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Thought leadership marketing: what, how, and when should you use it in your content?

Last Updated 
Posted on
July 20, 2022

Picture this: you come home at the end of a long work day and start scrolling through your social media feed. Immediately, you’re greeted by the smiling face of your biggest competitor’s CEO in a video clip from a major news source. The host of the short video introduces him as “one of the industry’s foremost experts” and begins asking him a series of questions that you and your organization are better equipped to answer.

“Wait,” you think as you watch your competitor get minute after minute of free airtime and promotion. “That should be us!”

Well, it should be, but unfortunately for you, your competitor (and the talented marketers they hired) invested heavily in thought leadership marketing, and their payoff is playing out before your very eyes.

Hopefully this situation doesn’t play out for you in real life. In case it does, though, we’re here to help.

Thought leadership marketing is one of the most effective ways to boost your brand’s profile, authority, and even revenue. It’s a form of marketing that comes in many different forms and can be done by various members of your organization, making it a valuable and versatile tool to have in your marketing toolbox.

It’s also a top-of-mind tactic for many marketers – an Edelman/LinkedIn report found that two-thirds of the marketers they surveyed ranked thought leadership marketing as a “top priority” last year. So, if you haven’t considered thought leadership yet, now may be the time! And if you have, stick around. We’ve got some tips and guidance so you can craft a strategy and content that will capture the hearts and minds of your audience.

What is thought leadership marketing?

Thought leadership generally refers to content marketers create to improve the credibility and authority of their brand, their organization, or their leadership.

The goal of producing thought leadership content is to become a widely-recognized expert or a resource other leaders and decision-makers in your industry use to inform their thoughts, decisions, and (hopefully for you) purchases. It will also demonstrate to potential customers that your company knows what it’s talking about and can be trusted to provide quality products or services, a critical factor in purchase decisions.

Thought leadership content is usually top-of-funnel content, meaning it’s mainly used to generate awareness for your expertise and your organization. If you provide genuinely helpful content or position members of your company as experts in their field, potential customers will begin to recognize your brand and interact with you, key steps in building relationships and nurturing leads.

Thought leadership is a specific and purposeful kind of content marketing. Quality thought leadership content should provide the best answers available to questions or problems others in your industry have or provide engaging, innovative ideas and insights into your industry.

When you produce thought leadership content, consider how it will move conversations in your industry forward. You want to be easily identifiable as a reliable, helpful, and exciting source of new information, so don’t become overtly sales-y in your efforts, and don’t be a naysayer if you aren’t prepared to back up your arguments with facts and solutions.

You also need to make sure you’re providing authentic content. Don’t make up some new convictions because you think it will lend you some industry street cred or help you go “viral” on Twitter. In addition, don’t try to provide expert advice in any areas you aren’t an expert in – at best, you’ll give subpar solutions, and you run the risk of offering downright faulty council, hurting you and your organization’s reputation rather than helping it.

The 3 types of thought leadership

LinkedIn – an excellent thought leader in its own right – breaks thought leadership down into three categories that are helpful when deciding what path to take.

  • Industry thought leadership provides expert opinions and perspectives on relevant news and industry trends. Industry thought leadership is usually high-level and seeks to illustrate the solid judgment, deep knowledge, and unique viewpoints that make your organization successful. By lending their thoughts to current events and shifts in your industry, they’ll help provide other leaders with a framework for their own viewpoints and decisions.

    An excellent example of industry thought leadership can be found in Rand Fishkin, Co-Founder of the social listening and audience research tool SparkToro. Fishkin is consistently active on Twitter, providing marketing and audience intelligence thought leadership with his unique ideas and expertise.

This tweet exemplifies industry thought leadership. In it, he’s giving his unique perspective on how to best market products and services. Not only is it good advice, but it also runs contrary to how many typically think about marketing, providing a fresh take on how to approach marketing in the future.

This example also shows you don’t need to write a novel to create thought leadership that engages. This simple tweet resonated well with his audience so well that he pinned it to the top of his profile. When it comes to thought leadership, you want quality not quantity.

  • Organizational thought leadership is used to promote and demonstrate a company’s values, vision, and mission. Essentially, this kind of thought leadership shows that your organization can “walk the walk,” takes its values seriously, and can be trusted. Although this kind of thought leadership is less common than the other two outlined here, it’s still important. Potential customers often choose companies they share similar values with, and organizational thought leadership is an excellent way of demonstrating a commitment to these values.

