What Is Thought Leadership? And When You Should Use It?

Michael Brenner on May 23, 2019 in Content Marketing

Few terms raise the ire of the buzzword police more than thought leadership.

But what is thought leadership? When should you consider using it, and how do you balance the talent and experience of your team with the humility and authenticity today’s audiences demand?

Let’s start by getting on the same page.

What Is Thought Leadership?

I define thought leadership as a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience on a particular topic.

It’s not pedigree. It’s not where you went to school. Thought Leadership means you provide the best and deepest answers, to your customers’ biggest questions, in the formats your audience likes to consume.

(Need help in activating your thought leaders? Contact me today.)

The Unique Point of View Trap

Thought leadership is a key component of content marketing. But I would caution brands to avoid what I call the “unique point of view trap.”

I have heard more than a few executives delay going all in on thought leadership by focusing on “the unique point of view.” They say “there is so much noise in the marketplace. We can only compete if our content is differentiated and completely unique.”

I would argue that your audience isn’t looking for your content to be differentiated all of the time. They are just looking for the best answers to the questions. Or as Bryan Rhoads, formerly Head of Content at Intel likes to say, “you have to win the internet every day.”

My advice: differentiate with your point of view, when appropriate. Differentiate with your visual design. But mostly, differentiate with your consistency by becoming an authority and by helping your customers with different types of content, every single day.

We also have to be careful with thought leadership. Wikipedia actually calls it “business jargon.” And defines it as content that is recognized by others as innovative, covering trends and topics that influence an industry.

When Should You Consider a Thought Leadership Approach?

One of the best ways to establish authority on your topic is to produce deep research on the subject. You have to present a depth of knowledge that no one else has.

You also have to define all of your customers challenges and define the best ways to overcome them. Many brands think this is an opportunity to talk about their products and how they are better.

I would caution against that approach. As soon as you start promoting yourself, your audience will start to tune out and you will lose the trust you worked so hard to build.

Who Should Use Thought Leadership Content Marketing?

Thought leadership is important for both Consumer and B2B companies. But the complexity of the decision making process in B2B, the length of time it takes for decisions to be made, and the number of people involved, all point to thought leadership as an important component of B2B Content Marketing.

Thought leadership content can help anyone involved in the business decision to gain alignment among their peers, which is often no small task.

And for marketers, Thought Leadership allows us to define the category of our solution or our brand purpose in customer terms. So even consumer companies can use thought leadership effectively to support their overall mission and to define authority in their space. After all, branding is all about being associated with specific needs of your consumers.

Where Does Thought Leadership Come From?

Thought Leadership can come from any source – executives, customers, product managers, designers, customer service reps, sales people. We all have knowledge, experience and a point of view.

But ultimately, thought leaders need to inspire your consumers to act – to take the next step in their journey.

My advice: don’t try to force it. You can’t MAKE anyone want to share their expertise. But you can implement programs to highlight and support those who do. (Or call me. I can help!)

What are the Benefits of Thought Leadership?

The benefits of Thought leadership start with brand affinity. By communicating thought leadership you become part of the conversation, early in the consumer journey. You allow your audience to get to know you.

Ultimately, Thought Leadership is one of the outcomes of a solid Content Strategy. And content is bigger than marketing. Leaders are everywhere. Expose your thought leaders and you begin the process of becoming a social business – real people with real faces talking to real customers and buyers.

Getting Thought Leadership Content Out of Subject Matter Experts

Thought leadership can help you shorten your sales cycle and lend credibility to your brand. And research shows that B2B leaders are paying attention. Nearly half of the C-suite says they vet an organization by its thought leadership and 81% say their trust increases after engaging with thought leadership content.

Thought leadership increases trust in an organization.

Many companies have had similar results. By developing a steady stream of thought leadership content they’ve situated themselves as leaders in their industry. The content we’ve created with them helps individual leaders within the company build relationships, and it helps them show what they know in RFP responses and proposals.

But developing thought leadership takes some serious skills, we’ve learned how to work with leaders and subject matter experts (SMEs) at a number of companies, from fast-moving startups to global enterprises. Here’s how we get the most out of each interaction we have with an SME.

