The 5 Most Important Things You Need To Know About Thought Leadership Marketing
Thought Leadership is wholly, deeply misunderstood.
The term itself has been ill-defined due to marketers capitalizing on ‘thought leadership,’ the buzzword while disregarding thought leadership, the philosophy.
When approached properly, thought leadership is an in-depth, somewhat lengthy process that has the potential for exponential growth over time—growth in terms of online impressions, a loyal audience, and overall influence on an industry. It’s a marketing tactic unlike most because your return is much greater than simply moving people down a pipeline. The overall value of thought leadership—people recognizing you as the go-to authority in your space—is incredibly worthwhile. And if done well, it can be the most efficient way to market yourself or your business.
After explaining thought leadership to over 100 founders and C-level executives in industries spanning from blockchain and biotech to cannabis and clothing, here are the five foundational pillars everyone needs to successfully approach thought leadership marketing:
1. You can't buy Thought Leadership.
Recognition as an industry thought leader cannot be bought.
Thought leadership isn’t about being “present” in the public, as so many seem to think. Putting thousands of dollars behind Facebook boosts budgets (additional funds behind a piece of content or post to promote greater engagement on social platforms) to give your content further reach won't make you an ‘authority’ in your industry—not by a long shot. Thought leadership is value-based, which is apparent by its definition:
Thought leadership is building trust in an industry by adding real value on a regular basis.
Adding real value, means sharing what you know from personal experience. In doing so, you’re able to provide unique insights and offer advice people aren’t able to obtain anywhere else—almost like insider information, if you will.
Adding value to your industry on a regular basis is the only route to being recognized as a trusted industry authority. Boost budgets can help you reach more people, but they can't replace the value-add that is thought leadership material.
Besides, 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 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 boasting that your company is revolutionary.
There's very little value in focusing solely on your company. 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. An easy way to start is by finding an industry talking point, and then using your personal experiences to join that conversation.
Aim to tell a story and 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.
Pro tip: Do it for free. Real thought leadership is about giving.
In order to build trust, content needs to be first-person.
Being interviewed by a major publication isn’t as effective as most people seem to think.
Anyone with a checkbook and $1,000 can get published in Forbes—so unless you're looking for a costly way to tell people you paid for a press feature, it’s not worth your money.
Money aside, a one-time “value-add” doesn't clue people into the fact that you’re a knowledgeable, credible, relevant industry leader. In a world where every company founder is “disrupting” an industry, you’re not going to stand out unless you consistently contribute content and speak from the first person.
Speaking in first person allows you to genuinely connect with an audience and gain their trust. No one is going to trust you—or even think to consider you a Thought Leader—if all of your ‘press’ is third-person interviews.
2. Thought leadership requires patience and a commitment to the process.
Writing 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 dictates themes of your future content, but those metrics are not the goal of thought leadership marketing.
The goal is to consistently contribute to your industry over time, positioning yourself as someone who is active and relevant in your field.
In order to be effective, content needs to be consistent.
So many wannabe ‘thought leaders’ fail to recognize the importance of consistency.
Founders, executives, and marketers are constantly throwing ridiculous sums of money into social media budgets to help increase content engagement, trying to get their money’s worth for a one-off piece they published 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 longer than that?
You can’t. That's why one of the most important components of thought leadership marketing is consistency. Being consistent shows you’re an active member of your industry.
True thought leaders are adding value to their industries every week of every month of every year—and you need to do the same.
True thought leadership is a long-term play.
It’s very much a process.
There's a process involved that takes time and effort. You need to be patient, stay active on a weekly basis, and offer new and unique value as often as possible.
Industry activity plays an extremely significant role in how thought leadership is defined.
Think about it like this: You publish articles every other week from January through April, but you decide to stop because you don’t think you’re seeing enough of a return. Time goes by, and come October, a potential partner stumbles across your material. They read the title, but before they click, they see the publish date was over six months ago.
