If the term “thought leadership” has lost all meaning to you, you’re not alone.
It’s become a buzzword thrown hastily around to indicate everything from 5,000+ word deep-dive pieces, expert interviews, poorly-written LinkedIn posts, speaking engagements, and anything in between.
Thought leadership is easy to bash, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. In our world of generic content, thought leadership can be an incredibly valuable asset—if you get it right.
Think about it: There’s an insane amount of high-quality content circulating the web and standing out is becoming increasingly difficult. You’re now in competition with practically everyone else and finding content angles that give you the edge is hard.
There are only a few things that make you and your brand unique: your story, your knowledge, and your circle. These are your three wells of inspiration and thought leadership content usually always centers on one of them (if not all of them at once).
Before we dive in, I want to clarify one tricky thing about thought leadership: if you try too hard, you’re probably not doing it right. The key component to thought leadership content is authenticity (another buzzword, oops).
Thought leadership cannot be templatized—which is why it makes for awesome content. This guide is our best shot at helping you create your own.
Our Definition of Thought Leadership
Thought leadership content is much more than writing up a controversial opinion for the sake of it. Instead, it’s content that’s deeply rooted in a unique perspective or experience (whether that’s your own, your CEO’s, that of a co-founder, or someone from your wider network).
- Thought leadership isn’t selfish content: It’s not a brag-fest, but rather a chance to share a different viewpoint or relate to others in the same boat
- Thought leadership combines story and instruction: The best thought leadership pieces bring together new insights and actionable advice
- Thought leadership adds depth: It digs much deeper than “what is X” or “X ways to do X” and doesn’t just regurgitate the same old stuff
- Thought leadership reflects your brand values: It aligns with the personality of your company as well as whoever is authoring the post
A thought leader isn’t just someone with something to say—because, let’s face it, everyone has something to say). They’re someone with enough experience and knowledge to make what they’re saying valuable and unique.
Can SEO and Thought Leadership Coexist?
At their most basic level, SEO and thought leadership content occupy two different ends of the spectrum. One satisfies a keyword query, and the other satisfies a story or narrative.
However, as search engines become more sophisticated, topic relevance and content value contribute to rankability nearly as much as the number of keywords in your article.
You optimize your article to the point of A++ on Clearscope or 100/100 on Rankmath, but if readers aren’t sticking around to read it or aren’t engaging with it beyond a quick scroll, Google will push it down the search results.
Your ideas for thought leadership may be more ad hoc or unique than a keyword-driven strategy, but it’s absolutely possible to optimize your thought leadership content for SEO.
And, when you’re going above and beyond by incorporating expert opinions and personal anecdotes, you’re giving your content everything it needs to rise to the top.
Why is Thought Leadership Valuable for Content Marketing?
Search for any topic on Google, and you’re greeted with billions of results. Many are the same, tired old pieces of content wheeled out time and time again in the hopes of catching the attention of the algorithm.
For example, if your product is a time tracking app, you’re looking at competing with a lot of other content on that topic. Adding a unique spin is a must if you don’t want to blend into the background.
In addition to giving you a competitive edge, there are plenty of other benefits of thought leadership and its accompanying content strategy.
In the 2020 Thought Leadership Report, 71% of marketers saw an increase in website traffic through thought leadership pieces and 62% saw an increase in new leads. Publishing thought leadership content also led to more media mentions, more email subscribers, and better customer relationships.
The benefits are hard to pass up. So, how can you create your own thought leadership strategy?
The 3 Thought Leadership Content Wells and How to Leverage Them
Succeeding at thought leadership marketing is an exercise in strategic thinking. Don’t just throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks; instead, take stock of your experiences, experts, and resources to determine what has the potential to become a winning piece in your content marketing funnel.
We mentioned the three wells of thought leadership inspiration earlier, and we’ll dig into these in more detail now with hints and tips for how you can put them into action.
1. Your Story
Your brand’s story is unique. Sure, competitors might have the same target audience and sell a similar product or service, but how your brand came to be is completely unprecedented. It’s an untold story.
Along the way, you’ll have learned valuable lessons, taken a fork in the road where a competitor didn’t, and experienced very different things. These lessons and experiences are the meat of your thought leadership content.
Opinion Pieces Born From Past Experiences
Humans love a good story. We thrive on a beginning, middle, and end structure, and we’ve been hardwired to engage with stories for millions of years. And, when that story stands out from everything else is out there, it’s going to draw us in.
Use the stories that have surfaced from past experiences and share them in relation to a topic or technique in your industry.
Dropbox is great at publishing opinion pieces based on past experiences. “Your obsession with optionality is holding you back” calls out readers and provides a new way of thinking—ergo, it combines personal opinion and actionable advice.
To create opinion pieces born from past experiences, consider:
- What roadblocks you’ve hit along your journey and how you got past them
- How your processes and products are different to your competitors
- If you have a counter-opinion to a trending topic in your industry
We all learn in different ways and discovering how one person overcame a specific struggle can be mind-blowing for someone who never even considered that realm of thinking.