Know Your Audience

This is true of any marketing activity. You’ve got to know your audience before you begin strategizing, writing or designing. If it’s not written for the right people, they obviously won’t read it. When it comes to thought leadership, you should know a little bit about your audience before you talk to an SME. It’ll help you shape your questions and frame the content you ultimately create.

Get a Primer

Sometimes we generate ideas on our own and pitch them to our clients; other times, our clients toss an idea our way and suggest someone who could serve as an SME. The best way to have a productive conversation with someone who is likely very busy is to understand the specific angle of a topic. We typically ask our clients to send us a few bullet points or a sentence or two about the topic just to shape our research and the interview. No need for a formal document. This is just about getting an SME’s thoughts on a particular topic.

Do Your Research

It’s hugely important to conduct research before talking to an expert. While you may not be able to do a whole lot of research around the exact topic itself, it pays to have a general understanding of the main principles of your topic.

That means you should:

  • Research your topic online and find authoritative sources. Obviously, content from competitors can provide context, but try to find other useful resources to learn about your topic.
  • Identify industry publications. Find spots where other similar thought leaders sound off and where your audience hangs out. You’ll get an idea of where your audience stands on the topic, and any recent developments.
  • Scour social media. For a B2B audience, check out LinkedIn groups that might be applicable. You may also find a fair amount of chatter on Twitter and Facebook, depending on the topic.

Develop Lots of Questions

Have you ever tried to interview someone and it felt more like pulling teeth? That’s an awful position to be in if you don’t have enough background information and your goal is to get information out of your SME to write a thoughtful and intelligent piece of content.

Write out as many questions as you can, just in case you need them. You’ll probably find that you can get by with a few “starter” questions and the follow-ups naturally flow into the conversation. But don’t always rely on that. Be prepared.

Get into the habit of sending SMEs the questions before your interview. It’ll help them prepare (if they have time) and help you avoid procrastinating.

Be Specific

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be specific during the interview—and how difficult it is to be specific if you don’t understand a topic. Asking specific questions and follow-ups is the best way to figure out the nuance of a content piece and make it as interesting as possible for your audience.

However, this is often easier said than done. It may mean driving your SME to avoid industry jargon and generalities and provide specific examples about a topic. If I’m talking to an SME about insurance funding strategies, for example, I always ask for a real-life client example. This helps me confirm that I understand what the SME is saying, and it’s also often useful to include in a piece of content.

Think on Your Feet

Interviews are tough—you’ve got to phrase questions the right way, take notes and listen at the same time. You’ve also got to make sure you’re getting what you need out of your SME—which may require rephrasing a question or asking it in a different way to tease out the information. We call this “thinking on your feet”—it’s a matter of digging deeper into a topic or offering a creative suggestion quickly, and the best way to get better at is with lots of practice.

Ask

Even after spending time researching and planning for an SME interview, you might not uncover everything. Ask your SME if there’s anything else they’d like to add to the conversation. Often times it’s this question that helps to add context to the conversation or provides an opportunity to discuss other relevant information that can help shape the message. We’ve even found these open-ended questions lead to other topics that could be covered in the future.

The Problem with Thought Leadership Strategies

Thought leadership is a powerful tool. Some might argue that overuse of the term has relegated it to jargon status, but the value of thought leadership done right is anything but empty. In fact, authentic thought leadership remains a driving force in successful companies across almost every industry.

The future of thought leadership is bright, but it’s not without obstacles. For every leader who builds and executes a solid thought leadership strategy, quite a few attempt it and miss the mark. They think the definition of thought leadership is a certain size following on social; in reality, it’s an ongoing process of educating and building trust with your audience members through high-quality content that actually engages them.

Even the best content, however, needs a driver and directions. Brands often make the mistake of thinking that any content, if it’s good enough, will help them achieve their goals.

The problem is that too many strategies fail to bring all of a brand’s content assets together in a truly effective way. All your pieces of content — including guest posts, blog posts, press mentions, whitepapers, awards, speaking engagements, and more — should work together to bring you closer to your thought leadership goal.

Misaligned strategies that don’t ensure all assets work harmoniously leave would-be thought leaders with lots of content and little influence to show for it.

