Your company has a ton of expertise up and down the ranks—it's time to start packaging this expertise into thought leadership. High-quality thought leadership content is a potent and adaptable content marketing strategy: you can use it to expand brand awareness, attract higher quality leads, and tighten existing customer relationships.
What is thought leadership anyway?
I hate buzzwords—one of my goals as a content writer is to shun them. Unfortunately, the phrase "thought leadership" has hit buzzword status, mostly because there's a lot of bad thought leadership content out there. Often, it's content that not-so-subtly promotes a company or its offerings. Basically an ad.
Let's push this unfortunate version of thought leadership aside. Thought leadership, like other forms of content marketing, should focus on the reader, not the author. Yes, it's sharing the author's expertise, but meeting the reader's curiosity is key to a successful thought leadership campaign. The questions thought leadership can address are broader than the content marketing focus on "what questions is my market asking about solving problem X?"
So here's a more useful version: thought leadership is about sharing the author's experience and expertise to educate, influence, and motivate the audience, whether to take action or to think about something in a new way.
For example, lots of people would argue that there isn't enough parking in their city. But city planner and urbanist Brent Toderian and Chief Planner for the Canadian city of Kingston, Paige Agnew, co-wrote a preamble to a report, arguing that most cities have too much parking. They're trying to get their audience to think about something differently—that's thought leadership.
A few more things to keep in mind about thought leadership:
The author can be any individual at the company. While most thought leadership is published under the name of someone in the C-suite, that's not strictly necessary.
The content itself can range from anecdotal musings to an authoritative analysis of research data. The anecdote or research doesn't have to come from the author or your company. If the takeaways and analysis are original and authentic to the author, then it's their expertise, opinions, and insights they're sharing.
The author's voice matters. Thought leadership content is born of the author's own experience or perspective. They bring their voice to an issue in a way that inspires confidence in their authority on the topic and, ultimately, in your brand.
How to pick thought leadership topics
Content creation always comes down to this question: what should you write about?
Start by clarifying what portion of your potential audience you want to target with the thought leadership campaign. Prospects? Specific roles among your prospects? Do you want to bolster authority within the company's industry or author's peer group? Maybe you want to convert existing customers to unofficial brand ambassadors.
Once you've clarified the target market, listen with intention. What are their big issues, what confounds them, what sparks their curiosity? Run a research campaign using a listening tool. I'm a big fan of BuzzSumo, and Rand Fishkin's new tool, SparkToro, looks interesting. Your social media management app will also have listening tools you can use. Start clipping articles and discussion threads that can be sources of inspiration.
As you start narrowing in on potential topics, keep in mind that not every thought leadership piece needs to share a unique or controversial position. It can, but it's not necessary. What matters is that the author brings authentic credibility to the topic and connects with the audience in a way that builds the author's (and thus the brand's) authority.
Want a quick start? Here are some easy access sources to come up with thought leadership topic ideas:
Use market research you've already done that outlines your prospects' needs, pains, and interests. Then push it one step further. Do your prospects feel overwhelmed on how to create a sales funnel? Traditional content marketing will guide them through the process of creating and using one. A thought leadership piece will ask a bigger question, like examining if market qualified leads (MQLs) are still useful.
Examine competitor thought leadership content. Where might someone at your company have a different opinion than your competitor? Can they push the topic one step further or come at it from a different angle? You don't need to reference the competitor's content directly—unless confrontation is part of your brand. If you agree with your competitor's position, can you produce a piece of higher-quality content on the same topic?
Build off high engagement topics on social media accounts or your highest performing content. Your most successful content marketing content is a great jumping-off point. If people are engaging with those topics to get better at their jobs, they'll likely engage with them on a thought leadership level as well.
Address the biggest industry trends or industry-related news content. People read the news for a reason. If you write about the hottest topics, people will listen, as long as you have something new to say.
If nothing grabs you from those, try one of these tactics:
Think like a features editor. What are the stories an author can share about how they've learned a critical lesson? How did the author or company master a vital skill or strategy? Look for the human-interest angle that helps share a valuable nugget. As an example, here's some thought leadership in a four-tweet thread from Hrishikesh Pardeshi sharing an informative, actionable lesson he learned taking a low-tech approach to his startup tech.
Think like an investigative editor. What interesting questions don't seem easily answered? For example, why has an industry trend shifted, or why is it going one way and not the other? What industry assumptions need to get challenged? Why has something "always been that way"—should it still be? For example, one CEO digs into why his company no longer accepts resumés.
Interview the author. What's on the author's mind? What issues can't they stop thinking about? What's exciting or concerning them right now in the industry? What's the smartest business decision they've ever made? The worst? What unintended consequences have been the most instructive?
Conduct research or partner with a research firm and build a thought leadership campaign around it. For example, every couple of years, password manager Keeper Security partners with the Ponemon Institute to produce detailed research about cyberattacks on small and medium businesses.
Take a couple of these approaches, put together a team brainstorm session, and you'll be able to generate and refine topics that make sense for your business.
Mining for rich, high value thought leadership content
Once you have your topic, how do you create the best content?
The particular challenge of thought leadership content is getting the expertise and time from the author to create the content. Most won't have the bandwidth or interest to write the content themselves, but it's critical that it's their voice and expertise invigorating the piece.
You have a few options for extracting the rich content from the author, and they aren't mutually exclusive:
Have the author write an "ugly" first draft. This isn't so much of a draft; it's more of an outline. Let the author get their messages and thoughts down for a writer to craft into a publishable piece of content. Some authors will prefer or enjoy taking the first pass at writing the piece.
Record the author talking through the topic. You can send the author open-ended question prompts, or someone can interview them. This should be stream-of-consciousness: the author shouldn't be thinking about how to talk an article into creation or try to sound "authoritative." I find having the author talk naturally and conversationally brings out their most genuine voice. Using their specific word and phrase choices, especially for the most crucial points, really boosts the piece's authenticity.
Get the recording transcribed. This isn't strictly necessary, but it's super useful. It's not only a time-saver, but it also provides substance on how the author said things, not just what they said. There are plenty of transcription apps you can use to do this.
Partner the author with a professional ghostwriter. A professional ghostwriter has the interview skills to pull out those hidden gems that add personal texture and depth to a piece. They have experience in shaping the author's ideas and thoughts into a narrative arc that pulls people in. A professional ghostwriter also has the writing skills to craft content in the voice of the author. Plus, it minimizes the time investment the author needs to make in getting the content done—they like that.
The content is written—now what?
The author should always have final approval of the piece to confirm that it accurately delivers their message (and delivers it in their way).
Internal reviews can provide some additional feedback, but beware of thought leadership by committee. If the piece will be published under the company's name, then layers of committee reviews make sense; but if the piece will be published under a person's name, committee review can water down the authentic voice of the piece.
It bears emphasizing, regardless of who's writing and reviewing the thought leadership piece: how the author says what they say is as important as what they say. The author's voice, experience, and personality are content differentiators, especially when the recommendations, opinion, or conclusion they're sharing may not be completely novel.
And remember, a thought leadership campaign is like any other marketing campaign, and that means you need a promotional plan. Microcontent can be published on social media. Longer-form content can be published on digital assets the company owns, like a newsletter or blog, or open platforms like LinkedIn and Medium. For maximum exposure, you can pitch your content to external outlets.
Thought leadership is long-haul strategy
Publishing a single thought leadership article or video can lead to invitations to speak and requests for quotes, which has terrific publicity value. But if you approach thought leadership as a strategy, it has the power to improve the reach of all your other marketing and sales initiatives. By executing a consistent thought leadership campaign around issues that interest your market, you motivate audiences to return to and trust your content.