Our own experiences might not seem fascinating to us (it’s easy to take our own thinking for granted), but they can be incredibly interesting for others.
Take Drift’s roundup post that covers the lessons their marketing team learned during the pandemic. Each and every point in the list has the potential to spark inspiration in readers and provide a new way of thinking.
To share lessons learned, consider:
- What steps you’ve taken to get to where you are
- A learning curve you had to go through to familiarize yourself with specific a topic or activity
- The lessons you’ve learned about your industry over a certain timeframe
2. Your Knowledge
The second well of inspiration taps into your unique knowledge. Maybe you’re an expert on a niche part of your industry or you have a particular penchant for a tool or technique.
Use this to your advantage. What might seem like easy information to you might be a knowledge gap for someone else, and sharing what you know can build trust and expertise.
Experiments and Findings
It’s easy enough to find second-hand survey results that support what you’re saying, but going one step further and running your own experiments and research gives your content an extra edge.
We’re not saying you should conduct time-consuming scientific studies daily, but you can make notes when trying out a new strategy or do a simple write-up of your latest task.
The team at Grow & Convert does this a lot. “How we used a simple survey to crack the code on our customers” provides an insight into a technique that might be able to help others do the same.
To share your experiments and findings, consider:
- Any exciting results your brand has achieved recently and how you got there
- Running a short experiment for a new strategy you’re thinking about using, or an annual original research report
- What techniques you use that are unique and how they can make a difference
Data and Statistics
Running your own experiments is one thing, but getting knowledge and insight straight from the horse’s mouth can be even better. The “horse” here can be anyone from a group of industry professionals, a niche segment of your audience, or a particular group of people that impact your brand.
Again, you don’t need to go all “Einstein.” A simple survey or questionnaire can do the trick if you want to get numbers, percentages, and a general consensus on a topic.
Survey Monkey’s Thought Leadership Report is a prime example of this. They created a basic 23-question survey for content marketers and wrote up the results into a report. Simple, but effective.
To share data and statistics, consider:
- What you want to know about your audience or a specific industry segment
- What information and data might resonate best with your prospects
- What you’ll do with the data once you have it to hand
3. Your Circle
Not everyone is an expert or has a wildly exciting history to draw from. However, there’s a high chance you know people that do have interesting stories and advice to share.
As a content manager, your network is crucial not only for the distribution of your content, but also for gathering information and knowledge to share. Leverage this resource by sharing “second-hand” thought leadership content from industry experts, business leaders, influencers, and even your own customers.
Expert Opinions and Interviews
There’s a limit to the number of times you can share your brand story, but there’s absolutely no limit to the number of times you can share other peoples’ stories.
Expert opinions (whether they come in the form of interviews, opinion pieces, or something else) can provide a unique insight into different aspects of your industry that you aren’t able to as an individual brand.
Intercom regularly shares expert advice on topics that are relevant to their audience, like “MadKudu’s Francis Brero on how AI can boost your conversational support”.
To share expert opinions, consider:
- What topics your audience is interested in and who’s the best positioned to provide insights into that topic
- Who you have in your network and their area of expertise
- Mixing up types of content, including podcasts, webinars, white papers, interviews, and written opinion pieces
While your customers might not all be industry experts, they can provide insights into what it’s like working with your brand or product and the results they’ve managed to achieve.
No one knows your prospects better than your existing customers (because they’ve been in their shoes before), and sharing insights into their struggles and challenges and then diving into how they overcame them can provide a unique solution to solving specific pain points.
“How Swipe Pages grew their customer base 466% by launching on AppSumo” shows how one brand managed to solve a particular pain point with the help of AppSumo.
To share customer stories and case studies, consider:
- Who your best customers are and what they’ve achieved with your product or service
- The major pain points your prospects have and what solution best fits those problems
- Interviewing customers to create real-life stories punctuated with refreshing statistics
Does Thought Leadership Content Work?
Yes. The thought leadership blogs we’ve shared above have all carved their own space in their industry by sharing stories, data, and expert opinions.
But, more importantly, thought leadership leads to other business benefits:
- 55% of decision-makers use thought leadership content to vet businesses
- 58% of decision-makers choose a business based on its thought leadership
- 82% of decision-makers say thought leadership content increases their trust in a brand
And, as we discussed above, thought content has led to increased traffic, more leads, and better customer relationships.
Thought leadership might seem like a trendy buzzword, but it has the potential to elevate your content strategy beyond your competitors’.
By sharing unique insights based on your own experiences, anecdotes, experiments, and opinions, you’re able to forge a deeper connection with prospects, build trust, and drive more brand awareness.
Just remember, if you’re trying too hard to emulate others or fabricate your own thought leadership, you’re not doing it right.
Our content strategy course helps you carve out a thought leadership strategy for your content that drives traffic and visibility.