20 Powerful Thought Leadership Event Ideas
Build your brand, showcase potential, and engage your community with these thought leadership event ideas. Featuring examples from industry leaders like Wibbitz, HubSpot and many more.
The goal of a thought leadership or networking event is to present a brand’s authority in a particular domain and provide opportunities for people with related business interests to meet and interact with one another. This event type can include VIPs or focus more on general admission.
Thought leadership events may intersect with other b2b event marketing initiatives like sales acceleration events, networking events, customer appreciation events or even user conferences in form. However, the main focus of these events is to establish a brand as a go-to resource for industry knowledge and expertise.
Panel-style thought leadership events are especially helpful for this event type. Aligning your brand with reputable and established experts helps your audience associate you with one another. Pretty soon, your name will be synonymous with this topic as well.
What is a thought leadership event?
A thought leader is a person or brand who is an expert in a field. Thought leadership events are any organized live event that involves a host organization, a topic of discussion, and an audience. More often than not, a panel of experts will participate and share their opinions or research. The topic can be almost anything as long as it relates to your business goals. Thought leadership events are also often a component of a larger multi-touch event marketing plan.
Why are thought leadership events valuable?
In-person networking is important for most marketing campaigns. Bringing people together to discuss a topic near and dear to their hearts allows attendees to become more emotionally invested in your business. You also have the opportunity to assert your position as an expert in your given field by offering thoughtful discourse, actionable takeaways, and a one-of-a-kind experience.
1. Build a community.
At the end of the day, all good business events should bring people together. Thought leadership events, in particular, are a great opportunity to get a group of like-minded individuals in the same room. Since this event type is focused on starting dialogues, your guests will be sure to meet new people and form bonds.
Wibbitz hosts one of the top leadership events out there, called Storyteller Circle. They bring together diverse groups of people from all over the world. Their experts are professionals in video, photography, music, and design. Their attendees get to share the unique experience of learning new skills together.
2. Host regular meetups.
Consistency is one of the best aspects of any fun thought leadership event. If you can plan one, why not plan a few more while you’re at it? Giving your audience something to look forward to helps solidify their trust in your brand.
HubSpot Academy offers free quarterly meetup groups for users. Participants learn about a variety of subjects, all of which are taught by HubSpot specialists and industry experts. By hosting regular meetups all over the world, attendees get to bond with other local HubSpot enthusiasts while developing action plans for their businesses.
Source: HubSpot Academy
3. Choose hot topics.
Take advantage of subjects that are getting a lot of buzz right now. These topics will appeal to your usual audience, but they’ll also attract a fresh group of people who may not have heard of your company before. If reach is an important goal in your event strategy, choosing a hot topic might be the exact method you’re looking for and improve your event branding.
Mission 2 Mars Academy knows that their customer base loves all things tech so when it came time to choose a thought leadership event topic, the decision was obvious. They hosted their blockchain for enterprise panel with experts who work in 10 different Silicon Valley startups. Mission 2 Mars Academy’s mission statement includes the desire to be on the next frontier of innovation and their thought leadership event did just that.
4. Answer customer questions.
Sometimes the best way to choose a theme for your thought leadership event is to simply ask your customers what they want to learn about. Whether you send out a poll or consult your event software for clues into what your audience would like to learn about, taking inspiration from your target demo is a smart method for planning an event like this.
JOYN Advisors, a wealth management group, researched their customers and found out that the majority of them were concerned about aging family members and how to care for them. Although their expertise is in finance, they hosted a panel of elder law, geriatric care, and real estate professionals who could advise their audience on all aspects of the issue.
5. Invite role models.
Sometimes all we need is a good example of what we can do or who we can be. That’s why inviting panelists who can serve as role models to audience members is such a good idea. Hearing real-world anecdotes from those who have been there and done that is really valuable for the right audience.
The SAE Institute knows their music and animation students have a strong interest in tv & film, but they might not necessarily understand what they can do about it. For this leadership event, the school invited experts who have made names for themselves in the three main branches of entertainment music monetization. The students got to learn about the process and they all walked away with a better idea of what their careers could look like in the future.
