The 5 Foundational Pillars of Thought Leadership Marketing

There is a deep misunderstanding of Thought Leadership as a whole. The term itself, to this point, has been ill-defined due to marketers wanting to capitalize on ‘thought leadership’ the buzzword—and disregarding Thought Leadership the philosophy.

Proper Thought Leadership is an in-depth, somewhat lengthy process that has the potential for exponential growth over time. It’s a marketing tactic unlike most—your return is much deeper than moving people down a pipeline. But the overall value of Thought Leadership—people recognizing you as the industry authority in your space—is incredibly worthwhile.

1. You cannot buy Thought Leadership.

Recognition as an industry thought leader cannot be bought.

Thought Leadership isn’t simply about being present, like so many seem to think. Putting a bunch of money behind Facebook boosts for a further reach on your content  doesn’t make you an ‘authority’ in your industry—not by a long shot. Thought Leadership is value-based—and that’s apparent by its definition:

Thought Leadership is building trust in an industry by adding real value on a regular basis.

Adding value to your industry on a regular basis is the only route to being recognized as a trusted industry authority. Boost budgets—putting additional funds behind a piece of content or post to promote greater engagement on social platforms— can help to garner added exposure, but they cannot replace the value-add that is Thought Leadership material. Being ‘present’ through ads and one-off press pieces doesn’t build trust. And if you can’t build trust, no one is going to consider you an industry authority.

In order to build trust, content needs to be first-person.

Getting interviewed in a major publication isn’t as effective as most people seem to think.

Anyone with a checkbook and 1,000 bucks can get published in Forbes—so unless you were looking for a costly way to tell people you paid for a press feature, it’s not worth your money.

Besides, how is a one-time “value-add” supposed to clue people into the fact that you’re a knowledgeable, credible, and relevant industry leader? In a world where every company founder is “disrupting”  an industry, you’re not going to stand out unless you speak from the first person.

Speaking from the first person is the only way to gain trust anymore—and it’s the only way you can be considered a Thought Leader.

In order to add value, content needs to be educational, entertaining and free-of-charge.

Educational and entertaining content does not mean informing people about your latest product or how revolutionary your company is.

There is very little value in that. It’s sales-y. It’s an ad. And people don’t like ads.

Content needs to be authentic, and needs to solve some sort of problem for readers and  industry professionals alike. Start by finding an industry talking point, then use your personal experiences and speak in the first-person to join that conversation. Tell a story.

Add value by teaching readers about your industry based on how you’ve experienced it. Share what you know. Vocalize your opinions, speak to pain points, talk about trending topics—find places in your industry where you can educate people, and do so in an entertaining way.

And do it for free.

In order to be effective, content needs to be consistent.

One of the most important components of Thought Leadership marketing is consistency.

Being consistent shows you’re an active member in an industry. Yet, so many wannabe ‘thought leaders’ fail to recognize the importance of consistency. Founders, CXOs, and company leaders throw ridiculous sums of money into social media budgets on to help boost content engagement —or boost budgets—trying to get ‘their money’s worth’ for a one-off piece they did months ago.

How can you be considered an active member in your industry if the last bit of content you put out was over a month ago—or worse, over a year ago?

You can’t.

True Thought Leaders are regularly adding value to their industries—and you need to do the same.

2. Thought Leadership requires patience and a commitment to the process.

One piece of valuable content doesn’t make you a Thought Leader.

Even if that piece is shared all over the Internet, generates millions of views and is praised internationally. Your ‘views’ on that one piece don’t make you a Thought Leader. They make you a person with a viral article.

Thought Leadership isn’t about views, comments, likes or shares. Of course, that sort of feedback validates how valuable your content is, and dictate themes of your future content output, but those things are not the goal of Thought Leadership marketing.

The goal, is to consistently contribute to your industry over time, positioning you as knowledgeable in your field.

True Thought Leadership is a long-term play.

Remember: it’s a process.

There is a process involved and that process takes time and effort. You need to be patient, stay active on a regular basis, and offer new and unique value as often as possible.

Actually, you really can’t be a Thought Leader if you don’t stay active on an ongoing basis.Industry activity plays an extremely significant role in how Thought Leadership is defined.

Think about it like this: You publish articles every other week-or-so from January through April, but decide to stop because you don’t think you’re seeing enough of a return. Time goes by and come October, a potential partner that you’ve been looking for stumbles across your material. They read the title, and before they click, they see the date is was published was over six months ago.

Odds are, they’re not gonna click. And they certainly aren’t going to see you as an industry Thought Leader. Even if your content is valuable, they’ll wonder why you stopped and instead of reading, they’ll hit the back button and find more relevant content elsewhere.

To truly be an industry Thought Leader you need to remain relevant—your ability to share insights over time and remain active in industry conversations keeps you relevant.

Real Thought Leadership is committing to the process and trusting that providing value on a consistent basis over a long period of time will inherently position you in a place of authority in your space.

3. Content can’t be promotional.

All founders, CXOs and company leaders need to realize something:

People want to learn from you.

You’re in a position that hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of other people want to be in. You’ve worked long nights, failed over and over again, and have played virtually every role to get to where you’re at today. You have unique and unparalleled insight that can be drawn directly from your personal experiences.

Use those experiences to build trust in your industry.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about Thought Leadership marketing surrounds the promotion of your company, product or service.

It works backwards from the goal of becoming a Thought Leader.

Again, no one is going to find your one-off press feature about how ‘disruptive’ you are relatable. People don’t care—those things don’t offer any value. And perhaps more important, those things don’t build trust.They want someone they can learn from that they can trust isn’t going to try and sell them on anything.

