires customization by enterprises if it is to realize its potential as a strategic weapon.

The author argues his point not by ‘talking the SaaS talk’ but by ‘walking the SaaS walk’—-i.e. laying out multiple custom applications Appirio itself has built for the Salesforce.com CRM platform in order to compete more effectively in the SFDC ecosystem.

What a thought leadership piece like this does is to get both enterprise IT and LOB leaders to think differently about SaaS applications in general—-and the continuing importance of custom apps for enterprise competitive advantage.

Conclusion: Thought Leadership—It’s an Eco Trip, Not an Ego Trip

‘Thought leadership’ is not about the ‘thought leader’ as an individual. It’s not about celebrity marketing applied to high growth markets in the anything-as-a-service (XaaS) economy. It’s not something a ‘CEO coach’ whispers in the ear to a new client.

Thought leadership—-properly executed—-is about how innovative companies and their most articulate representatives frame the challenges and opportunities inherent on highly contested landscapes and in competing ecosystems.

And like the supreme court justice said about that other thing. You know it when you see it.

Joseph Bentzel is the founder & senior consultant of Platformula1. Email him at joe@platformulagroup.com




Joseph Bentzel, Platformula1 founder, is a specialist in “Partner First” growth marketing for cloud, mobile, XaaS, & IoT innovators. http://www.platformula1.com