    Buffer, a social media scheduling and analytics tool, gives us a good example of organizational thought leadership. To demonstrate their commitment to one of their core values, transparency, they opted to take a path many companies don’t: they created an open and transparent salary formula for all of its employees, allowing everyone who worked there (and the outside world) how much it paid employees, and the reasoning behind it.Buffer was also one of the first fully remote companies, and they’ve provided a ton of helpful content for other organizations looking to follow suit, establishing them as a thought leader in the space. As with any successful thought leadership endeavor, they’ve continued to promote remote work at an organizational level, hosting webinars (like this one presented by our co-founder and CEO Janet Mesh) and providing resources even after they established themselves as a remote work champion.

  • Product thought leadership provides the best possible answers to questions or problems felt by customers and prospective customers alike. This type of thought leadership doesn’t rely on unique perspectives or closely held values. Instead, it demonstrates the value and expertise of your organization by creating informative, helpful content that lets customers get the most out of their purchases or better understand your industry. It may include new solutions to old problems, or simply represent the best source of information on a given product or industry topic.

    REI’s Expert Advice blog perfectly shows product thought leadership done right. It provides in-depth guides on a myriad of topics related to the outdoors, helping users find the best product for whatever it is they want to do and showing them how to make the most out of the ones they’ve already purchased. And oh-by-the-way, you can buy all the wonderful contraptions they’re talking about right on their website. Easy peasy.

When should you use thought leadership in your marketing?

Thought leadership is one of the best ways to establish yourself and your brand as an industry leader.

It’s a great approach to pursue if you or someone else at your organization has positive ideas about where your industry should be headed. It’s also useful if you’ve got opinions on how your industry should change and evolve to meet future demands or have identified a solution to a sticking point no one else has.

Thought leadership is especially effective for B2B companies that may otherwise not have much of a public footprint. B2B environments often have complex problems and decision-making processes, so providing authoritative industry insight and education on how best to use your product will go a long way in helping potential customers choose your product over your competitors. Thought leadership in the B2B industry is also a great way to find qualified leads because it allows you to tailor your content to niche subjects decision-makers in your industry will find invaluable.

Before you begin your thought leadership endeavors, ensure you’ve got something to say. The LinkedIn/Edelman report found that 66% of decision-makers noticed a massive increase in the amount of thought leadership content produced since the pandemic, so make sure you’ve got the ideas and answers to stand out in the crowd.

Consider these questions to help you decide whether thought leadership is something you need to do now:

  • Is there a lack of thought leadership in your industry?
  • Do you have answers to questions that no one else does?
  • Are your experts more qualified to help than others in the industry?
  • Have you identified missed opportunities in your sector you want to draw attention to?
  • Have you noticed your customers asking the same questions over and over?
  • What kind of thought leadership do you see a need for in your industry?

At the very least, make sure your new offerings will either a) provide a unique perspective not found elsewhere or b) provide the best answers to questions decision-makers in your industry have.

How to create (impactful) thought leadership marketing

If you’ve thought about these questions and decided now’s the time to start, here’s how to get started:

1. Define your goals

As with any good marketing campaign, you need to start with predefined goals so you know what you’re working towards and can measure the success of your efforts. Use the SMART goals formula (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-based) to ensure you’re shooting for something realistic.

These goals might include increasing sales by a certain percentage, improving your customer retention rates, increasing your brand perception by growing your social media presence, obtaining a specific number of qualified leads, or getting a quantifiable number of new media mentions.

You’ll also want to think about the kind of thought leadership you want to pursue once you’ve set some goals. If you want more media mentions, you’ll want to focus on industry or perhaps organizational thought leadership. If you’re focused on customer retention, product thought leadership is the way to go.

2. Find your experts

Once you know what you want to achieve and how you will do it, you need to identify who in your organization is best suited to be your thought leader (or leaders). Usually, an organization’s thought leadership should come from (surprise, surprise) your leaders. Showing off their ideas and perspectives reflects well on your company as it demonstrates your organization is led by bright, innovative people who know what they’re talking about.

You can also consider department heads, such as your head of product development if you’re pursuing product thought leadership. You should also look at any internal thought leaders your company already has because these are people who are comfortable introducing and defending new ideas, which is crucial to a successful thought leadership campaign.

3. Consider your audience and brand

You need to create valuable and engaging content for your prospective customers, so before you jump into production, consider who they are and what they want. Take a look at your buyer personas (or build some if you don’t have them yet).

