While creating the ComBlu Thought Leadership Maturity Model and Assessment Tool, we surveyed a handful of organizations that aspire to produce great thought leadership. This post shares some of the insights from the group and the implications of what they told us.

First some background on the people who shared their insights. 15 of the 22 people were from large companies: 8 had 1,000 to 10,000 employees with 7 having over 10,000 employees. The vast majority were in the technology sector with professional services and finance making up the majority of the rest.

When asked to rate themselves on the ComBlu Thought Leadership Maturity Progression Model, half self-selected as Prolific Publishers with two claiming to be Breakthrough Innovators, and one identified as a Visible Thinker. When asked what prevented their organization from getting to the next level, most reported the biggest obstacles as a lack of resources or time constraints of SMEs.

Beginner: SME who is sporadically quoted in articles or delivers an occasional presentation at conference; more a PR program than a thought leadership initiative.

Proof of Concept: A single topic is created for use in a one-off campaign or in a pilot for a select business area.

Prolific Publisher: A strategic content marketing program with lots of content but not necessarily attributed to SME(s) to serve as face of the brand.

Visible Thinker: Sought-after expert who adds insights and unique POV to the conversation.

Breakthrough Innovator: Contributes ideas about how to reinvent industries or business processes, invent new product or industry categories, etc.

Other common obstacles included too many silos, compliance restrictions, and inability to agree upon the right topics. One respondent reported that their organization had yet to prove the value of thought leadership content in relation to other content. In the first blog post in this three part series, we forwarded the idea that thought leadership is less about topics and more about a culture of innovation and disruption from which thought leadership naturally flows. Siloes impinging collaboration, lack of alignment and under-indexed resource allocation are all indicative of a culture that will not organically support true thought leadership. So is the lack of SME participation, which was reported by 50% of our sample. These organizations have not yet figured out how to grow a culture in which thought leadership thrives and SMEs are rewarded for forwarding new ideas. Successful organizations work to turn their internal SMEs into external influencers and SMEs understand their role in building brand equity. 60% of the respondents reported that their SMEs have a broad industry footprint but very few are known outside of their sector.

60% of respondents reported that their organization lacks a thought leadership roadmap which encompasses defined processes, tools, skill sets and resources, and a system for governance. The editorial plan is one of the tools included in a roadmap.

Thought leadership topic selection is a multi-faceted process and most respondents use more than one method including:

  • Customer insight research
  • Listening
  • Interviews with SMEs
  • Interviews with customers
  • Google industry trends

Some one-off comments included: monitor legislative trends, work with product and engineering teams, and benchmarking to define topics. Only a few reported having a well-defined topic modeling process which again is indicative of a lack of a thought leadership culture or early stage thought leadership maturity.

The most common thought leadership assets included eBooks, white papers, webcasts and speaking engagements. A few reported publishing books through a traditional publisher and many use earned media to gain credibility for their thought leadership programs and POVs. Most reported some collaboration with influencers to either co-create content, conduct original research or speak together at conferences.

When asked what makes great thought leadership, responses were varied, including:

  • Unique POV (predominant response)
  • Engaging presentation of information
  • Interpretation of trends into actionable insights
  • Ideas that have broad industry impact
  • Driver of new products and services
  • New data or information

While our sample was not large enough to provide quantitative data, the story told by these folks underscores the need for more deliberate and defined investment in thought leadership. Without a sustainable approach supported by a culture of innovation, true thought leadership is elusive.

ComBlu’s thought leadership scorecard helps organizations build a plan to get them to the desired point on the Thought Leadership Maturity Progression. Contact us if you would like to take the free assessment.


Cheryl Treleaven

Cheryl Treleaven


Engaging your customers is at the heart of successful marketing programs. For more than 20 years, Cheryl has been building and executing content and thought leadership strategies designed to do just that. She is excited to be applying that well-honed skill to a help companies like Microsoft, Cisco, 3M, Intel, Capital One and Barclaycard tap into their stakeholder communities and build sophisticated content strategies.

Her experience base spans a range of industries – from technology and financial services to retail, travel, consumer products and healthcare. Cheryl has served as an integral member of her clients’ marketing teams, providing counsel on marketing and brand strategy, thought leadership, media relations, product introductions, and event management.

Prior to joining ComBlu, Cheryl spent 10 years leading corporate marketing for large, complex organizations.