Thought leadership is one of those inherently appealing ideas. Who doesn’t want to be a thought leader? And for many B2B and professional services firms this makes a lot of sense. Thought leadership can provide the credibility and visibility for your offering.
In this post we will explore how to make thought leadership content the centerpiece of your strategy and how to execute it successfully. Let’s start by getting clear about several key terms.
Thought Leadership Defined
Thought leadership is the process of developing specialized expertise and novel insights into a subject matter area and then sharing those perspectives with audiences for the purpose of educating and influencing them. Thought leaders shape the attitudes and behaviors of their followers.
Thought leadership can take many forms and have many purposes, such as social change or political influence. When focused on commercial objectives, it is often labeled as thought leadership marketing.
Thought Leadership Marketing Defined
Thought leadership marketing is the process of increasing the visibility of specialized expertise and accelerating market influence to accomplish marketing goals, such as building brand strength or generating new business. It is accomplished by creating insightful analysis and content and making that thought leadership visible to your target markets.
Thought Leadership Content Defined
Thought leadership content is how experts communicate their specialized knowledge and insights to their followers. It makes their intangible expertise visible and sharable and greatly increases their trust and marketplace leverage. Thought leadership content can be shared in a wide variety of formats (see Examples of Thought Leadership Content below).
Because of its educational nature, B2B thought leadership content is rarely overtly promotional in tone or substance. Over time, a stream of useful thought leadership content builds the expert’s visibility and influence.
Examples of Thought Leadership Content
Here are some examples of the most useful forms of B2B thought leadership content and the best uses of each type.
- Books. Nothing says thought leadership like a business book on your area of expertise. If it is also a best seller, it can be a powerful tool for expanding your visibility as well as credibility. Books are a great way to capture your key ideas in a format that allows you to explore them in some detail.
- Research reports. Original research is arguably the most trusted form of thought leadership content. It almost always provides new insights and is highly regarded in B2B organizations because it is objective. If it addresses an important issue facing the target audience, it is likely to be widely shared as well.
- Guides and White Papers. Guides and white papers are generally longer pieces, often running from 10-25 pages in length. They are aimed at a specific segment of your target audience and take a comprehensive view of their subject matter. They are a great vehicle for explaining how you think about and solve for a specific issue.
- Webinars and Speaking Engagements. Webinars and speaking engagements are great ways to expand your followers. They tend to be educational in nature, so they also do a good job of conveying your expertise. Many thought leaders report that speaking engagements are their single most effective approach to generating new business opportunities.
- Educational Courses. Doing educational programs and courses is a good approach to conveying the full depth of your expertise. While some live formats may have limited enrollment, they often make up for it because of their depth of engagement. Digital courses, while less interactive, can offer greater reach and visibility. Also, partnering with a trade association or educational institution, can add extra credibility to your offering.
- Blog posts and articles. Blog posts and articles tend to be shorter than guides or white papers and therefore easier to produce. They can be broad or narrow in their focus, so are very flexible. Their greatest strength in that they are typically open source and searchable, so they are easier to find and key to expanding the visibility of you thought leadership.
- Podcasts. While a relatively new format for thought leadership, they are growing in popularity and impact. For experts that are naturally verbally oriented and love to talk about and explain their area of expertise, they can be a snap to produce. In addition to developing your own podcast series, you can also consider guest appearances on other experts’ podcasts. Interacting on podcasts is also a great way to develop your relationships with other thought leaders.
- Opinion pieces. While often overlooked, opinion pieces are well suited to presenting thought leadership perspectives. Where better to express a contrarian view on a hot topic? Add some data from your original research and you have an excellent piece of thought leadership content.
Now that we have reviewed some examples of thought leadership content, lets examine some of the benefits and challenges of building your B2B content strategy around thought leadership.
Benefits of Thought Leadership Content
A thought leadership-based content strategy has a lot of benefits for the individual expert as well as for their firm. Here are some of the top benefits.
- It positions you as an expert and innovator. By authoring thought leadership content, you are obviously positioned as an expert with new ideas. But the added benefit is that your firm also gains in status because of its association with the thought leader.
