Let’s all ask ourselves a really dumb question that’s less dumb than you might think: what on Earth is thought leadership?

Look. I get it. We’re all inbound marketers here. We were all trained to do this. We’ve got the certifications and we’ve taken the courses and we’ve been in the trenches. We know what thought leadership is: it’s about building up a great reputation by giving your expertise away so that people think of your business first. It’s about being the last word on a subject. Basically, it’s about turning your clients into Steve Jobs.

We’ve all heard that exact comparison made before. Apple has thought leadership. There might have been better smartphones than Apple’s, but the iPhone is the one you think of first. Steve set the stage, built the category, and developed a reputation for being the guy with his finger on the pulse of technology and how we interact with it as we live our lives.

And all we have to do is turn our clients into Steve Jobs.

So take a second and reflect on how insane an expectation that is. No matter who we are, no matter who our clients are, we have to make them the Steve Jobs of their industry. The Steve Jobs of pest control. The Steve Jobs of foundation inspection. The Steve Jobs of real estate. The Steve Jobs of industrial cleaning services.

If this is how we’re thinking about thought leadership, we are setting ourselves an impossible task. Thought leadership needs to be something else on a practical, day-to-day level, consonant with reasonable, achievable goals. Banner

So now the question doesn’t seem so dumb. If thought leadership isn’t turning your local party planning company into the Steve Jobs of Event Production, what the heck is it?

Thought leadership is establishing a client as someone reliable, not about blazing a path forward into the future.

The key figure you’re looking for here isn’t Steve Jobs; it’s the Orkin Man. Nobody is asking the Orkin Man about the bold new future of pest control. Nobody is expecting him to transform the industry by rethinking about the way humans and pests interact, turning it into a productive partnership. And nobody – nobody – is reading the Orkin Man’s blog on a regular basis, waiting eagerly for the next post about summer roach breeding.

What they are doing is turning right to him when they need help. Because they know they can trust that name. That’s thought leadership. It’s what Apple and the Orkin Man have in common: they’re the standard by which others are judged, and that means different things to different industries, and as long as we’re fixated on the Steve Jobs model, we’ll go about it all wrong.

I can’t tell you the conversations I’ve had where we’ve tried to zero in on a way to make some perfectly respectable local business into a Total Game Changer. And why not? I mean, that would drive a lot of inbound traffic. But it’s not a reasonable expectation or a meaningful goal.

So it’s time to think about how to make your clients the Orkin Man for their market: the first person they think of, not because they’ve set out to reinvent the wheel, but because they’re well-known for making great wheels to begin with. And the thing is that it’s actually really hard to do.

Reputation is something you can help along, but it’s not something you can create out of whole cloth. The reason Steve Jobs was who Steve Jobs was, frankly, was because he was Steve Jobs. You build a reputation for reliability by being reliable. You build a reputation for excellence by being excellent. What we can do as marketers is simply make it easier for that reputation to spread. Our job is to facilitate, not to create; it’s to smooth the path, not design the map.

What it’s really all about is positioning.

Let me work with a practical example. Imagine a client that’s a software company offering enterprise-level solutions within a tightly regulated marketplace. They aren’t out there reinventing the wheel; what they do is iterative improvements that always make their clients’ day-to-day operations smoother.

Establishing thought leadership means figuring out what kind of company they wanted to be seen as – a software consultancy that knows their market inside and out – and providing opportunities for their leadership team to engage with potential clients.

It means one-on-one engagement within a small, tight business community where they could demonstrate their expertise and experience. It means providing the sales collateral support to help them back up their claims. It means putting the pieces in place for meetings to happen by getting the right information about their leads.

Above all, it means making sure people get the opportunity to experience their thought leadership.

See, that’s not the same thing as being Steve Jobs. It’s not going out there and transforming the world. It’s just about making sure everyone knows your client is the best who needs to know. Whatever that means for your client’s industry.

For a pizza place, it’s about making sure you’re getting press and providing opportunities for people to try your pizza. For a shoe manufacturer, it means getting endorsements and demonstrating that you make a better shoe for a specific use. It’s always different, and that’s always something you need to sit down and think about: what is thought leadership for this business?

There’s no one-and-done easy-fit solution that matches every company. And the sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can start actually helping build up that thought leadership we love talking so much about.

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