Source: SAE Institute
6. Feature current trends.
Customers have a lot to keep up with, which is why hosting an event that teaches them about a noteworthy current trend is so valuable. You can use your thought leadership event to explain why this trend is important for their businesses, what they should do about it now, and what they might expect in the future.
The FABTECH 2018 Expo added a group of panelists to their lineup to discuss the latest and best practices in their industry. From engineering to technology to workforce development, these experts pointed attendees towards the trends that would be the most profitable and productive for them in the long run.
Source: FABTECH 2018
7. Livestream it.
Sometimes your potential audience members are scattered all over the world. Or maybe they don’t have the means to travel. Either way, hosting your thought leadership events both in-person and through digital streaming is a great way to reach more eyeballs.
New York City’s Rescue Spa relies on social media for much of their event marketing, which is why they used Facebook Live to share their expert Fall and Winter Skincare panel. Those who attended in-person got extra incentives (champagne, goody bags, and complimentary skin consultations) for making the trek. Still, everyone who wanted to join in the fun got to experience the informational demos and discussion through the magic of livestreaming.
8. Offer a range of opinions.
Diversity is key for any panel and your thought leadership event should not be the exception. Make sure to get as many different perspectives on the issue as you possibly can. It will make for a more thoughtful and well-rounded experience.
The Product Realization Group hosted a thought leadership event centered around medical device development for beginners. They stocked the panel with experts in hardware creation, technology regulations, tech developers, and small business owners. The audience benefitted from listening to these diverse points of view.
9. Tackle challenging subjects.
Sometimes it’s hard to talk about a sensitive issue or topic that is relevant to your industry. Instead of shying away from it, embrace the challenge and present yourself as a true leader with an opinion (or, at the very least, an earnest desire to learn) about the subject.
That’s exactly what the NOLA Pipeline organization did when they hosted their thought leadership event on understanding oil and gas lawsuits. The complex and controversial issue was discussed by city officials, relief organizers, non-profits, and sustainability experts. Hosting an event like this helped NOLA Pipeline communicate their intent to remain transparent with their community in regards to their business practices.
10. Think local.
If your brand deals with the public on a local scale, consider hosting a thought leadership event that prioritizes community issues and hometown flavor. This tactic is especially useful for account-based event marketing.
The Youngstown Playhouse, a historic center for arts, culture, and theater in Northeast Ohio, recently hosted an expert panel to discuss an important issue affecting their community: power, race, and the revitalization of the city. Their invited panelists included relevant authors, activist groups, and city officials who either grew up in the area or currently live there. Working towards a common goal (reinvesting in local neighborhoods) helped create a memorable and powerful experience for all involved.
Source: Defend Youngstown
11. Provide instructions.
Sometimes your audience needs help learning the step-by-step process of completing a task. In-person demonstrations make it easy for them to follow along and ask questions as they come up.
Single Touch Payroll held an expert panel event for members and non-members interested in learning more about how to comply with new tax laws with the help of their products. Members were invited to submit their individual questions to panelists ahead of time. They also made sure to inform attendees about other ways their organizations could prepare for the upcoming legislation.
12. Combine events.
What’s better than one event? Two of them! The great thing about thought leadership events is that they can be incorporated into any existing shindig you’ve got planned. Even the best business conferences can be further enhanced with a great thought leadership element. And, as long as you confirm your panelists and invest in basic corporate event management, they’re pretty easy to set up.
John Holl, esteemed beer critic and author, invited a panel of guest experts to supplement his most recent book signing. They discussed Philadelphia’s beer history and got attendees excited about the newly released publication. This example can easily be applied to product launches of any kind. You could also invite key stakeholders so they can see your customers directly interacting with the product.
13. Host a luncheon.
Everybody loves lunch. If you or your audience is best served by hosting a thought leadership event in the day time, sharing a meal is a good way to do it. It doesn’t even have to be fancy. Just show your attendees that there IS such a thing as a free lunch (unless you charge for tickets, which is also totally fine).