Thought Leadership marketing is about showing people you’re a credible industry resource.

Use personal experiences to back that up.

Don’t just talk about how effective your service is or how much knowledge you have—share personal stories. Give your opinion on an industry pain point that most people are too afraid to touch on. Draw from your experiences and through that, convince people why you should be considered an industry authority. And always speak from the first-person, and with conviction.

If content is blatantly promotional, it’s not Thought Leadership.

4.  Be a little vulnerable.

We’ve established that in order to be a Thought Leader, you need to be active in your industry from the first-person on a regular basis, share valuable insights, and draw from personal experiences.

How you’re going to connect with people though—which is perhaps the most important component of becoming a Thought Leader—comes down to vulnerability. Because humans connect through emotion, finding an emotional connection is the best way to build trust (and a following) through your content.

To connect on an emotional level, you need to be vulnerable. Share your greatest success stories. Talk about the times you failed—and times you’ve failed miserably. Speak on personal experiences to give readers something they can actually relate to.

No other person has the same exact experiences as you. No one else has your background or walked a day in your shoes. Everything you’ve done (and didn’t do) has led you to become exactly who you are right now. Our experiences shape how we view situations, process information, respond to change, solve a problem.

And that’s more impactful than most realize.

If you want to be a Thought Leader, use personal experiences to separate yourself in your industry. Use your uniqueness to add value—whether it be solving an industry pain point or offering a different point of view. Be vulnerable to really connect with people.

Ask yourself: what makes your personal story unique? What value can you add from personal experiences? What have you learned that would be beneficial to readers? What was the best piece of advice you ever received? What was the worst?

What have you learned being in X position for X years? What mistakes have you made? What are your biggest takeaways? What was your scariest moment? Your happiest? Why?

Use those questions as a guideline for each and every one of your content pieces. The only way you’re going to provoke any sort of emotion on the Internet is to go beyond surface level content. And be vulnerable.

That’s what people are going to remember and share.

5. Thought Leadership—done the right way—is your smartest marketing investment.

When considering any form of marketing, the number one question is:

“What’s the ROI?”

But just like any other form of marketing, that answer depends on your goals. Do you want to be the most read author in your industry? Do you want to attract investors? Do you want to promote an e-book?

Most people approach ROI like so:

“If I put in X dollars, I want to see X plus Y back by [date].”

Separating yourself as an industry authority isn’t as cut-and-dry. Thought Leadership is a bit more involved.

ROI in terms of money.

You can absolutely frame Thought Leadership ROI in terms of the above formula (X in = X + Y out).

But in order to do so, you need to figure out how to translate your articles, webinars, white papers, podcasts, speaking appearances, etc. into revenue, and how you can effectively do so over time.

Consider your buying cycle. Maybe yours is 12-18 months. You’ve just landed a contract with a $60K ACV (annual contract value). You want to know if your Thought Leadership campaigns helped drive your new client to close so you dive into your new client’s buying journey to reveal that they:

  • Watched a recorded webinar, which they accessed from an article your CEO published on Medium

  • Read your blog posts offering tips to overcome a few key industry pain points

  • Visited your website and submitted a demo request

And that was all before they even spoke to one of your sales reps.

You find that throughout the sales process, they continued to visit your blog, read more articles published by your Executive team, register for another webinar, and even visit your CEO’s session at your last industry conference.

Now, they’re a customer.

From all of their engagements with your Thought Leadership material, you conclude that your total investment in those pieces was  $X and your ROI here was your $60K ACV.

Repeat this exercise for all your clients. There’s your dollars and cents version of Thought Leadership ROI. And that’s just based on the assets you CAN track.

And try not to forget that just because the buying process is over, doesn’t mean your Thought Leadership stops having an impact.

ROI in terms of reputation.

Thinking in terms of putting in X and getting X plus Y in return isn’t necessarily the right mindset for Thought Leadership.

You want to become a Thought Leader because it means you have a positive, reputable name in your industry. At first, the thought of spending your energy, time, money, giving away your most valuable insights for free is is far from an attractive one. But with each piece of quality content you put out, you’re branding yourself, and organically building your reputation as a valuable member of your industry.

Regardless if you “break even” in the traditional marketing-ROI sense, you’re building positive rapport which is critical to anyone wanting to become an industry Thought Leader.

In fact, you can’t become a Thought Leader without doing so—hence, “Leader.”

Of course, the ultimate goal of any marketing effort is to drive more business—that will inherently come with time as long as you’re consistent and add real value. If you’re worried about not making enough of a return—especially early on—consider this scenario:

You publish several articles per month on a regular basis, and get published in a few publications. Your articles take a ton of time and effort, and you’ve spent a good deal of money perfecting each piece. You’re constantly adding value, and are actively engaged in industry conversations.

A few months pass, and you haven’t seen any monetary gain from your Thought Leadership efforts—but you’re still building an organic following and a positive reputation online.

One day, one of your pieces crosses the screen of a big-time industry podcast host, who read your piece, loved it, and wants you on the show. Your interview is a hit, and you receive a couple inbounds inviting you to upcoming speaking events. More and more people are clicking, reading, and sharing your content.

You keep on publishing, keep adding value, and your content keeps getting shared. You cut your outreach efforts by 70% as inbounds for new business begin to flood in. People are now asking to work for you, to partner with you, to invest in you, all because you worried less about your dollars and cents, and more about your ROI in terms of building a positive rapport.

As long as you’re doing it the right way, and building that reputation, Thought Leadership marketing has an unlimited ROI potential because it separates you as the outright industry authority.

Instead of having to call people, they’ll call you.

Drew Reggie