How to Harness the Power of Your Thought Leadership Strategy

Well-crafted content can help you reach and grow your specific audience, build relationships with that audience at scale, and enhance your credibility as a leader and influencer in your space. But you can only accomplish these objectives when you develop each piece of content in accordance with a strategy that’s aligned to your thought leadership goal.

The best thought leadership strategies help you build and maintain trust with the audiences that are most valuable to you and your company. They do so by using a variety of content assets that work together to reach new audiences, engage them with valuable resources, and keep your brand top of mind so you’re the first person they think of when a need or opportunity arises.

To create a thought leadership strategy that effectively accomplishes your goal and actually builds your influence, start with the following steps.

1. Understand how to build a foundation of trust.

Everyone has an agenda, and your audience members are well aware of that. Defy their expectations by giving them something for nothing. By sharing your insights and expertise with your audience without strings attached, you’re giving people a reason to trust you. When you let go of the need to promote yourself and your company and focus on providing actual, real-life value to the people who matter most to you, you’ll earn their trust.

So focus on educating your audience by giving them valuable information about topics they’re interested in. When that content helps them by teaching them something useful, solving a problem, or simply entertaining them, they’ll be motivated to keep an eye out for your future content. People are naturally skeptical, so don’t waste your time and theirs explaining why they should trust you. Just show them.

2. Create content for the journey.

Now that you understand content’s role in building trust, it’s time to start developing specific kinds of content for specific points throughout your audience relationship.

First things first: You need to reach new audiences. As amazing as your company’s blog might be, accomplishing this goal requires earned, off-site content. Writing and pitching guest posts or earning press mentions in reputable publications your audience members read is a great start.

Once you’ve gotten their attention, keep it through engaging, educational owned content. This could be high-quality blog posts, case studies, videos, downloadable resources, or even a book you’ve authored — all of which helps you reinforce your position as a trusted industry expert.

Finally, thought leadership is less about how much content you create than it is about how well you use it over time to keep your audiences engaged and your brand top of mind. Take advantage of your social media accounts and email newsletter campaigns to deliver the right content at the right time.

3. Consistently put content to work.

You’ve put in the effort to create the content, but your job isn’t done. Thought leadership content is a tool, and for it to work, you need to put it to good use. Think through your most valuable contacts and relationships, and share relevant pieces with those who can benefit from them the most.

Surround your brand with your high-quality content, and create an online presence that others in your industry can’t help but notice when they’re looking for more information. Utilize and recycle your content in other creative ways, whether you’re looking to book speaking engagements, land a spot as a guest on a podcast, or garner a nomination for an industry award.

Thought leadership requires content, but all the content in the world won’t guarantee you thought leadership. Instead, you need a strategy tailored to your specific goal. Start by crafting each piece of content with a clear and unwavering purpose in mind until you have the individual building blocks of your strategy. Then, assemble them in such a way that they work together harmoniously, yielding a total that is more than just the sum of its parts.

Are Business Leaders Actively Looking for Thought Leadership Content?

Properly executed, thought leadership is the ultimate expression of a B2B firm’s authority. It can cement your reputation as a trusted advisor, by underlining your expertise. It can generate sales leads, and help to close deals.

And the good news is, business leaders want it. Some 84% of FTSE 350 executives surveyed by Grist believe that strong thought leadership content adds value to their role.

Almost as many emphasise its importance in keeping them abreast of important business issues (79%); informing their decision-making (76%); and helping them to take a view on the future (76%).

Encouragingly, two in five leaders will contact the firm behind a piece of thought leadership if they feel it hits the mark.

Is Your Thought Leadership Content Really Thought Leading?

Despite their enthusiasm for thought leadership, these senior executives only read 31% of the material that comes across their desk, assuming it reaches there in the first place. And just 28% of that actually influences their decisions.

So why does the vast majority fall by the wayside?

Asked why it fails to grab their attention, the C-Suite’s top three complaints were:

  • it’s too generic (cited by 63%)
  • it lacks original insight or ideas (58%)
  • it promotes the firm that produced it, rather than addressing their needs (53%)

The Audience Test

Producing thought leadership is an opportunity to get under the skin of your target audience, and address the concerns that are high on their agenda. Getting this right involves a collaborative planning process, which includes your subject matter experts, client-facing teams, marketing departments and not forgetting your target audience.