What are they most interested in? What kinds of information would help them the most? What types of problems do they have, and what is the best way to solve them?

Use these questions to inform the kinds of content you create and the specific topics you will tackle.

You’ll also want to revisit your brand’s mission and values to ensure your thought leadership aligns. If you’re looking for ways to contribute to a conversation in your industry, use your brand’s mission and guiding principles to form a perspective or unique point of view that others haven’t considered yet.

It can be helpful to think of your brand as a person and then extrapolate what that person might think about a particular topic or which side of an issue they’d fall on. Keeping your mission and values top-of-mind as you create your thought leadership content will help it stay on-brand, a must for all content marketing initiatives.

4. Identify your perspective or the problems you want to solve

Now that you’ve got the planning out of the way, it’s time to develop your unique perspectives or identify the issues you want to focus on and create top-notch solutions for them.

It pays to be specific here: 63% of consumers said they were turned off by generic thought leadership content, according to the LinkedIn/Edelman study. The more specific your content and advice is, the more helpful and insightful your audience will find it, especially when creating product thought leadership. This is where you will let your expertise shine, so providing long, in-depth answers to problems is ideal.

If you’re creating industry or organizational thought leadership, don’t be afraid to be controversial (within reason) as long as you’re prepared to defend your arguments with fact and logic. Having a strong point of view positions your organization as confident and authoritative. It will help generate buzz within your industry, elevating your brand and getting your content in front of more decision-makers.

You might consider doing some original research, such as a survey or an industry study, to help inform your opinions and back them up. Creating a report or white paper with your findings is a great way to build up your organization’s authority. Original research is also a great way to increase the number of backlinks your company’s website has. Backlinks are the holy grail of SEO, so adding some original research to your thought leadership is a  win-win.

Once you have your unique perspectives and insights, do some competitor research to make sure they are, in fact, unique. Nobody likes a copycat, especially where thought leadership is concerned.

5. Create a content and promotion plan

You need a robust strategy for your thought leadership content, and you want to make sure that people are actually seeing your content, so you’ll need to put some thought into how you promote that content as well.

First, make sure the content you’ve created is on-brand and written in the right voice and tone. Consult your branding guidelines to make sure whatever content you create is uniform and sounds like it’s coming from the same source. You want your content to be polished and professional, or your work runs the risk of being perceived as shoddy.

Your thought leadership should be easy to access, read, and share. For instance, if you’ve created a groundbreaking report full of original research and valuable insights, create a blog post (or series of posts) that breaks your findings into shorter, easy-to-read segments for your audience to digest. If you can, take advantage of different mediums by creating videos or infographics that lay out your thought leadership in addition to written content. You should also include your thought leadership in your newsletter since it’s one of the most effective content marketing channels you’ve got at your disposal.

Create a coordinated social media campaign to share your point of view, relevant findings, or answers to questions. Social media is the perfect place to foster conversations with your customers and others in your industry, so make sure you’ve got the time and resources to engage with your audience once you’ve posted.

Depending on your goals and the type of content you’ve created, you may also need an earned media strategy to promote your thought leadership content. Op-eds in newspapers or trade publications are a perfect way to get your message out, as are press releases, which can quickly be disseminated to a wide audience through services like PR Newswire. If your organization has a PR department, work closely with them to identify where and how to get your thoughts or findings published.

You can also use content channels like webinars or conferences to increase the visibility of your work. Additionally, take stock of any upcoming industry events or conventions that you might be able to participate in. Getting your thought leaders on industry panels or securing presentation spots at these events guarantees you’ll be getting your message in front of your target audience. Depending on your budget, you can even become a sponsor of some of these events, allowing you to work with the organizers to ensure your thought leaders get prime time spots to share their ideas.  

Take the lead as a thought leader!

If you’ve taken the time and effort to create a first-class thought leadership content marketing campaign, you should soon see the fruits of your labor. Be sure to continue promoting and updating your content as you move forward. Any time industry news breaks or you identify a new trend you want to comment on, look back through your previous work and create a response that highlights your point of view and provides unique insight. Times change, and you’ll need to ensure your thought leadership stays up-to-date and relevant.

If this sounds great, but you think you might need some extra help pulling it off, go ahead and drop us a line! We’d love to help.

If you need more inspiration, here are a few more thought leadership marketing examples from an informal survey we conducted here at Aimtal. Just a note: we’re a marketing agency, so our examples are mostly marketing-based, c’est la vie.

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