Odds are, they’re not gonna click. For example, imagine you're looking for industry insights, and coming across two LinkedIn profiles—both CEOs of companies in your space. One of the CEOs hasn't published anything new since Q4 of last year, while the other CEO published an article just last week, and every week preceding that for the past six months. Who would you rather get those insights from?
Again, the odds of someone clicking on outdated content are slim, if you’re not publishing on a regular basis. That said, if they’re not going to click, they’re certainly not going to see you as an industry thought leader. Even if your content is valuable, they’ll likely hit the back button to find more relevant content elsewhere.
To truly be an industry thought leader you need to remain relevant—and your ability to share insights 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 down the road.
3. Content can’t be promotional.
All founders, executives, 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 game 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.
Promotional content works backwards from the goal of becoming a thought leader.
One-off press feature about how ‘disruptive’ you are aren't relatable. Unless you're Bill Gates or Elon Musk, people don’t care about your success—they're worried about their own. And perhaps more important, promotional content doesn’t add value or build trust.
Everyone wants to learn from someone who they can trust not to sell them on anything.
Instead of promoting your company, show that you’re a credible industry resource.
Use your experiences to back that up.
Don’t just talk about how effective your service is or how much knowledge you have—share personal stories. One way to do that is to give your opinion on an industry pain point that most people are too afraid to touch on. Drawing from your experiences and having an opinion shows people that you're an industry authority. Just remember: always speak in first-person and with conviction.
If content lacks a personal touch and is blatantly promotional, it’s not thought leadership.
4. Be a little vulnerable.
Now you know that in order to be a thought leader, you must be active in your industry on a regular basis, share valuable insights from your own point of view, and draw from personal experiences.
What you don't know yet is how you’re going to connect with people, which is perhaps the most important component of becoming a thought leader. Connecting comes down to vulnerability. Because humans connect through emotion, finding an emotional heartstring is the best way to build trust (and a following) through your content.
To relate to someone on an emotional level, you need to be vulnerable. An easy way to do this is to share your greatest success stories. Talk about the times you failed—and times you’ve failed miserably. Speak on personal experiences to help readers connect to you.
Honestly, no other person has the same exact experiences as you. No one else has your background or has 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 people realize.
If you want to become a thought leader and stand out in your industry, you have to share vulnerable, personal experiences. Your uniqueness adds value—whether it be solving an industry pain point or offering a different point of view.
If you don't know where to start, ask yourself some of these questions:
What makes my personal story unique?
What value can I add from these personal experiences?
What have I learned that would be beneficial to readers?
What was the best piece of advice I ever received? What was the worst?
What have I learned being in X position for X years?
What mistakes have I made? What are my biggest takeaways?
What was my scariest moment at work? My happiest? Why?
You can use these questions as a guideline for every single 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.
Vulnerability is what people are going to remember—and, ultimately, share.
5. Thought leadership done the right way is the 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 a cut-and-dry formula. Thought Leadership is a bit more involved but much more effective. That's why you can think of its ROI in a few different ways:
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, and so on into revenue—and how to effectively do so over time.
You can begin by considering your buying cycle. Maybe yours is 12-18 months, and 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 you 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, registered for another webinar, and even visited your CEO’s keynote at a recent industry conference.
From all of their engagements with your thought leadership material, you conclude that your total investment in those pieces was $X and the ROI is your $60K ACV.
Now, simply repeat this exercise for all your clients. What you find are your dollars and cents version of Thought Leadership ROI. And that’s just based on the assets you CAN track.
Try not to forget that while the buying process is over, your thought leadership content continues 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 far from an attractive one. But with each piece of high-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 one without doing so.
Of course, the ultimate goal of any marketing effort is to drive more business, and that will inherently come with time—as long as you’re staying consistent and adding 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 niche 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.
Then, one day, one of your pieces crosses the screen of a big-time industry podcast host. He 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, continue adding value, and your content continually gets 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 an outright industry authority.
Instead of having to call people, they’ll call you.
Why? Because you're now thought leader.