Strong original ideas – leading ideas – resonate with clients, prospects, the business and the media. These audiences are a barometer of how incisive your thought leadership is. If it fails to gain traction with them, you’ll need to rethink how you go about generating your ideas.

Clients

Good thought leadership cuts to the heart of what keeps your clients awake at night. If your content provokes little interest from them, it may be focusing too much on your firm’s offering, and not enough on your clients’ problems.

And it’s not just about today’s problems. Your content also needs to help clients make sense of the future. Keeping on top of emerging trends is executives’ number one reason for reading thought leadership (identified by 66% of respondents in a Grist survey).

Prospects

B2B brands regularly find that their content isn’t generating conversations with their target clients.

Often, this is because it lacks originality: it’s the umpteenth report, article or blog they’ve read on the same topic. It’s not thought leadership, it’s thought followership.

You need to be first to find the ‘white space’: the emerging themes not being discussed elsewhere. Or you need a unique take on existing themes. What insights can you bring to the table that nobody else has?

This is a particular problem for B2B firms, which can be inherently risk-averse. The business often wants to push marketing content into the safe ground that everybody else is covering.

The business

Your content also needs to be subtly aligned with the expertise you offer. You must avoid an explicit sales pitch, but there’s little point producing and researching startlingly original ideas if they don’t actually align with your proposition.

If you are having to crowbar your expert commentary into your research findings, then you’ve got the wrong idea. It is not going to fulfil its purpose – no matter how great an idea it was.

Think about your firm’s capabilities when choosing your content themes. And get your client-facing teams involved early on in the development process: something a surprisingly low 42% of B2B firms currently do, according to research.

The media

Journalists are a real acid test of the strength of your output. If there’s no new angle or insight, and nothing that furthers the debate, they won’t write about it.

The key is to think big. Explore the major, macro-economic issues that affect markets and create headaches for your target audience. Work backwards from the headlines you want to create, and design research that will elicit them.

You might even try your ideas out with a friendly journalist or two while developing them. Will they generate the sort of stories the media want?

Why Does B2B Thought Leadership Fail?

If you want to know how to create content that works – compelling, helpful, brand enhancing – first you need to face up to failure. You need, in other words, to identify what doesn’t work and understand why the content produced to date leaves readers underwhelmed or, more likely, the content unread. Fortunately, Grist’s Value of B2B Thought Leadership Survey is definitive on the subject.

The Value of B2B Thought Leadership Survey from Grist

With expert help from independent research company Coleman Parkes, Grist surveyed over 200 senior executives from FTSE 350 companies, to understand when, how and why they reached for thought leadership material produced by their advisers. Asked what turns them off thought leadership, three reasons stood out. The majority of respondents said that they disliked content that was:

  • Too generic – not directly relevant to me (63%)
  • Lacked original insight or ideas (58%)
  • Promoted the adviser rather than addressing my problems (53%)

In other words, the best way to alienate a chosen audience is to produce generic, unoriginal content written from the supplier point of view rather than the client point of view. This should be the stuff of ‘content marketing 101’. Instinctively, every marketer should know this is the wrong way to do things yet those in receipt of thought leadership are obviously experiencing it every day.

To underscore these areas of the failure, the survey asked respondents what qualities they found most valuable in thought leadership. The top three responses?

  • Fresh thinking: exploring issues or challenges from new and different perspectives (46%)
  • Forward-thinking: analysing important or emerging trends (32%)
  • Evidence-led: containing robust data (29%)

Original and specific, in other words.

Finally, it’s worth considering the other reasons why senior executives are turned off by thought leadership. Namely, material that was:

  • Too conceptual – without recommendations (47%)
  • Featured unsubstantiated opinions (40%)
  • Difficult/boring to read (38%)

These responses were chosen in fewer numbers but they are pertinent nonetheless.

Treat all six responses – and the top three in particular – as a checklist. Test every piece of thought leadership commissioned and written against the list. If it fails the test by being on the list don’t press publish.

How to Create Thought Leadership That Drives Results

The first step is to identify the topic that is closely associated with your brand. Are you an authority on that topic? A simple Google search can help you answer that question.