- It helps increase visibility of you and your firm. Just as thought leadership content increases the visibility of the expert it also increases the visibility of your firm as well. Think improved reputation and increased visibility of that reputation. That is a recipe for a strong brand.
- It attracts qualified new prospects. When properly promoted, thought leadership will attract new prospects who are looking for help in solving the challenges they face. Your insightful content shows them that you understand their challenges and that you have solutions to offer. As a matter of fact, we find that these inbound leads are typically the most qualified as they are approaching you because they understand how you can help them.
- Business is easier to close. The same familiarity that helps attract new prospects also makes it easier to convert them into clients. You start out with credibility and often a great deal of trust. If you don’t “unsell them” you will very likely end up with a new client or customer.
- You can charge higher fees. Our research studies of high-profile experts shows that their clients are willing to pay much higher hourly rates for more prominent experts [insert VE fee chart]. In other words, the more visible and prominent you become as a thought leader the more clients are willing to pay to work with you or your firm.
- It attracts new employees. One of the often-overlooked benefits of thought leadership content is the role it can play in attracting new talent. The best people want to be in a firm where they can learn and grow. Thought leadership is a strong signal that your firm is a great place to consider.
- It fosters career growth. Encouraging employees to create thought leadership content is a great way to foster career growth. The expert also benefits in that their personal brand is greatly enhanced and new options and opportunities come their way.
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin. What are the challenges of a thought leadership strategy?
The Challenges of Thought Leadership Content
Even with all the benefits, thought leadership is not a panacea for the B2B marketer. Here are the key challenges and some thoughts on how one might go about addressing them.
- Creating thought leadership content is not easy. Creating a stream of insightful high-value content is clearly challenging. In fact, our recent study of professional services firms showed that creating valuable content was the number one marketing priority. In many organizations the subject matter experts are among the utilized members of the team. Well explore some ways around this dilemma when we cover creating your thought leadership content strategy below.
- Thought leadership creates controversy. Almost by definition thought leadership is about change and new ways of doing things. As such it pushes against ingrained attitudes and the interests of established players in the marketplace. Throw in a pinch of contrarian attitude and it is easy to see why thought leadership can create controversy. Of course, content that just restates conventional wisdom is both very common and not really thought leadership.
- You can’t be a thought leader without followers. As a thought leader you can have the most insightful content but if no one sees it or they cannot understand your insights you will not have followers. No followers, no impact. The best thought leaders also tend to be great communicators. They know their subject matter so well that they can explain complex concepts simply. This is a key skill set for thought leaders. Add to this the need for adequate promotion and the challenge of creating and holding the attention of your audience becomes clear.
- New ideas become old. As your thinking gains traction, it will be adopted by more and more people. At some point it is no longer new and innovative thinking. It becomes conventional wisdom or “best practices”. Time for a new idea. For many thought leaders this is a turning point. Can you continue to produce new, insightful content? In the next section we will explore some strategies for producing better thought leadership content.
- Competitors will copy your ideas. For many thought leaders this is the most vexing problem of all. It’s super frustrating to see your arch competitor copy your ideas and present them as their own. And, of course, if they have avoided outright plagiarism there may be little you can do about it. The cure for this is three-fold. First, make sure you capture your ideas and document them to obtain appropriate legal protection for your intellectual property. Second, promote your content widely (see below for promotion ideas) so the marketplace recognizes it as yours. And third, use it to your advantage. This is clear evidence of the quality of your ideas. Use it to bolster your differentiation.
How to Produce Better Thought Leadership Content
Producing a steady stream of high quality, insightful content is not easy. If it where we would not be adrift in a sea of mediocre, self-serving fluff that characterizes so much of what passes for thought leadership today.
Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to up your game. We will build upon some recommendations from our earlier article on thought leadership marketing and add some new ones.
- Narrow your focus. The narrower the focus of your expertise the easier it is to master the subject matter in a way that facilitates greater insight. This also works when preparing a presentation or article. Going narrower and deeper into a subject allows for you to develop helpful perspectives in a way that a broader treatment can easily skim over.
