Developing a Winning Thought Leadership Strategy

Developing a Winning Thought Leadership Strategy

What Is a Thought Leadership Strategy?

How do you think about the future of your market? Does your organization include people who help shape your industry? What unique insights does your organization have about its market? What is your vision for the future of your customer?

The answer to these questions should be coordinated by a comprehensive thought leadership strategy.

A thought leadership strategy brings together an organization’s best thinking so it can be applied strategically to build brand equity, generate demand, build customer relationships and create new opportunities for sales and partnerships.

Thought leadership builds the cornerstone of an inbound marketing strategy. It is much more likely to drive organic search than emergent products or established products in highly competitive spaces. With the trend toward more buyer research ahead of sales engagements, thought leadership becomes the door through which organizations welcome those hunting for knowledge.

With the trend toward more buyer research ahead of sales engagements, thought leadership becomes the door through which organizations welcome those hunting for knowledge.

The Benefits of a Thought Leadership Strategy

Thought leadership is a lot more than a white paper under a thought leadership menu on a website. Done right, thought leadership delivers a number of benefits to the organization, including:

  • Create context for market plans and decisions. Build investor trust by exposing rational thought processes.
  • Build influence. Establish a positive reputation for the organization and those who work for it.
  • Increase earned PR opportunities. Drive opportunities for articles, quotes, panels, and keynotes. 
  • Develop sales. Thoughtful content generates leads.
  • Build awareness for recruiting.  Bean organization people want to work for.
  • Networking. Thought leadership expands network connections.
  • Expands market perceptions. Such an organization highlighting its social justice programs.
  • Demonstrates compassion. In times of stress, thoughtful leadership can offer a range of ways a company can show its recognition and compassion for difficult situations.

Thought Leadership for Start-ups

Start-ups often think of thought leadership as an investment reserved for established firms. They think of thought leadership as a discretionary activity to complement traditional sales. Start-ups should see thought leadership as a key element of their marketing strategy from the beginning. In many cases, start-ups with no shipping product essentially have nothing but thought leadership to share. Thought leadership establishes their value proposition as a company. It should answer two key questions: Why should anyone invest in you? and Why should anyone want to work for you? It can be argued that building awareness, trust, and credibility is more important for a start-up than for an established organization that has many other ways to share information about itself in the market.

What Are the Basics of a Thought Leadership Strategy?

The goal of a thought leadership strategy is to raise visibility, increase credibility, and build trust. This is achieved through a number of means including publishing advice and guidance, sharing strategic visions for the market, your products and your customers, and aligning vision with the strategy to demonstrate its credibility.

It is critical to separate thought leadership content from other content strategies. Most content marketing strategies focus on delivering content aimed at driving traffic that converts into product leads or sales. While thought leadership may contribute to lead generation and sales, it should be marketed as a product. That means that engagement with thought leadership content is a good outcome by itself. Any direct relationship to increased sales should be seen as an added benefit, not the primary benefit of the thought leadership strategy. 

13 Steps: Creating a Thought Leadership Strategy

1. Define goals and align with strategy

Thought leadership goals often reflect aspiration and ambition. They can be as lofty as increasing stock price, to creating upticks in perceptions about innovation or brand trust.

In order to select the best goals, thought leadership strategy should align with business strategy. If an organization wants to be known for shipping innovative products, it should first of all ship innovative products. Then it should tell the story about that innovation. If an organization wants to be known as the best Internet of Things supplier it should offer products that work and share a market vision that gives shape to the nascent market and helps customers see themselves in the future.

Thought leadership goals typically align into these categories:

  • Position the company to look attractive to investors
  • Establish credibility in a new market
  • Demonstrate the feasibility of new technology or new applications of an existing technology
  • Increase trust in the ability of the organization to [execute, partner, invent, etc.]
  • Build the reputation of an organization, leader/executive or team of leaders/executives
  • Project the organization as a leader in…innovation, a new market, a new process, etc.
  • Increase sales/revenue
  • Develop brand awareness
  • Build a new audience [such as becoming a credible source for the general target audience on a social media platform]
  • Recruiting: Look attractive to potential employees
  • Create context for the organization…place its practices or products uniquely against current/future social, technological, economic, environmental, or political circumstances.
  • Substantiate thoughtful leadership, reason and humbleness in the face of adversity

Developing a Winning Thought Leadership Strategy

2. Choose target audience(s)

Thought leadership content should usually be free, which means access for all. That doesn’t mean it should be written for the general audience. Each piece of thought leadership should speak to an audience with as much specificity as possible. Saying the content is for a “CXO” isn’t precise enough, as CIOs, CMOs, CHROs and CFOs all focus on very different parts of the business. This does not imply that all thought leadership content should speak to the same audience, or that thought leadership only deliver ideas along one trajectory. Organizations may choose to deliver thought leadership for market positioning and technology leadership at the same time. Ideally, the content that crosses the business and technical (or human resources and financial) spectrum will prove synergistic, but each can and should deliver meaningful insights to the targeted audience. Each piece of content should target a specific audience. The program should be clear about the roster of audiences covered.

