What Is Thought Leadership? And When You Should Use It?
How much do your customers, colleagues and peers trust you and your brand? If you haven’t thought about this question, then you should because it matters and impacts if they buy from you.
One of the best ways to gain trust and credibility is through thought leadership. By executing a thought leadership strategy, you can gain credibility and showcase your expertise.
That said, few terms raise the ire of the buzzword police more than thought leadership.
Let’s start by getting on the same page on what it is, when should you consider using it, and how it helps balance the talent and experience of your team with the authenticity today’s audiences demand.
- Thought leadership is a content marketing approach that spotlights expertise to build credibility.
- Thought leadership content includes three vital attributes: expert insights, influence, and a point of view.
- Your organization can benefit from using thought leadership, including boosting traffic and lead generation efforts.
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What Is Thought Leadership?
Thought leadership is 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 in the minds of your target audience.
And you do this in the formats your audience likes to consume, consistently.
It’s not dependent on having a certain pedigree. You cannot call yourself a “thought leader” (or an “influencer,” for that matter). That’s a term you have to earn from others. And that comes from developing content that answers the questions your audience is asking.
So a viral video is not thought leadership. Your byline in Forbes is not thought leadership. An annual research report (by itself) is not thought leadership. One way to measure this: do you rank for the top keywords in your industry? Does your website attract a growing number of new traffic, leads, and sales.
Here’s a quick explainer of what thought leadership content marketing includes.
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, former Head of Content at Intel once said, “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.
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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.
Is Thought Leadership Right for Your Brand?
Thought leadership can span across almost any industry, and companies big and small. In considering executing on thought leadership best practices, you should make the decision based on your ability to provide in-depth knowledge to your audience.
You should also consider your audiences’ key challenges and pain points.
Thought leadership content is based on answering questions and providing solutions, it’s not a place to hype your products or services. And it’s certainly not about talking about how great you are.
Thought leadership makes a lot of sense in most B2B content marketing scenarios, typically because the buying cycle is longer and may require multiple approvals. Building the relationship involves trust and respect. With the right thought leadership content, you can inspire these things.
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.
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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!)
The Benefits of Thought Leadership
So, why put all this time into building thought leadership content? Will it really provide gains and advantages?
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.
In a survey conducted by Audience, marketers said thought leadership improved website traffic, lead generation, media mentions, email subscribers, customer relationships, and backlinks.
Why does it help you perform so well in these categories? It all comes back to credibility. If your thought leadership content has the above attributes, people will consume it.
Some additional thought leadership research:
According to a thought leadership study by LinkedIn, 58%of buyers read one or more hours of thought leadership each week. And 53% use it to vet a potential provider of solutions.
Additional research supports the theory that thought leadership is responsible for revenue generation. The Thought Leadership Impact Study found that 55% of buyers bought more than one product due to thought leadership.
Additionally, 60% of executives said they purchased a new product or solution they had never considered after interacting with thought leadership content.
How to Become a Thought Leader Brand
Now we come to the most important part of this article. There are a specific set of thought leadership best practices that work both at the individual and at the organizational level.
Know Your Audience Now and Stay Updated
To deliver the content that answers the big questions, you need to understand your audience deeply. You need to know what their challenges are, as well as what motivates them. You should have well-developed buyer personas that include demographics, their preferences, and what matters to them.
Keep in mind that buyers will change as internal or external circumstances arise. When anything disrupts their industry or the world at large, it will cause them to shift priorities. When things occur, you need to revisit your buyer personas.
Looking to understand what are the biggest questions your audience is asking? Here are my favorite thought leadership research tools and tips.
Be Consistent on Social Media
This thought leadership best practice is applicable to your corporate blog as well as to individual posts from your aspiring thought leaders.
On social media sites, you have the opportunity to build a community by sharing more than just your own content.
Brands can also use their official social media platforms to showcase their internal teams’ expertise, including when they present at events, get mentioned in the press, or are part of an industry group.
For the individual thought leader, the profile should not only post content that lives on your website that they were involved in but also use LinkedIn publishing to post their own versions of content. This is important for two reasons:
- It creates a backlink to your site from a high-authority website.
- It expands the reach of your content because a thought leader may have different connections and followers than your brand pages.
Individual SMEs should also use their social media profiles to comment on other stories relaying some examples or past experiences for context.
One good way to engage on social media is to pose questions about topics that are buzzing in the industry. These approaches turn social media into a two-way conversation.
Another format that brands and individuals can use is video. Video is, of course, one of the most popular types of content. It doesn’t have to look like it came from a movie studio.
Instead, with the right lighting and a simple smartphone camera, you can create short videos that star your SMEs. They can talk about specific events that are impacting the industry or simply share some perspective on a situation.
Videos can be very powerful in thought leadership, driving deeper connections. (Between us, I struggle with this one.) Someone who us doing a great job with this is my friend Marcus Sheridan on Linkedin.
