Follow the Leader: How to Build Followership

Published: October 13, 2016

“We lean towards the new and information has to be easy for us to find and share if we are going to take an interest in it. ”

Sir Richard Branson, Jeremy Corbyn and Larry Ellison are unlikely bedfellows. Save for their partiality for wispy facial hair, the consumer champion, left-wing firebrand and tech billionaire seem to have very little in common.

One important feature they do share, however, is widespread recognition that they have distinctive leadership styles. A Google search for ‘Richard Branson Leadership’, for example, returns 3 million results.

Interestingly, there is much less said about the three leaders’ supporters and advocates. In our attempt to better understand leadership skills and traits, we often fail to consider the flipside of the same coin: followership.

Yet every consumer champion, campaigning politician and business guru relies on engaging a body of vocal and loyal followers. The silver haired knight understands this all too well – witness Branson’s drive to become the first LinkedIn influencer with more than a million followers.

This imbalance is matched when you compare relative interest in and importance ascribed to thought leadership and thought followership. Just as leaders need followers, organisations aspiring to be thought leaders need to attract and retain a body of admirers to be worthy of that title.

The latest research casts new light on the attitudes and motivations of supporters – insight that can help organisations build a strong and effective following.

Management research suggests that to drive audience engagement, organisations must work harder to appeal to potential followers’ values and principles. The lesson is that motive matters. People want to know ‘why are you doing this and who stands to be benefit from your leadership?’ and ‘how is the business generating value for me and society as a whole?’

Organisations also need to apply the latest thinking from behavioural science to build a more active, thoughtful following. This research tells us that we need to test the effectiveness of different initiatives and ensure that they are attuned to people’s natural biases. We lean towards the new and information has to be easy for us to find and share if we are going to take an interest in it.

Businesses that want to nurture ‘star followers’ need to be willing to collaborate on content development. Business to Consumer (B2C) organisations make extensive use of brand ambassadors to drive awareness and engagement – the B2B sector can learn from this approach. However, it’s important to recognise that B2B organisations often only need to appeal to a select group of followers to make a success of thought leadership programmes.

Armed with a better understanding of follower behaviour, we can refine communications programmes to ensure organisations foster and engage the right kinds of advocates.

Download our new report to read the eight key questions you need to answer to build an effective followership Follow the Leader: How to build thought followership.

Without an engaged and vocal body of supporters and advocates, aspiring thought leaders are in danger of wasting time and resources on vanity publishing.

Simon Maule

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