In the late 1990s, I searched the internet (yes, it existed) to figure out what people meant by the relatively new concept of thought leadership connected to corporate branding.
Since then, I’ve developed thought leadership campaigns for many global brands. And, today, nearly every B2B marketer uses thought leadership in their content marketing strategy.
But despite its effectiveness and staying power, the concept still isn’t well understood – nor is it used to its potential.
What is thought leadership really?
Business leaders and marketers slap the “thought leadership” label onto a lot of marketing activities. Some narrowly define it. Others, as Forrester principal analyst Lisa Gately did at Content Marketing World, define it as “an intentional exercise of knowledge, skills, and expertise to increase awareness, elevate perception, and drive preference related to key issues that an audience cares about.”
To me, thought leadership shouldn’t be defined too narrowly or too expansively. Thought leadership is the strategic and well-planned coming together of original research and compelling, purpose-built marketing content to engage a defined audience.
Some use my definition more specifically for “industry thought leadership” because it captures macro trends affecting business and works for existing and prospective clients.
But the goal remains the same: to position your company as an authority on a topic by providing useful insights independent of your brand’s products and services.
In other words, don’t approach thought leadership as a commodity, reducing it to listicles or unsubstantiated infographics, as fellow writer Jonathan Crossfield warn. Thought leadership is not a single interview with a CEO, a webinar about new solutions, or a blog article about a product.
Thought leadership in content marketing relies on original or novel research. It combines the rigor of an independent academic study with the sizzle of a targeted ad campaign. It’s difficult to pull off and often takes a village of researchers, analysts, writers, editors, UX specialists, digital designers, videographers, IT managers, project managers, and media strategists.
Example: Oral health brand Haleon supported a fantastic thought leadership piece – the Health Inclusivity Index (registration required) produced by The Economist Group. It brings together professionals from around the world to build a program that combines both substance and sizzle. It combines data, case studies, and multiple content formats to create a go-to thought leadership resource on the topic.
Boost your credibility and be useful
Regardless of the means, well-planned and executed thought leadership campaigns educate the target audience on broader macro trends and relevant implications for their business. But let’s face it; Executives are busy people looking for ways to propel their businesses forward and bolster their own knowledge bank and expertise. They don’t need an overly prescriptive narrative; they want easy-to-understand thought leadership with helpful key takeaways.
Example: The 53-page report, Opportunity 2030: The Standard Chartered SDG Investment Map, serves this purpose for the British multinational bank (Standard Chartered) and is supported by Oxford Analytica research. It crystalizes and visualizes the research findings related to UN Sustainable Development Goals. It even provides figures for private sector investment opportunities in 15 countries in Asia and Africa.
Tether thought leadership to business outcomes
The more targeted, substantive, and useful the thought leadership, the more apt the content can generate leads. LinkedIn’s B2B Institute recommends a nearly even budget split between lead generation and brand building in marketing. Thought leadership programs can help achieve both goals. They can earn brand attention from new companies or firms venturing into new areas. Thought leadership programs also can set the stage for the sales process, especially given almost three-fourths of B2B buyers in a 2020 study engage with at least three pieces of content before ever talking with a salesperson. Plus, a new thought leadership piece is a good reason for the sales team to contact past clients and new prospects to share it.
Example: Well-designed thought leadership programs garner more attention through media distribution and awareness-building events while generating relevant business leads. Insurer Willis Watson Towers does both with its annual Political Risk Index. Visitors can peruse a content hub featuring a summary of the research, access a visually impactful e-book, and register to receive the full report, which was gated to capture leads.
Expand beyond the PDF format
Marketers often anchor thought leadership programs in a longer-form report underpinned by new research. But the distribution of those findings doesn’t have to be limited to that report (often in the form of a PDF). They can be shared at events big and small. Your brand’s speaker could incorporate them into a presentation at a conference, or your company could host in-person or virtual events with prospects and clients to exchange the value and let your reps build relationships and strike up conversations.
Your thought leadership program should live on the company’s website or its own landing page hosted by a third-party publishing partner to add validation and exposure. It can be chopped into visually engaging short-form content assets to share and consume on social media easily. The research findings can inform derivative multimedia content pieces like videos, films, or podcasts. Doing so allows you to meet the audience where they are with content formats they want to consume.
I really like Rob Mitchel’s VARK acronym to ensure your thought leadership appeals to all learning styles:
- Visual – infographics, animations, data visualization
- Aural – podcasts, audio interviews
- Read/write – long-form reports, short-form content, written opinion pieces, case studies
- Kinesthetic – webinars, client events, conferences, workshops
Example: I worked on a program for the Project Management Institute’s Brightline Initiative to bring thought leadership to the stage during the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2018 and 2019. The resulting panel discussion Humans 2.0: Designing and implementing a future-proof strategy, hosted by The Economist Events, took place live at the event.
Then, the team evolved the in-person presentation into three content pieces for the Brightline Initiative website (as you can see in the screenshot below):
- A video of the full panel discussion
- A shorter video showing the highlights
- Video commentary featuring the Brightline Initiative’s executive director.
Find your secret to successful thought leadership
What’s the secret to conjuring content that doesn’t get dismissed in the cacophony? Before you begin, consider your objectives, your audience, and how you want the audience to react to the insights shared. With that understanding, you can bring together a smart team to consider the ideal brand positioning, associated trending themes, and potential research hypotheses worthy of exploration.
In other words, do some brand soul-searching and find the white space you can fill. Consider the white space as your playground. Shaping it takes a bit of work. Happily, that effort usually is just a search away. Systematically Google key terms related to your project and to see what pops up. Track the results to see players and patterns emerge. Then, you can find where your unique point of view fits within the coverage. That unique point grounds your white space.
Don’t stop short
The Edelman Trust Barometer is the gold standard for thought leadership programs, given its longevity and impact. For more than 20 years, Edelman has put forward annual research on the influence of trust across society — government, media, business, and non-government organizations. In doing so, the company has led the conversation and driven results for its business.
You don’t need to put in 20 years to produce well-founded original ideas, but you must invest for the long haul.
The most successful thought leadership campaigns I’ve worked on were long-term, multi-year engagements. The marketers approached publishing partners 12 to 18 months before launch. These larger projects often require longer upfront conversations to define and refine the theme and research hypotheses. That’s not to say you can’t whip up a strong thought leadership engagement in five to seven months, but that usually happens after the upfront brand and theme work exists.
When you take the time to identify your topic areas, conduct the research, and produce multiple content assets, the thought leadership you produce will be more likely to attract attention. It will have a better opportunity to gain awareness among an executive audience.
Executives spend an average of two hours every week on thought leadership content, according to a 2021 IBM survey. Given that thought leadership informs 80% of CEO buying decisions, according to the same survey, your program also will position your brand for quality leads.
Thought leadership programs have worked well for decades, but understanding what they really involve and how they can work for your brand – and, more importantly, your target audience – will allow your content to stand out in a sea of misunderstood, misused, and unhelpful thought leadership.
In appreciation for guest contributors’ work, we’re offering free registration to one paid event or free enrollment in Content Marketing University to anyone who gets two new posts accepted and published on the CMI site in 2023.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute