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Field Notes

Field Notes #015: Topic-Led vs Story-Led Thought Leadership

topic-led vs story-led thought leadership

The other day, a friend and I were discussing thought leadership.

(You may be thinking: UH, Allie, you talk about this a lot. Yes, I know. But bear with me, you’ll like this one.)

So, my friend had been tasked with “doing thought leadership” by her higher-ups and needed some guidance. How could she determine what to write about? How did she involve internal experts? How would she measure this new content initiative?

I also get these questions a lot on sales calls, so I figured some of you may be wondering the same.

Let’s discuss.

When I think about how businesses can create thought leadership content, I break it down into two buckets:

  • Topic-led thought leadership
  • Story-led thought leadership

Topic-led thought leadership content is typically search-friendly content that’s written with original research, such as diving into data, conducting surveys, and collecting expert quotes. The chosen keyword(s) guide the outline and overall topic—allowing it to compete on the SERPs—but thought leadership efforts diversify the post from other ranking content. 

I like to call this “hybrid content” and often utilized this writing method at HubSpot. (This piece is a good example.)

If you’re looking to add thought leadership to your content strategy, I say topic-led thought leadership is the place to start. Once you choose your keywords and analyze the SERPs to craft a competitive outline, you’ll know what questions to ask your subject matter experts. These additions ensure your SEO content adds something new to the conversation and gives you new ideas that you don’t have to source from a competing publication. 

The topic-led thought leadership approach all comes down to how you write your content and shouldn’t necessarily determine what you write—the latter applies more to the story-led method. 

Story-led thought leadership is equivalent to brand journalism. You identify a cool story and work with the expert (or “thought leader”) to tell it.

This type of thought leadership is one of my favorites, but it’s usually a tougher and riskier content play because:

  1. It’s near impossible to measure results if you’re only looking at keyword movements and organic traffic (as most content marketers are)
  2. Topic ideation is super manual and requires being very in touch with your team and your industry

I battled these two challenges when I was at Shopify and was contributing story-led pieces to the Shopify Retail blog.

Let’s discuss the first challenge. In my experience, story-led thought leadership content needs a boatload of distribution support because these pieces aren’t (and IMO shouldn’t be) search-optimized. So you can’t expect to measure success through Ahrefs and organic traffic reports.

This is where targeted social and email distribution comes into play. For every story-led piece, expect to repurpose the content into 5+ LinkedIn posts and Twitter threads (or Facebook or Quora or Reddit or wherever depending on your readership). Plug that piece into every email newsletter you can get your hands on. Encourage your featured thought leaders to promote it on their channels. Add links to your story-led articles to your search-friendly pieces, too. The list here is endless—just don’t expect to rely on SEO here.

My favorite tip? Change your schema markup to identify these pieces as “News.” Then you have a better shot of them showing up in some Google results, provided someone searches for a relevant query.

To combat the second challenge above, you must be super well-connected (like, well, a journalist). I subscribed to every retail email newsletter, started my day reading news and trends in the industry, and even reached out to a few external experts just to chat. I jotted down every possible story idea, especially those that were relevant to our audience, merchants, and product.

(This and this article were some favorites that I produced.)

I also plugged myself into nearly every Slack channel led by the Product, Sales, and Dev teams. They’d sometimes share a win and I’d think, “Hold on—let’s write something about that.” This method was great for brainstorming brand and product-related stories.

If you’re trying to surface new stories within your organization, it’s hard to just ask people if they have any new information. You have to discover those stories passively and build trust with folks who aren’t yet used to talking about themselves and their wins. 

This is another reason why I recommend starting with topic-led thought leadership. By reaching out to internal and external experts with specific questions already inspired by the SERPs, you start to build a network that you can later tap into for story ideas. Better yet, these SMEs will know to come to you with new ideas, too.

The cool thing about these two thought leadership methods is that they feed off each other and create a nice, neat brainstorm loop. For example:

  1. You reach out to an expert for an article you’re writing on the keyword “AI writing tools best practices”
  2. As you’re talking to this expert, they might mention a trend or experiment that’d make for an awesome story to tell on your blog
  3. When you interview them about this story, they may mention a new keyword that, with some additional research, you realize has thousands of searches per month—and another expert who can speak on this topic

Voila. Your thought leadership engine is up and running, and your network of experts begins to take shape.

Let me know if you want to chat about this on a free strategy call! Just reply to this email.

1. Office Hours with Tommy Walker — I’m plugging this one again because it’s pretty relevant to what I discussed above. 

2. Organic Traffic and Keyword Volume are Often Outdated Vanity Metrics. Here’s What To Do Instead. — Read on to hear why our team thinks keyword search volume is overrated, the value of differentiating in a new space, and why traffic diversification is key.

3. From Journalism to Marketing and Keeping the Human Element in Mind — A favorite pod episode I did with my friend Chelsea Castle. She has a background in journalism and discusses how it’s influenced her career in content marketing. Give it a listen!

Allie Decker

Allie is co-founder and Head of Client Success at Omniscient Digital. She previously led content initiatives at HubSpot and Shopify.