By Paige Rice

Thought leadership is a powerful tool for increasing the reach of an organization looking to create a meaningful and long-lasting impact on people and the planet. 

Establishing thought leadership in your field is not only good for building your brand, name recognition, and influence; it can also be a key component in raising awareness about issues that are most important to your organization, educating the public and others in your field, changing harmful narratives, and identifying solutions. 

From an organizational perspective, thought leadership can bring you the best employees and partners, spark more media attention, create networking opportunities, and build trust for your organization. 

From an impact perspective, thought leadership can help you change the way your field thinks about an issue. 

What Is Thought Leadership?

A good thought leader provides guidance, knowledge, and insights for others in their field. According to Business Daily News, thought leaders have two core attributes.

First, thought leaders share insightful ideas that help drive their industry forward, advance progress on their issues, or inspire new thinking in their field. They look at the past, present, and future to develop robust, innovative, and well-researched views of their defined and unique space within their field. They know where their field is now and where it’s going. This perspective allows them to offer new insights and informed opinions from their unique vantage point. 

Second, thought leaders are ahead of the pack, recognizing budding trends and sharing and applying those trends first. They are on the cutting edge of ideas, insights, and actions, and they inspire and influence others to take action.

What Role Does Research Play in Thought Leadership?

Building thought leadership doesn’t happen overnight—it takes a long-term, deliberate strategy to develop, execute, and maintain—but it’s all worth it in the long run. 

One of the best ways to establish thought leadership is to conduct original, novel, and thought-provoking research. Focus on an issue that is meaningful to your organization and where you can offer a unique perspective. This research should answer interesting, unique, and timely questions that others have not thought to ask. For example, Thinx is a company that sells period underwear. It wanted to contribute novel data to its field and demonstrate that it is a leader in period poverty mitigation, so it began conducting surveys for its State of the Period report. Thinx’ research offers insight into an important yet under-researched topic by surveying teen girls about their experiences with period products, social stigma, and the need for more open communication while also offering its products as affordable and sustainable solutions. 

Thinx leveraged that data on its website and in the media to drive attention to the issue of period poverty and its brand. It was also able to get into the media early, putting forth its narrative around period poverty as both a racial and economic issue and a public health issue and about how its products help alleviate period poverty. It used data to support the framing of its narrative, which lent credibility to its point of view and built trust among audiences. 

Similarly, Hattaway’s work with the Fetzer Institute’s report What Does Spirituality Mean to Us? A Study of Spirituality in the United States synthesized the findings of a two-year study to provide practical, in-depth, and data-driven insights into the changing landscape of spirituality and faith in America. It gave the institute a robust set of insights into how people think and talk about spirituality today. It also gave Fetzer Institute a practical tool to show researchers, academics, and reporters the importance of expanding the way they ask questions about religion and spirituality to show people in the media the kinds of stories that weren’t being told and to show spiritually curious people that they weren’t alone.

How can your organization use research to build thought leadership?

  • Provide original tools and resources that aren’t available anywhere else: You can provide useful, novel, and impactful tools that provide others with much-needed content while also driving attention to your website.

    For example, our work with Lumina Foundation—an organization working to increase higher education attainment among adults of color in the U.S.—led to the development of a new data-driven website that offers users access to research-backed approaches for talking about racial justice and equity. The website illustrates how data can lead to informed decisions about how to communicate with and tailor messages for a wide range of people with different awareness and attitudes about the concepts of racial equity and justice, particularly in the education system. Using data from a survey Hattaway conducted in partnership with Lumina, the website is a great example of how research can be applied in the real world, and shared widely to help educate others in the field. 
A Twitter post featuring a graph about the key barriers to education for  women versus men.
  • Share novel research through buzzy social media posts, research-based op-eds in prominent media outlets, and speaking engagements: Not all thought leadership needs to come in the form of a full report or website. You can also leverage research as part of your media strategy through short social media posts or news articles and interesting and engaging sound bites that both educate the public and drive attention to your brand. 

    Recently, Lumina Foundation conducted a poll with Gallup about the current State of Higher Education. It has used this poll to develop many Twitter posts with eye-catching statistics that keep its followers engaged and informed along with many blog posts aimed at educating the public.
  • Provide valuable content that answers tough questions: According to Marketing Insider Group, thought leadership should consistently provide valuable content and the best answers to important questions in your industry. Conducting and sharing original and new research demonstrates that you’ve done your homework and that you can and should be sought out and trusted to provide research-based information and guidance. One way to do this is to provide others with access to tough questions about which you have a unique, data-driven take. 

    Hattaway Communications does this through our Achieve Great Things podcast. We bring together some of the best minds in storytelling, social science, and policy to answer tough questions in strategic communications, from communicating about public health to civil rights to the economy. Our guests bring in their research-backed perspectives. For example, our episode with Bobby Clark on the Winning Jobs Narrative addresses such questions as: What do American voters think about the economy? Who do they trust to tackle economic issues? How can you talk about economic policy in terms that really speak to working people? We tackle these issues based on research among 100,000 Americans to produce a Winning Jobs Narrative you can use to promote all kinds of economic policies and programs.

Thought Leadership in Action: Research Led to Leadership and Change

Huggies’ Every Little Bottom research found that one in three families in the United States could not afford enough diapers to keep their babies clean, dry, and healthy. This finding from a survey commissioned by Huggies in 2010 led to Huggies branding the problem with the term Diaper Need. It then developed easy-to-follow steps Americans could take to help alleviate the problem. This included launching a loyalty program that could be used to donate diapers, creating Diaper Need Awareness Week, and encouraging mommy bloggers to raise awareness on their sites, as well as creating the National Diaper Bank Network. In just over nine months, over 26 million diapers were donated—providing thousands of families with the tools for keeping their infants healthy. 

Thirteen years later, the National Diaper Bank Network continues to be a leading voice in family health by funding eye-opening research about diaper needs and other basic necessities, raising awareness, and collecting and distributing much-needed diapers that protect infants’ health. 

Contact Hattaway Communications today at to learn how we can help your organization ramp up its thought leadership strategy through innovative and thought-provoking research.