3. Collect existing thought leadership

Many organizations develop thought leadership in a non-systematic way. It is never too early to start collecting the thought leadership the organization has published in the past. For large organizations, this takes weeks, even months. Regardless of how daunting the task, it should be done because the organization needs to ensure it creates a consistent narrative once the strategy is in place. Previous thought leadership content published without proper reviews may reflect old approaches that no longer align with company strategy or be written by people who no longer work for the organization. If the ideas remain relevant, consider updating the content and republishing it under the new look and feel of the thought leadership program.

4. Determine the thought leadership program approach

Thought leadership isn’t just about publishing ideas from thought leaders. Every company employs thought leaders who can represent the organization in the marketplace. Those thought leaders, however, may not align well with the defined strategic objectives of the thought leadership program. Programs that include thought leaders will require the identification and nurturing of the thought leaders so they can effectively carry a cohesive narrative (see items 5 and 6 below).

Thought leadership may also include research-based programs that draw on third-party research to help make a point for the organization. This offers the advantage of the organization being perceived as humble as it asks questions it doesn’t know the answers to, as well as affiliating itself with a credible third-party research firm that brings its own thought leadership aura to bear on the topic. 

Organizations may also choose position-based thought leadership where it is the organization as a whole, rather than any individual(s) representing the organization taking a position. Advocacy organizations and trade associations often create position-based thought leadership to advocate, for instance, the adoption of a technical standard on behalf of member firms within commercial markets and among government legislators and regulators.

Large organizations will likely create hybrid thought leadership programs that combine the voice of business and technical leaders within the organization with supporting research and membership in trade associations and other groups.

5. Identify thought leaders

If the strategy will include internal thought leaders, it is important to build out a roster of talent. For each thought leader, conduct an interview to determine the following:

  • area of expertise
  • special credentials
  • membership in associations
  • publications and other content
  • social media activity, including video
  • level of skill in presenting
  • level of skill in writing beyond their peers
  • any background stories that makes him or her potentially interesting to the press

Also collect for each a good current headshot and a brief biography.

6. Nurture thought leaders

[Note: this item is indented as it depends on the choice of pursuing individuals as thought leaders]

Thought leaders may be experts in their area and may be well published in academia or in trade journals. Many times, however, they are not experts in sharing their ideas with the target audience for a thought leadership strategy. Artificial intelligence (AI) experts may talk regularly with researchers and academics about AI, but they probably don’t talk to CIOs. It is important when asking people to represent the organization as thought leaders that people be given the necessary tools for success.  Organizations should make the following resources available to their thought leaders:

  • coaches for writing, presentation skills and answering questions during an interview
  • a stylist
  • presentation and interview support (backgrounders and notes for audiences and industries)
  • technical support for social media and webinars
  • legal support for disclosure clearance

7. Select a content management system

In most cases, an organization’s thought leadership content management system or systems will be the same as the one used for any other web-based content management. That means it may use a publishing platform like WordPress or Squarespace, along with a marketing automation tool like Marketo, HubSpot or Act-On to manage interactions and landing pages, and tools like Hootsuite to manage social media. Ideally, the content management system will integrate well with all of the types of content produced and all the channels being served. The content management system should also offer collaboration features to facilitate the workflow.

8. Design content formats

Thought leadership content comes in many forms. Each consumer experience should be designed. The white paper represents the most common form of thought leadership content. White paper design should make content accessible within a format that supports PDF viewing and printing. But white papers aren’t the only form that requires design. Infographics, press releases, ebooks, case studies, original research and other forms also require design for consistency and clarity. A good thought leadership strategy thinks about the design before the rush to publication. It is okay to create content in parallel with design, but the designs should be completed well ahead of the need to pour content into them.

9. Create an editorial agenda

The editorial agenda (or editorial calendar) establishes a sequence of topics tied to a publication dates. Brainstormed topics should be ordered to build upon each other. Commentary and insights should follow the release of original research and/or positioning to create a richer narrative and more opportunities for engagement.

Successful thought leadership programs publish regularly and schedule content weeks to months in advance. The editorial agenda should include the following:

  • topic
  • author: Who is responsible for writing the content
  • due date
  • lead editor
  • target audience
  • primary format
  • primary and secondary channels, and
  • responsibilities and target dates for search engine optimization (SEO), subedits, and transformation into other channels and formats.

The editorial agenda should be considered the manufacturing plan for content. The lead editor will work with the thought leader or third-party author on the content. The managing editor or content manager is responsible for driving the schedule. Thought leadership reflects the organization’s credibility, and its creation and management processes should adhere to the same quality standards set for products or services.

Editorial agenda caveat

In some industries, events may require thought leadership responses, including the release of thought leadership from competitors. Managing content creation outside of the schedule requires either: rescheduling existing content, temporarily increasing staff to manage the response or leaving a room in the calendar for reaction to events. In most cases, responses won’t be lengthy reports, but one or two-page analysis of the event, such as the bankruptcy of a competitor, significant new market research or the release of a new technology. The need to respond quickly should not override editorial controls as these event-driven pieces often generate more interest in a short period of time than planned evergreen content.

