The difference between influencers and thought leaders


When it comes to professional growth, the avalanche of buzzwords regularly unleashed can leave us flummoxed. From change-makers to social innovators, sometimes it seems like the barometer of industry success and credibility is constantly shifting. But when broken down, two terms in particular provide useful insights into the way our social and tech communities work today—‘thought leader’ and ‘influencer’ may sound similar, but appreciating their differences can help you achieve greater professional success.

Our recent articles on becoming a thought leader and the power of influence sparked a debate on what the difference between the two is – so we decided to find out.

Modern audiences no longer tolerate being told what to think by brands, and that’s where thought leaders and influencers comes in. These are figures who—in very different ways—are valued by their peers for original thoughts, opinions, articles and social commentary. These positions were traditionally reserved in for those with high-profile public platforms from which to communicate—politicians from their podiums, newspaper editors through their editorials and social commentators from within the pages of books or over the radio waves. But thanks to platforms that showcase self-generated content like LinkedIn, Medium and even Twitter, it’s now easier than ever to reach wide or niche audiences, hungry for original insights that will resonate with their needs.

But it’s not that simple. A thought leader operates in a different way to a social influencer, and if you’re aiming to become one, or both, it’s crucial that you understand the distinction. There’s a lot of debate surrounding the definition of both statuses, so here’s some guidance.

Definition of a thought leader

Thought leaders tend to be the most successful individuals or firms in their respective fields. According to Forbes' Chief Insights Officer Bruce Rogers and financial consultant and Forbes contributor Russ Alan Prince, “brilliance” is a key component of the mindset of a thought leader. The first part of their definition is as follows:

“A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognise as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialisation, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organisation for said expertise.”

The word “authority” is important—a thought leader’s credentials are based on unmistakable experience, experience that has earned them the respect of peers and rivals alike. Specialisation too is key; a thought leader doesn’t achieve their status by being a jack of all trades. In a Huffington Post piece internet entrepreneur Evan Bailyn points to his own experience as a former college essay coach when defining the key characteristics of a thought leader:

“I used to tell my students that it is better to be pointy than well-rounded; in other words, show a rare aptitude in one subject rather than an above-average aptitude in everything, and colleges will be more interested in you. If Lebron James could take 20 percent of his basketball skill and distribute it among his baseball, football and soccer abilities, do you think he would do it? Hell no! He’d rather be the best at one thing than great at many things.”

Each sector—from science to politics, tech to marketing—has its own coterie of revered thought leaders. Some personalities are known across almost all industries as global thought leaders, respected for their contributions to various fields: notable examples include environmental activist Al Gore, theologian the Dalai Lama, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein and renowned linguist Noam Chomksy. Home-grown thought leaders could include Paddy Cosgrave, founder of Web Summit, Mary Fitzgerald, journalist and foreign correspondent and John Evoy, founder and CEO of The Irish Men’s Sheds Association. Browse more examples of international thought leaders on the ThoughtLeaders.World website.

Definition of an influencer

Everyone knows the power of an influencer—they’re the kind of person who can simply ‘like’ or retweet a brand online, only for that brand see their fortunes change overnight. An endorsement by this kind of person is worth a hundred bill boards, because they are considered to be the foremost authority on what’s trending.

In marketing terms, influencers have a significant impact on what people purchase. The definition used by Social@Ogilvy is a combination of Brown & Hayes (2008) and from The Word of Mouth Marketing Association Handbook: “A third party who significantly shapes the customer’s purchasing decision” (Brown & Hayes, 2008) and “has a greater than average reach or impact in a relevant marketplace” (Word of Mouth Marketing Association Handbook).”

But it’s not all about the marketplace. According to social media and marketing consultant Olivia Salanitro, an influencer is a ‘do-er’ and encourages social engagement. “They are strategic, ignite discussion and more importantly inspire action and participation. It is through action that influencers assist in making innovation and concepts (provoked by thought leaders) mainstream.”

U.S social analytics consultancy Simply Measured define the three key aspects they believe give an individual the power to influence others. These are:

  • Relevance: The creation of content that is relevant to your brand, or relevant to a topic that’s important to your brand
  • Reach: The ability to reach an audience that is valuable to your brand
  • Resonance: The proliferation or engagement with relevant content by an audience that is valuable to your brand

Well-known influencers include Pinterest phenomenon and lifestyle blogger Joy Cho, Scottish author J.K Rowling and Amy Huberman, Irish actress and author.

Which one could you become?

Broadly speaking, it seems a thought leader is someone who generates original, brilliant ideas, whereas an influencer uses their influence to ignites discussion and promotes engagement. It goes without saying that both must be master networkers: it’s only by connecting with a broad circle of well-placed people that the ideas of a thought leader see the light, and the power of the social influencer is unleashed.

Now that you know what the distinctions between thought leaders and influencers are, it’s time to establish the qualities and characteristics, both innate and learned, you need to become one yourself. Over the coming months, we’ll be writing a series of articles on the influencer/ thought leader phenomena and their essential attributes, advice that could set you on your way to becoming a respected figure of authority in your industry. Subscribe to the ALHAUS eZine or check our website and social media platforms for new articles in this series.