Leadership is one of the most sought-after traits in the business world. After all, leadership is what makes the difference between a good organization and a great one.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, described the ultimate “level 5 leader” as someone humble but willing to do anything in the company’s best interest.
However, the term “thought leadership” has now become a catchphrase thrown around aimlessly.
So, what exactly is thought leadership and how can you use it to improve brand visibility and increase conversions in the long-term?
Thought Leadership Basics
In general, leadership is the ability to lead, that is, to guide people, individually and collectively, toward a goal or objective.
For most observers, leadership is a quality exhibited by exceptionally charismatic people. Nevertheless, a good leader isn’t always in the limelight. Leadership is about adding value to people’s lives. Therefore, good leaders improve the lives of those around them.
The emergence of the term “thought leadership” places a different spin on conventional leadership. After all, leadership isn’t just about meeting objectives. Leadership is also about possessing exceptional capabilities. Likewise, a person or organization is a thought leader if others in their chosen field consider them an authority in a specific area. Consequently, individuals and organizations seek the thought leader’s knowledge to solve a problem or improve upon a situation.
Thought leadership is a vital part of content marketing. In this type of marketing, thought leaders can offer their knowledge and experience to their followers. In turn, followers can find solutions to their problems while expanding their understanding of a specific topic.
By regularly providing this valuable content, thought leaders position themselves and their brands prominently in their readers’ minds, and sales ultimately follow.
Using Thought Leadership
Content marketing provides useful and actionable information that followers can use. And through content marketing, brands can use thought leadership to assert their expertise. Thus, thought leadership is successful when an individual or organization has the depth of knowledge needed to position themselves as a go-to expert in their chosen industry or field.
It’s also important to note that thought leadership is not about selling.
Thought leadership is about providing value that can eventually convert interested parties into paying clients.
Thus, it’s a question of positioning your brand as the go-to choice when the time comes to spend money.
It’s worth noting that thought leadership isn’t for everyone. Additionally, it isn’t the answer to every problem. Instead, thought leadership is ideal for individuals and companies that seek to position themselves as go-to experts in their respective fields.
As thought leadership is about building credibility, regurgitating common knowledge does not improve credibility. Meaningful content that can add value is what drives thought leadership.
Circa Interactive’s George Bradley offers this insight:
“There are times where it may be best for a business not to position itself as a thought leader. When making this decision, a company should always look at its customer base. Is making a particular stance going to divide your customer base? Could this lose you more clients or customers than it is likely to gain? If the answer is yes, then sometimes the bottom line has to come first, and it may be best to position yourself where the company will thrive.”
Often, thought leadership implies sharing knowledge freely. There is one caveat, however: Thought leadership does not mean self-promotion. Great content can get quickly overshadowed by self-promotion. Thus, focusing on the topic is always the best course of action.
Sherrilynne Starkey of Thornley Fallis Communications poignantly sums up this point:
“Start with from a paradigm of generosity. Freely give news and information to assist and support the people in your target audiences. Give them real value in terms of ‘how-to,’ ‘why you need to know,’ ‘here’s how to do it’ type stories and content. By being generous and focusing on giving value, you’ll reach more people, build loyalty, and gain market share.”
Valuable thought leadership can emerge from practically anywhere. Individuals can derive contributions from their personal and professional experience, formal training, and academic study. And organizations can pool the talents of their members into a compilation of knowledge and experience.
Generally speaking, there is a potentially infinite number of sources for thought leadership within an organization. These sources enable individuals and organizations to build their point of view and distinguish one authority from another by contributing their unique talents and skills.
After all, it would be impossible to stand out without having a unique point of view. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers. It is a question of offering value at all times. A unique perspective can deliver value consistently.
Benefits of Using Thought Leadership
Using thought leadership as part of a content marketing strategy can yield significant benefits. On the whole, these benefits help individuals and organizations stand out above their competition. In particular, five benefits often prove to be the most meaningful.
1. Positioning the Brand
The most immediate benefit of thought leadership is personal or professional brand positioning. For example, professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and consultants can position themselves as experts in their field by using thought leadership. As for corporations, they can use their members’ collective skills and experience to provide their clients value.
It’s important to note that brand positioning is also not about selling. Instead, it is about becoming the go-to source in a specific area.
According to Lily Ray of Lilyray.nyc, a widely acknowledged thought leader in the content marketing space:
“Thought leadership is extremely important when it comes to establishing and building your brand. While it’s important to provide commentary and share your thoughts about industry trends or research others have done, what can really set you apart is to conduct your own research or develop your own fresh set of ideas to contribute to the community. Sometimes this can prove to be challenging; others may not always be receptive to your ideas, and it can often be uncomfortable to push the dialogue forward. But adding a fresh perspective, new data, or new ideas – and remaining consistent with this process over time – is what can build a solid brand and set a leader apart from the rest.”
Indeed, brand positioning is about being generous with knowledge. Therefore, a fresh spin on an existing situation can make a significant difference.
2. Improving Credibility
Clients seek professionals and companies they can trust. As such, thought leadership can improve credibility by showcasing both individuals’ and teams’ skills and experience.
As followers see the value a brand has to offer; they will come to trust that brand. Ultimately, credibility helps communicate a brand’s value proposition without openly pitching a product or service.
As Saxton and Stump’s Anthony Gaenzle explains:
“Your team is a critical part of your brand; this is especially true in fields like healthcare, marketing, legal and other areas that require true experts. Your clients or customers want to know that they’re hiring or purchasing from knowledgeable individuals with a lot of experience in their respective fields, so being able to convey that message in your marketing and PR is important for success and growth.”
This quote highlights the importance of expertise in building credibility. As such, the aim is to convey a message through content.