The American Marketing Association loves lunch events so much they make it a regular thing. Their series of thought leadership events, aptly named “Speaker Lunches”, regularly feature media experts sharing advice on things their audience really cares about.
Source: AMA Madison
14. Raise awareness.
If you’ve covered all the hot button issues in your field already, try discussing something that isn’t (but should be) on everyone’s radar yet. Whether it’s a social cause or a silent epidemic, being one of the first to address these concerns will solidify your expert status in this arena.
The University of Michigan’s School of Public Health hosted an expert panel discussion on chronic fatigue. The university chose to include this topic as part of their annual series on issues that affect their campus and community. By keeping their events free and open to the public, they continue to showcase their dedication to providing value to everyone who wants it.
15. Be cutting edge.
Whether you incorporate advanced technology into your thought leadership event or you choose to address forward-thinking topics your audience isn’t privy to, being on the cutting edge give you major thought leader points. If it’s considered innovative or disruptive, it’s fair game for your event.
The Degroote School of Business is built around being both best and first, which is why hosting an expert panel dedicated to digital marketing innovation was a good choice for their brand. Their sold-out event gave attendees information on practical tips for strategic marketing, staying competitive in today’s content landscape, and what challenges they currently face when building an online presence.
16. Have a debate.
Who said everyone has to agree on everything at a thought leadership event? Sometimes the best, most thought-provoking experiences come from panelists who have different opinions on the same issue. Your audience gets to decide what they think after it’s all said and done at these event types.
The Manchester Evening News team recently hosted an event where they debated the future of workspaces and office environments as we know them. They invited architects, designers, and developers for this free panel. The hour-long debate covered how new building codes and requirements may or may not be used to improve brands and foster community.
Source: Manchester Evenings
17. Dissect recent events.
It’s cathartic to talk about important news with people who understand where you’re coming from. Not only that, if the news affects your business, you might want to see how everyone else plans to deal with it.
That’s exactly why MetricTheory held an open forum and education panel on Data Privacy in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. They chatted about the ways in which this recent event would shift their business practices. They also analyzed whether these changes would have any real impact on their profession as a whole.
Source: Metric Theory
18. Repurpose content.
When you organize an amazing event, it’d be nice to have something to show for it afterward. Thanks to the power of video marketing, you can! Brands are now filming thought leadership events and sharing (or selling) them online afterward. You can create a lot of social media, blog articles, and even ebooks this way.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock used the resources they already had on campus to film their expert panel discussion. The video is available for free on their website. Students, professors, or anyone else interested in the subject can experience the event for themselves for as long as the video remains online.
19. Be future-focused.
Most thought leadership events talk about the past or what we should be doing in the present. But true visionaries take any opportunity they can to take that information and go one step further. You may even be the first in your field to look at an issue and push it to the next level with future-focused discussions.
The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture is concerned about the ways in which this field can move forward with technology. Their international conference and panel series gave experts and guests a chance to dissect the future of farming with these new, cutting-edge technologies.
20. Screen a documentary.
Documentaries are enjoyable on their own, but sometimes the best part is getting to talk about them with other people they've been seen. An exclusive screening with one or more subject experts is a great way to facilitate community discussion.
The OC Anxiety Center set out to bring awareness to the ways in which teens are affected by anxiety. To do this they screened an award-winning documentary on the subject. Afterward, guests were invited to join the discussion with a panel of experts who discussed what they saw in the film and what they’ve observed in their own work as well.
Source: Angst Movie
Key Takeaways: Your Thought Leadership Event
Along with these experiential marketing examples, consider using one or more of these methods for planning an impactful thought leadership event:
- Decide whether you plan to discuss a current trend, analyze relevant industry news, or give advice about the future.
- Provide networking opportunities through an event series or a focus on local affairs.
- Give attendees valuable extras like live stream access, catered lunches or screenings.
As long as you remember to provide value to your audience, your thought leadership event is sure to be a success!