Thought leadership is being reinvented in a virtual era.


One of the more intriguing aspects of Covid-19 has been its impact on the thought leadership business. This includes the estimated annual $1.9 billion of live keynote speeches as well as the $160B management consulting industry.  It has created new challenges for companies such as Salesforce whose business model depends on live, marketing-relevant events. And it has opened up previously unimaginable possibilities: for democratizing access, creating inclusion and harnessing the power of an emerging new medium.

This used to be a simple gig. The name brand thought leader showed up, delivered a speech, got a standing ovation. Everyone was happy. The name brand consultant showed up, asked trenchant questions, showed a lot of personal style, leveraged their distinguished pedigree and closed the sale. Creating confidence was key; a key predictor of success, as psychologists know, is a client’s belief that their therapist can help them. 

MARKET CONDITIONS – Now the game is about to change significantly. Buyers are focusing on what is important and shedding the non-essential. There is a new flavor of pragmatism as budgets tighten and uncertainty reigns. And the stress of our current crisis has given rise to a new conservatism, a desire to “fix” what’s wrong rather than to reinvent a current reality, to survive rather than to innovate.

Into this market comes an unprecedented amount of intellectual clutter – a profusion of offers – offers of help, perspective, answers, clarity about “where things are going.” One symptom is the profusion of meme-able headlines – the great reset, the post-pandemic era, the new abnormal, the new possible, the era of ‘grey swans.’ The hunt is on to brand the crisis in a way that provides hooks for reinvented service models. Such languaging is critical – Mike Hammer made a career out of re-baking intellectual capital into the concept of re-engineering the corporation. And Malcolm Gladwell made hay with the tipping point.

In an era in which social media has given everyone a bully pulpit and leveled the intellectual playing field, confusion reigns. In the immortal words of screenwriter William Goldman, “nobody knows anything.” 

A NEW MEDIUM – Those thought leaders intent on thriving in the new virtual domain are working to amp up the production value of their offerings with new tools. A veteran of the speaker bureau business told me recently that technology represented the dividing line between the dinosaurs and the newly relevant. So, no surprise that Wirecast, Shindig, Zoom (despite its privacy baggage), 4k cameras and video switchers have become new priorities.  

But cool effects alone cannot suffice; Zoom backgrounds are cake decorations, not an answer. It is essential to understand that this new world of virtual thought leadership is about nothing less than the birth of a new medium.  And progress with new media tends to proceed, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, by looking in the rearview mirror. For example, moviemaking initially borrowed from the language of theater – the proscenium stage, actors entering stage left, lighting conventions. It took a long while until the new language of film was born. So too it is with the new digital media of thought leadership. The term webinar says it all – a seminar on the web – old wine in new bottles. Hence the headlong rush for new terminology – webcast, virtual keynote and more as we figure out the properties of the new virtual medium, one in which everyone has a front row seat, as recently noted by speaker bureau veteran Tony D’Amelio.

BUT WHAT ABOUT CONTENT? – The confusion is compounded by an abundance of content; examples include Masterclass and TED talks.  Thought leaders have their own YouTube channels. They post idea snippets on Twitter Live, host podcasts, livestream interviews with interesting people. So where is the business model? Live experiences can justify 5 or in some cases 6 figure fees. The speaker gets a standing ovation, a rush of oxytocin creates optimism, and everyone gets something they want. But only for a limited time. The greatest keynote speech has a short half-life if there is no there “there” to proceed from. So, content matters, especially if it enables thought leaders to take their clients on a journey informed by the right kind of map. This is about finding a way to:

MOVE FROM EVENTS TO FLOWS – Digital guru Kevin Kelly in his book The Inevitable usefully contrasts events and flows. This is the distinction between an annual checkup with your primary physician vs. having 7X24 flows of information from “internet on the body” devices that monitor heart rate, blood chemistry and more. It’s the difference between one end-of-school-year final vs. many check-ins during the year. And in the thought leadership business, it’s the difference between showing up for an event (keynote, executive briefing) vs. being present over time. Flow models define new opportunities. It is likely that the keynote speech and advisory businesses are going to blur in new and interesting ways. The new virtual toolbox, with its ease of deployment to end-users, becomes a novel medium for distributing value over time. This suggests:

A NEW ECONOMICS OF VIRTUAL EXPERTISE – An organization might pay $100,000 or more for a famous politician to speak at its annual meeting (preferably at some tony resort), but what would it pay for that same person to do the same one hour keynote from their home office, no matter how good their zoom background? The transition from events to flows suggests different business models. A premium priced event delivered over an hour is maximum income velocity. Flattening this curve involves flows of revenue over of time. The power of virtual to create convenience will suggest the value of variety – follow-up meetings, master classes, brainstorming sessions, break-out events, 1:1 mentoring sessions, assessments and more in a carefully designed cadence. 

NAVIGATION – THE SPOTIFY EFFECT – In a world of clutter, curation will matter more than ever. Branded expertise is important, but caveat emptor. New personalized forms of technology-based curation are likely to make their appearance that tie things together, just for you. For example, Spotify makes it entertaining for you to dive into the ocean of music and find what you are looking for through social filtering, playlists from your friends or celebrities, or both. It provides ongoing curation of “your” daily playlist that puts your experience – what you are looking for – onto center stage. So, consider the possibilities of a Spotify for intellectual capital. Entrepreneurs take note!

TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION WILL MOVE THE GOALPOSTS – Our future state is rapidly becoming the current state. Technological innovation will increase the “real-ness” of virtual experience. Microsoft’s Holoportation technology has given us a glimpse of how a thought leader might appear in your office, deliver their presentation, take questions and then pixelate into nothingness à la Star Trek. In addition, the next generation of virtual thought leadership services will embed new kinds of facilitation tools and knowledge assets into the scaffolding provided by services such as Ecamm LIve, OBS and Wirecast that will enable new and valuable forms of creative collaboration and knowledge.   

It seems inevitable that high tech will become high touch in the thought leadership game, with profound consequences for uptake and engagement. And the potential of a new medium to create inclusion by blurring the distinction between mass and class will only amplify the ability of thought leaders to influence civil society for good.