3. Shortening the Sales Cycle
A product or service’s sales cycle begins with leads first coming into contact with the brand and ends with a successful purchase.
While sales cycles differ significantly from product to product, thought leadership can substantially shorten the sales cycle by maintaining constant communication between clients and brands. Once clients are ready to approach the brand, they are already focused on purchasing. In the words of Jimmy Daly of Animalz, “high volume, top of the funnel content works best.” Indeed, top-notch content is the best way to shorten the sales cycle.
4. Generating Greater Visibility
An essential aim in marketing is generating greater visibility for a brand’s products and services. Unfortunately, traditional marketing is often unsuccessful because it pitches products directly to potential clients. Furthermore, traditional marketing rarely establishes two-way communication.
This is where thought leadership shines.
Effective thought leadership enables clients and brands to communicate back and forth. Consequently, clients feel the brand hears their voice.
5. Reaching Decision-makers
In a B2B context, content marketing reaches decision-makers directly. Quality content does not need filtering from an assistant or secretary.
Excellent thought leadership can even reach top-level executives directly. In fact, 43 percent of top-level executives indicate that thought leadership helps them research an issue, while 39 percent indicate it helps them find a solution to a situation.
This is why it is so crucial for thought leadership to be relevant at all times.
Creating Thought Leadership Content
By definition, content marketing is only as effective as its content. Luckily, thought leadership can take content marketing to the next level.
The following is a breakdown of guidelines and best practices that will ensure your thought leadership content does the trick.
Cite reputable sources.
When it comes to creating effective thought leadership content, using plenty of citations from reputable sources is a great way to show the reader that your arguments are well-reasoned while also showing how well-read you are.
According to Grist, 53 percent of executives want to hear information from industry experts, while 44 percent indicate they seek information from professional services firms. Thus, citing information from leading sources is a must for compelling content.
Consult subject matter experts.
Subject matter experts are thought leaders in their own right. Considering that 53 percent of executives look to industry experts, it makes sense to consult them.
Effective content marketers know that consulting subject matter experts will enhance their material. Whenever possible, arranging exclusive interviews or getting written opinions can boost visibility.
Additionally, opinions found in blogs, YouTube videos, or webinars make good secondary sources.
Create a consistent narrative.
A consistent narrative means that all materials produced have a common voice and tone.
Creating a consistent narrative gives followers a reason to identify with the brand and is crucial for building long-term conversions.
In contrast, disjointed content may appear scattered and random. Planning multiple pieces of content in advance is an easy way to ensure everything you create has a clear narrative through-line.
Do extensive research into the topic and target audience.
Influential thought leaders know how powerful creating targeted content can be.
However, doing so successfully requires careful research into the topic and a clear understanding of who the target audience will be.
Thus, getting started is a question of getting to know the target audience well.
Demographic information such as age, gender, occupation, and educational level all help produce relevant content.
Moreover, 84 percent of executives value content that enhances their role, while 79 percent want to stay ahead of the game. Thus, knowing audiences is key to successful thought leadership.
Provide as many real-life examples as possible.
Ideas and concepts don’t exist in a vacuum; real world application is key. This is why it’s crucial to provide as many real-life examples as possible, as doing so will enable audiences to see the practical application of the knowledge you share.
Since 47 percent of executives consider thought leadership that is too conceptual ineffective, and 63 percent consider thought leadership that is too generic ineffective, it makes sense to include as many real-life examples as possible.
Highlight the role of a thought leader.
It’s important to highlight a thought leader’s role by referencing any relevant significant achievements and experience. After all, audiences expect to get information from an experienced source.
However, it’s equally important to avoid self-promotion; this is not the time to exalt the brand.
According to research, 53 percent of executives feel that thought leadership based on self-promotion is ineffective. Thus, when highlighting your experience and industry achievements, it is best to remain humble.
Testing Thought Leadership Content
Once the content is ready for publication, it’s worth testing its effectiveness before launch. Savvy marketers understand that conducting test runs can help them refine the content to meet their target audience’s needs and expectations specifically.
Here are three handy ways to test content before final publication.
Pitch to clients.
Testing content on real-life clients is an excellent way of measuring its impact. The use of focus groups is the most common way marketers can test their content.
In some instances, companies can contact their clients directly to ask them to participate in surveys, provide feedback, or suggest ideas for improvement. Pitching content to clients is crucial as 66 percent of top-level executives believe that thought leadership provides them with insight into emerging trends.
Pitch to peers.
When looking for feedback, other thought leaders in the same space are a great resource.
After all, receiving honest criticism can help fine-tune any marketer’s efforts. And, as an added bonus, it might make a new industry contact.
Generally speaking, feedback from peers can provide useful insights into why content is not hitting the mark.
In a recent survey revealing the most common complaints among top-level executives regarding thought leadership, 63 percent of executives indicated that the content was not relevant, 58 percent indicated that it lacked original ideas, and 38 percent said it was boring.
Gauge public reaction.
Once content hits audiences, gauging their reaction is crucial to ensuring its eventual success.
According to research, 47 percent of executives believe that a majority of thought leadership content is too theoretical or offered no practical advice. Likewise, 40 percent indicate that they ignored thought leadership content that did not contain any substantiated opinions, while 38 percent found this type of thought leadership content too bland to be of much use.
Gauging these reactions can help marketers tweak their content to reach their target audience much more effectively.
Hitting the Mark with Thought Leadership
Nowadays, business is all about providing clients and followers as much value as possible, which is why thought leadership content is so popular. In the end, doing so helps position brands and the trusted, go-to source in their respective fields.
When done right, thought leadership can provide ample opportunities for making sales. It’s just a matter of identifying the right moment for sharing content and the right moment for selling.