Thought leadership gets a lot of flak in marketing circles. Some of it is fair. “Thought leadership” is jargon for something companies have done forever: trying to position their executives as influential leaders. But just because it’s a new way to refer to an old technique doesn’t mean it’s not effective. New technology has just changed how it’s done.
That’s why, much to some people’s chagrin, the term just won’t go away. Thought leadership has fundamentally changed in the age of smartphones and social media. It’s become more effective thanks to the low cost of digital distribution and the ability for individuals to cultivate their own followings. While building up an executive as a thought leader once required an immense PR effort, professionals with loyal followings and powerful influence are now a dime a dozen.
CEOs, in particular, have become social media rockstars. Elon Musk, Marc Benioff, and Mark Zuckerberg are easy examples. But not every CEO uses social media. According to new research from CEO.com and Domo, 60 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence whatsoever.
CEO.com found the result incongruous with best practices. As the company writes in the report, “Social media… has a major impact on brand reputation. A CEO can either participate in the discussion and influence it, or risk the implications of allowing his or her corporate image to be decided in the court of public opinion.”
It’s worth noting, however, that social media thought leadership tends to have more of an impact in certain industries. The study found that executives from technology, retail, media, and entertainment were most active, while energy and air travel were the least active. B2C industries need to play in the public square, while B2B industries can afford to be more targeted with their approach.
The more active industries tend to be more competitive as well, so companies want their executives front and center in real-time. Tech executives, for example, need to shape and promote company vision. Exxon’s CEO, on the other hand, would probably rather avoid public scrutiny and let his company do the boring work of slowly gaining market share.
The report also analyzes which social media networks play host to CEOs. A majority of them are only on one or two networks at most—only five executives are on four networks, and only one (Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi) is on five. For those who are active on social, LinkedIn tends to be the first choice, followed by Twitter. Every other social network lags behind in a major way: 40 F500 CEOs use Facebook (but only eight are active), while 11 are on Instagram.
This data points to a broader truth: For influencers, there are really only two viable social platforms. Twitter is the perfect place to influence media narratives since the press spend more time posting and scrolling than they do writing their own stories. LinkedIn, meanwhile, is an excellent place to build clout in industry circles.
After finishing the report, I was curious how all of this social activity affected the bottomline. If the study has a flaw or gap, this is it. The writers admit as much, saying that a major reason why some CEOs are still hesitant to get on board is because it’s hard to “capture and understand the ROI from digital marketing and social media activity.” That’s an industry-wide problem, and it likely won’t go away anytime soon.
That said, it would be unwise for company leadership to ignore social. While influence is hard to measure, social gives executives a unique opportunity to join and shape public conversation. That will always be important, no matter how thought leadership continues to evolve.