Share Your Expert Insights
What sets thought leadership content apart from other content marketing is that it includes expert insights, research, and data.
Or it involves the unique experience of the thought leadership content creator.
For your thought leadership content to have this quality, you’ll depend on:
- Original research (i.e., surveys, polls, and other data gathering that you do)
- Innovative ideas (i.e., new concepts for an old problem, patents, novel ideas)
- Subject matter experts (SMEs): compiling the thoughts and ideas of others can be an effective form of thought leadership
Do Your Research
It’s hugely important to conduct research of your own. 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 and begin to start to own your industry. 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.
Check out some of the best examples of thought leadership and ask what you can do to emulate them.
Talk to Other Experts
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.
Develop Lots of Questions
Have you ever tried to interview someone or pick someone’s brains 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.
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Have a Strong Point of View
Voicing opinions and sticking to it is what keeps organizations from being all-in on thought leadership. Believing you must have a unique point of view in every piece of content will just cause delays. You don’t need to search for something that is completely original or never been said before.
It is great to have an angle, but my advice is don’t get too caught up in it. Instead, be consistent in your output of authoritative content. Your audience is more interested in your motives and purpose than in how “different” your perspective is. And they need to know that the motivation is aligned with their needs.
Work Towards Becoming Influential
Another unique aspect of thought leadership content marketing is that it can be two-fold. Your personal brand can considered a thought leader, and other subject matter experts in your organization can be as well.
I recommend building both because each is a reflection on one another. The true leader relies on the insights and experience of others. Thought leadership is not the outward content created by an ego maniac!
And titles aren’t as important as we might think. In the 2020 Thought Leadership Research Report, 68% of respondents said they consider thought leaders to be experts in the field.
The report also reveals that thought leaders don’t have to be high-profile. For audiences to be persuaded by their content, they think it should be educational, drive action, use data, say something new, and cause discussion.
To become influential, you and others in your organization should create a presence online through social media and other channels, such as being quoted in industry articles or presenting at conferences. Here are a few specific ways:
- Get active in associations: Most thought leaders have membership in industry associations, so they should make use of it. This includes being active in local chapters or serving on committees. You will begin to grow new relationships and be further revered.
- Submit proposals for speaking: If you want to get the attention of your audience at a trade show, you’ll have more luck hosting a presentation than standing in a booth. The key is what you submit to present. It should be a topic that you have extensive experience and, if possible, one that you have internal research to support. Surveying your field on a topic and developing a report based on this will be well received.
- Guest star on webinars and podcasts: You’ll make perfect guests for your webinar or a partner’s. This is where you control and guide the conversation. Podcasts are another vehicle for getting heard. Check into the podcasts that are relevant to your audience and connect with those hosts.
- Make connections in the media: No matter what field you are in, there are likely many niche publications that cover it. Find ways to network with journalists in these niches, so when they need a quote from an expert, they’ll reach out to you. You can also proactively pitch stories to journalists on platforms like Haro and JournoRequests.
- Be a guest blogger: Look for opportunities to submit original content that names you as the author in guest blogging. Possible outlets are industry publications, partners, and even customers. Here’s an example of my attempt at finding time to guest blog at G2 and CMI.
Make Sure Your Team Is on the Same Page
In the B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study noted earlier, there were also some surprising results about alignment. Only 39% of sales professionals believed that thought leadership attracts new leads.
That’s despite the number of buyers and executives who cited it as important. It’s evident that thought leadership affects buying decisions, so it’s imperative to get content marketing buy-in from your team.
Everyone that is involved in your thought leadership strategy – leadership, SMEs, content marketers, and sales – should all be apprised of the impact of thought leadership on positive returns. Having a solid strategy in place that outlines how you’ll execute on the best practices keeps everyone in the loop.
As you continue to produce thought leadership content, you’ll also generate more data on its returns. Sharing this with stakeholders will let them know how effective the strategy is and what formats resonate the most with your audience. For example, if your short video pieces are seeing high engagement, then work on a new series of those.
Make Thought Leadership a Spoke of Marketing Transformation
Thought leadership has a role in marketing transformation. Content is the fuel for your marketing transformation, and thought leadership is a critical aspect of it. As your business evolves and begins to transform, thought leadership will be crucial here as it’s a building block of your brand’s voice. As it has nothing to do with self-promotion, it’s facilitating that transformation from being feature-specific to being benefit-specific.
To ensure there is a connection to thought leadership and marketing transformation, establish it as a goal for your strategy to evolve. This guarantees it will also be a guiding principle for how you’ll bolster your relationships with customers.
How to Create and Execute a 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.
Why Some Thought Leadership Strategies Fail
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.
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.
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: analyzing 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.
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 emphasize 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 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 only way around this is to put your content through 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.
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).
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.
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 fulfill 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.
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?
Get Started with High-Quality Content
It takes considerable time and effort to put out thought leadership content consistently. You may not have the resources to meet your content objectives. You don’t have to go it alone. Tap our team of expert content marketers to build a program for you.