Often we find that brands are not just competing with their direct competitors. You are competing with everyone. Anyone who publishes content in your space is competing for mind share and authority.

You also need to identify the questions your customers are asking. Identify them all, make a list and  prioritize them. Then find the experts inside your company who can answer them.

Answer those questions across multiple formats and multiple channels in a way that adds value to your audience. Start with the most important and work your way down the list.  Seek to be the best answer to those questions.

Finally, you need to create your thought leadership content in an engaging way. Viral cat videos and listicles are great but you shouldn’t dismiss any content types that your audience might be interested in.

You need to educate them but we are all human and none of us mind a little humor. Use lots of examples and facts and quotes. I love the idea of interviewing customers to create content or curating content from other sources while adding your own perspective.

Your audience is looking for help. Are you willing to give it to them? And tell me what do you think? What does Thought Leadership mean to you?

Are you interested in activating your own thought leaders inside your business today? Let’s talk about how I can help.

I use a combination of personal branding, consistent social audience building, and support in creating authentic and ongoing thought leadership content. I’ve done it for myself. I’ve done it for the companies I’ve worked for. I’ve helped activate hundreds, even thousands of thought leaders. I’ve done it for numerous clients. And I can do it for you. 

Contact me today!

Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author of The Content Formula and the CEO of Marketing Insider Group. He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael shares his passion on leadership and marketing strategies that deliver customer value and business impact. He is recognized by the Huffington Post as a Top Business Keynote Speaker and a top CMO influencer by Forbes. Please follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook and Subscribe here for regular updates.
Showing 8 comments
  • Pontus Staunstrup

    Great read, Michael, and very good arguments.

    Something seems to be missing at the end of this section: “We also have to be careful with thought leadership. Wikipedia actually calls it “business jargon.” And defines it as content that is recognized by others as innovative, covering trends and topics that influence an industry. Others have pointed”

    Thanks again

    • Michael Brenner

      Doh! Thanks Pontus. I was bleary-eyed by the time I finished this one and missed that. Thanks so much for letting me know.

  • Dave Brock

    Michael: Outstanding post. I think there is a broader context to the “use” of thought leadership in complex B2B markets. It’s the, “….and this is what it means to you….” piece that’s delivered by sales people as they engage prospects and customers.
    We don’t necessarily need to be so differentiated or distinct (but that helps), or even provocative. But if we can help the sales person translate content pieces that may capture interest, generating a conversation specifically about what it means to the customer now.(specific persona at a specific point in their buying journey)
    But this puts an additional burden on content developers to be able to provide the tools to help the sales person bridge that gap and maximize the impact/specificity of that thought leadership with the customer.
    Thanks for a great article.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Dave, I completely agree. One of the things we see with the most successful brands doing thought leadership is that they create content for each stage of the buyer journey. Answering all the questions as they progress down the funnel is the only way to increase speed of conversion.

  • Lorraine Shearing

    Great article – thanks! You mentioned Thought Leadership as a component of Content Marketing. I’d be curious to know how you see the two as differing?

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Lorraine,

      It’a a great question! And pretty tough to answer because I think most people see thought leadership as a type of content. It’s a piece of content like a research study white paper. And content marketing is most certainly not an asset or even a series of assets. I have to laugh when I hear people say, “we do content marketing. Here is a link to an ebook.” That is not content marketing. That is an asset. A piece of content.

      Content marketing is a customer-focused mindset where you consistently create content that helps your audience. And your brand gains authority in the process. So in many ways (and I think I said this in the post) thought leadership is something you achieve by successfully implementing content marketing.

      Now having said that, I do think thought leadership content should be a component of successful content marketing. Those ebooks and whitepapers and webinars and slideshare decks from the executives and “thought leaders” inside the business should all be part of the content marketing mix. But so should listicles and short explainer videos and maybe even silly gifs. But those probably wouldn’t count as “thought leadership.” 😉

  • Manmay Mehta

    Wow!! What a post.
    You really break all the misconceptions with sheer logic. Thought leadership is not putting your unique point of view. But convincing and resolving your customers’ doubts in the best way like No one else does.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks Manmay, this is one of my favorite posts and ideas. You don’t have to present something unique, but you can be uniquely helpful!