10. Develop the content marketing plan

Major thought leadership content, a research report, white paper or webinar, must be marketed. Marketing may leverage earned placements through public relations and social media, or paid marketing through advertising.

The publishing process needs to define which channels best align with the target audiences for publishing and for reinforcement of the publication. Channels for publication may include the organization’s blog, a Facebook post, a webinar platform, LinkedIn’s SlideShare or other locations. The editorial team needs to prepare to publish on the best platform for a given piece of content by preparing accounts, designs and metadata rules that optimize those platforms.

The content marketing plan also should reinforce the primary content through social media. Reinforcement platforms include Twitter, the organization’s Facebook page, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram and other social platforms that point to the original content. Social platforms should not be restricted to publicizing content through links. Great thought leadership strategies explore how a larger piece of content can be repurposed and leveraged across channels. A “Ten Ways…” blog post may end up as 11 tweets starting with a pointer to the main post followed by summarized points in their own tweets with a link back to the source.

Great thought leadership strategies explore how a larger piece of content can be leveraged across channels like Twitter or Instagram.

Insert calls to action. While the thought leadership content should not sell, those reading it will not be surprised or put off by a call to action that requests an e-mail or offers a link to a sales page. Even not-for-profits make asks.

Marketing plans to support content should include:

  • Audience: Who is the content for?
  • Channels: Where will you share and promote your content?
  • Positioning: What makes this piece of content unique?
  • Call to action: What do you want the person reading the content to do?

The content marketing plan will require additional dates for these supporting actions tied to the editorial agenda.

11. Publish and manage content

This stage takes the copy and places it into the content management system. This may require web layout expertise in order to best represent charts, tables, lists, illustrations or other elements beyond the main copy.

Publishing also requires copy edits or subedits in order to catch typos or better align with target reading scores. And it also requires SEO. SEO can be applied to edited or unedited copy. With headline writing as part of the subedit process, Serious Insights suggests SEO take place on the final copy in order to incorporate any copy changes based on the content reflecting the final headline. (For a more in-depth explanation of SEO see this What is SEO post at ExpressText).

Because thought leadership often includes comments on sensitive issues, many organizations require a legal sign off to ensure that the content does not include any proprietary secrets and properly employs copyright law for quotes and images.

Developing a Winning Thought Leadership Strategy12. Market internally

It isn’t enough to share thought leadership externally. Organizations need to market the ideas internally as well as part of the overall strategic alignment. Thought leadership is often the best way to communicate an organization’s position. Employees will not only receive a clear articulation of the organization’s position, but they will receive it as directed to specific audiences. The multiple versions and channels will reinforce not only the messages but confirm the organization’s commitment to the underlying ideas communicated through their thought leadership content. 

13. Measure impact

Measuring the impact of thought leadership is one of the most difficult tasks associated with thought leadership strategy. Many of the benefits of thought leadership require measurement runways beyond the attention span of most organizations. The easiest measure comes from direct sales tied to thought leadership. Regardless if the thought leadership strategy focuses on lead generation and sales or not, the sales team needs to include thought leadership campaigns in their CRM sources so that the origination of a lead can be attributed to the thought leadership investment. Don’t let even good sales responses to thought leadership derail capturing more subtle metrics.

Developing a Winning Thought Leadership Strategy

Larger impacts, such as market perception or brand equity, require surveys, often best conducted and validated by third parties. This can be expensive and probably falls outside of the range of the thought leadership program. Many organizations, however, conduct brand tracking or other surveys. Getting a question or two into an existing survey often proves less expensive than initiating a new survey.

Other approaches include social media sentiment analysis where the social media, as well as media coverage act as input for insights about how well messages are playing out. Previously press mentions were enough, but now understanding the social media reaction is also a good indicator of how well the message resonates with the intended audiences. And unlike traditional trade publications, information about audiences is much easier to acquire from social media making the metric more specific and meaningful. Similar technology can also be applied to reputation management.

Organizations should avoid measuring content views as the primary approach to measuring success. It isn’t that people reading the content is bad, but that a content-centric, rather than perception-centric measurement approach may lead to creating content just to keep the content views metrics good. If the right people are reading the content, and the reading doesn’t convert into another metric (sales or perception) then views don’t matter.   

The best measurement for thought leadership is the shift from push to pull.

The best measurement for thought leadership is the shift from push to pull. Early in the strategy, organizations publish, market webinars, send out PR announcements about research and try to generate buzz with social media. They also fill out speech request forms for conferences or buy sponsorships to ensure a speaking slot. If thought leadership works, then the requests start coming in for talks, quotes, placed articles in trade journals/web sites and other activities. When an organization gets recognized as a thought leader, the individuals and the organization start getting requests for deeper or broader conversations. The market pulls the organization into its dialog rather than the organization trying to push its messages into the conversation.

Another form of pull comes from the emergence of advocates, or fans, as they are known in some industries. Anytime an organization can deliver a combination of products, services and thought leadership that inspires enough loyalty for customers to advocate for an organization, not just a product or service, to friends and colleagues, the thought leadership strategy can be considered successful.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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