- Do original research. Original research is the most trusted form of thought leadership content. But it also has an important role to play in generating new insights. Imagine the power of have answers to some of the key questions facing your target clients. New research findings raise intriguing new questions even as they answer some of the existing ones. Let the data be your guide to thought leadership.
- Take a contrarian perspective. Conventional thinking favors a consensus. This is the so called “best practices” thinking. But sometimes the greatest insight comes from taking a different, unexpected view. If most people espouse X, consider the case for Y. There is often great insight to be harvested by exploring the counterintuitive or overlooked.
- Mash up your expertise. Try applying the methods or thought process from one discipline to another subject matter. Put together seemingly unrelated findings or methods of inquiry from different disciplines and see what new ideas emerge. Building bridges between seemingly unrelated fields is a top strategy for many well-known experts.
- Network with other experts. One of the best ways to sharpen your thinking is to interact with other experts. They can challenge your thinking and give you new ideas and insights to consider. Partner with an expert from a related field to make your content more dynamic and interesting. You are sure to gain some new perspectives.
- Answer the tough questions. What are the toughest questions you get from your clients? Concentrate on answering one of the toughest ones. What research could be done to get a definitive answer? Is there a better way to think about it? Perhaps a contrarian perspective will give you a new insight. High visibility experts often cite audience questions as the top source for generating useful thought leadership content.
- Recycle. A great insight should not be shared in one piece of content and then ignored. Use your best ideas in multiple pieces of content. Different members of your target audiences prefer different content formats so sharing similar insights across multiple content formats makes a lot of sense and extends the reach of your thought leadership.
How to Promote Your Thought Leadership Content
To maximize the visibility of your thought leadership, you must promote your content. Think of it this way. Your content makes your thought leadership tangible. Promotion makes that content visible to your target audiences.
How do you effectively do that? We have identified ten promotional techniques that work especially well with thought leadership content.
- Email. Email is the most direct way to communicate with individual members of your target audience that you already have a relationship with i.e., they have given you their email address. This makes it an ideal format to nurture prospects by sharing relevant thought leadership content.
- Social Media. One of the most popular promotional strategies, sharing valuable content on social media can both widen your visibility as well as nurture specific relationships. Larger pieces of content can be broken into small sharable tidbits and promoted over time and across multiple social media platforms.
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The first place many professionals look when they have a business challenge is a search engine. This makes SEO and ideal tool for increasing the visibility of your content. Another advantage is that the people who find your content will be those that are looking for that specific type of content. You will discover members of your target audience that you did not anticipate.
- Paid Advertising. Paid advertising works in a similar way as SEO except that you need to specify your target audience demographics. If your advertising message is well crafted it will then attract the right members of the target audience. Paid advertising works well when you have a time linked event, such as a webinar, or need to rapidly accelerate visibility, such as with a new product launch.
- Public Relations. Both traditional and digital PR have important roles to play in amplifying visibility. If the media outlet already has credibility with the target audience, you will benefit from the association just as the readers or listeners will benefit from your insightful thought leadership.
- Networking. Networking with members of your target audience is a great way to build relationships. As it turns out, it’s also a great way to promote your content. Following up after a conversation with a piece of thought leadership content you have discussed is often a big win. It’s relevant, personal, and clearly shows your expertise.
- Partner Marketing. Partner marketing is partnering with another professional or organization to promote thought leadership content. You will benefit by exposure to the partners audience just as they will benefit by exposure to yours. Partners typically offer different, but complimentary, services to the same target audience.
- Online Reviews. For certain categories of B2B products, SaaS being a prime example, online reviews are great ways to increase visibility of the product. This process can also work well for thought leadership content. Books and podcasts would be two good examples.
- Guest appearances. Being a guest on someone else’s thought leadership vehicle (such as a podcast or webinar) has a double benefit. First, you get to share your thought leadership directly with their audience. Second, you will often be able to promote a new piece of your content, such as a book or research report, as part of the appearance.
