Tunnah’s musings: defining pharma thought leadership

Paul Tunnah


This month Paul Tunnah looks at the notion of thought leadership and how it applies to content marketing in pharma by defining its key characteristics, why it is useful and how it is has become the most powerful way of building strong business-to-business relationships.

Thought leadership is a term that has seen increasing use across the business world recently, including within pharma. It is something I see as fundamental to the way businesses engage with each other (and their customers), but it is also often misunderstood as a concept and, like any trending topic, frequently misused and applied in the wrong way.

Beyond direct discussions with authors and clients, I have not so far described what ‘thought leadership’ looks like to me and why it is important, so I thought it was about time my regular ‘musings’ column addressed this.


“…thought leadership is rapidly becoming the only valuable currency of business…”


Let me start with why thought leadership is important. We live in the information age, where there is so much new data becoming available online that it is quite literally ‘virtually’ impossible to siphon through the noise. For example, Intel recently calculated that over 600 gigabytes of IP data is now transferred every minute (figure 1)!


Figure 1: ‘What happens in an internet minute?’ from Intel.

Data has therefore become commoditised and we are bombarded with information from every angle online, including advertising, which we often ignore. This poses a real challenge for businesses (and providers built around advertising such as Facebook and Twitter) as they struggle to be seen.

It is therefore interesting that the way to get noticed as a business has become less about ‘shouting’ your message and more about providing useful insight – giving your customers something as a way of getting something back (which we were all doing before the internet arrived). This is what thought leadership is all about and it is rapidly becoming the only valuable currency of business relationships (especially in the B2B sector) as a pivotal component of content marketing.

Unfortunately, not everything that is billed as thought leadership genuinely is – some of it is just push advertising or SEO bait in disguise. So here are my top six characteristics of the genuine article:

1. Share an opinion

The best thought leadership presents opinions and subjective interpretation, as opposed to simply being factual. As already explained, what people are really looking for is advice on what all this information means, not just a summary of it. Clearly, any opinion has a starting point in evidence, whether that is data- or experience-based, but the difference between data analysis and insightful thought leadership is the ability to go that extra step and present an opinion on what it actually means.

2. Be original

Original thinking is, unfortunately, in a minority. We have all consumed content that leaves us feeling like it could have been produced several years ago, as it has all been heard before. We are, of course, all inevitably influenced by what we read, hear or watch but developing genuine thought leadership is about going beyond that to form some new thinking. The reality is that, in a world of seven billion people, your ‘original’ thinking may have already been generated and shared by someone else. There is nothing wrong with that, provided you came to that same conclusion on your own, but knowingly grabbing ideas from another and passing them off as your own is not thought leadership (and very transparent).


“…the smartest people do not need to use big words (or even make new ones up) to demonstrate their expertise.”


3. Challenge the status quo

Challenging the status quo tends to go hand-in-hand with being subjective and original, as it presents a new way of looking at something that has, by definition, not been put into practice previously. The way big companies operate, in every industry, tends to ingrain process and structured ways of doing things that may go back for many years. However, the world around us is changing so rapidly that these processes are probably outdated before they have even been properly implemented, so do not be afraid to challenge those systems that are seen as untouchable. You might find people start to listen.

4. Offer solutions

It might seem inherent in demonstrating original, subjective and challenging opinions that something is being produced that is solutions-oriented, but it is not always the case. This factor is actually a key differentiator between being observed as someone who is trying to just throw the ‘cat amongst the pigeons’ for the purpose of visibility and someone who shows real intelligence in offering solutions to the challenges identified. Understandably, where thought leadership is being utilised as a content marketing tool, you may not want to give away the whole solution, but some components of it must be expressed.

5. Keep it simple

It is a common mistake to assume that presenting yourself as an intelligent individual or organisation with unique expertise involves using lots of complex words and concepts, which makes what you are saying difficult to follow. Surely this will serve to reinforce in the readers’ mind that they do not understand the issue and need your help? Wrong! The best thought leadership does the opposite, taking very complex issues and breaking them down into simple aspects. This is the essence of good communication and the smartest people do not need to use big words (or even make new ones up) to demonstrate their expertise.


“People are not interested in advertorials (ask yourself – are you?)…”


6. Do not try to sell

Finally, the biggest problem with producing good thought leadership is that part of our brain that keeps saying ‘you must sell our proposition….you must sell our proposition’, which results in an advertorial. If you start using phrases like ‘At our company…’, ‘Our competitors…’ or anything to do with your USPs you have fallen into this trap. I would also add that if you are paying to publish or present your thought leadership you are more likely to fall into this trap, so would recommend against it (there are plenty of channels that will not charge for allowing you to share original, good thought leadership). People are not interested in advertorials (ask yourself – are you?) and the best thought leaders do not need to specifically mention their products and services to effectively market themselves to potential clients.

I am sure that is not a comprehensive list and you may well think of other aspects of good thought leadership, or even disagree with some of these (which is great – let me know!), but I hope that has provided some subjective, original, challenging, solutions-focussed, simple and non-promotional ideas.

Until next month, stay well.



About the author:

Paul Tunnah is CEO &amp, Founder of pharmaphorum media, which provides digital content marketing and communications solutions for the pharma sector and also manages the industry leading channel www.pharmaphorum.com, a digital podium for communicating thought leadership and innovation within pharma. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

What does good thought leadership look like?