- Speaking Engagements. When high visibility thought leaders were asked about how they get new clients speaking engagements topped the list of most effective strategies. It too has multiple benefits. You are sharing you thought leadership directly with the audience in a high-credibility context. The organization to which you are speaking has typically promoted your presentation and added their stamp of approval. Also, in the case of in-person events you often can interact directly with the audience before and after your address. Talk about a great networking opportunity.
Developing Your Thought Leadership Content Strategy
Now that we have covered the basics of thought leadership content, let’s look at how these threads come together in a thought leadership strategy. There are six key elements in a thought leadership strategy. This is true whether you are a single individual or whether you are planning for a business unit or an entire firm.
Let’s review each of the key components.
- Purpose or Goals. This section answers the question as to why we need a strategy in the first place. What are we trying to accomplish? Are we trying to increase new business or position the firm differently? Obviously different goals will have different metrics to track success.
- Target Audiences. Who are we trying to influence? Decision makers in client organizations are a common target. But don’t forget the internal influencers who have a lot of power in modern B2B decision making. In many circumstances journalists, reviewers, industry analysists or other thought leaders may be important targets as well.
- Expert Positioning. How are you positioned as an expert? What are you an expert in? Who do you help? Why do they choose you? As an individual, your expert positioning will normally be expressed as your brief bio. On the firm level this is typically a formal positioning statement which is reflected in your “About” statements on your website and firm overviews.
- Your Issues. Here we identify which specific target client issues you will focus your thought leadership on. What big challenges will you write and speak about? It is important that the issues you identify are important to your target audience and that you have solutions or perspectives that can add value. In most cases you should limit your focus to a small number of issues (1-3 is common) so you can gain thought leader status more quickly.
- Your Perspective on the Issues. What is your perspective on the issues that you are focusing on? The essence of thought leadership content is that you are offering a new perspective. For example, at Hinge we focus on research driven marketing solutions, so our thought leadership always starts with an insightful piece of research at its core.
- Your Visibility Plan. The final component of your strategy involves planning around gaining visibility for your thought leadership content. It considers what format your content should take (e.g., webinars vs. podcasts), how often you will produce it, and how you will promote it. You should make sure that your decisions take into account audience preferences, or you will waste a lot of effort.
Should You Use Outside Help?
Developing and executing a thought leadership strategy is very effective, but it is not easy. Apart from the discipline required to maintain your mastery of the subject matter there are the important issues of strategy development and content creation to consider. Are there easier, more effective ways to solve for these challenges?
Our research on high growth professional services firms provides some answers. The chart below shows outsourcing done by High Growth firms (those growing by at least 20% annual growth rate) compared to the outsourcing practices of their No Growth peers (those firms showing no growth or shrinkage). High growth firms do much more outsourcing across the board.
Note the categories most closely tied to thought leadership content strategy (strategy development, research), content production (thought leadership content) and promotion (SEO, Public Relations). In all these categories, High Growth firms are much more likely to use specialized outside resources. So, the data is clear. Outsourcing key aspects of your thought leadership content strategy, production and promotion is associated with faster growth and higher profitability. Doing it well really does pay off.
What Cannot Be Outsourced?
The thought leadership part. Your marketing partner cannot be the thought leader on your behalf. You must have the expertise. Turning that expertise into polished content? That you can get help with. But delivering on that promise is up to you.
The other component that cannot be outsourced is integrating that thought leadership into service delivery. If the products and services you deliver don’t reflect that thought leadership you will disappoint you clients. You must walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
A Final Thought
Thought leadership is a very appealing concept. To many B2B firms it sounds like an ideal fit. And for many firms it is a good fit and a smart strategy. But to get effectiveness from a thought leadership approach it must be done well. Your thought leadership content must be both relevant and insightful and lead a client to considering your firm or solution to meet the challenges they’re facing.
Good thought leadership starts with good thinking and good analysis. But that alone is not sufficient. You must find a way to make your insights visible to your target audience or you will find yourself in the position of being a thought leader without any followers.