Everyone wants to be recognized leaders in their industry—demonstrated by bold, unique, trailblazing content that has audiences hanging onto every word. But in reality, meaty thought leadership content is rarer than a red-center steak.
And that’s how it should be. If every steak is special, none of them are special. It’s just “what’s for dinner.”
If done properly, content marketing can be thought leadership—and thought leadership can be a way to stand out from competitor gristle.
The question is how to elevate content so it’s “a cut above” that satisfies the craving for hearty, high-quality information. Here, we’ll give you the insights you need to know when developing a juicy thought leadership strategy.
Where did ‘thought leadership’ come from anyway?
According to Forbes, “thought leader” entered the business lexicon in 1994, credited to Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business magazine. He described a thought leader as someone with peer, customer, and industry recognition who “deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers, and the broader marketplace in which they operate.”
Doesn’t that sound divine? Certainly, we all aspire to that end, but the nebulous nature of this definition can be difficult to understand. By our definition, a thought leader “alters outlook and transforms the future, one idea at a time.” There is equal emphasis on thought (original insight) and leadership (where you’re headed).
Thought leadership matters, especially with B2B content.
Top-level content is worth ordering, as it produces tangible business outcomes by:
- Increasing targeted awareness: B2B decision-makers spend 1-4 hours a week engaging with “thought leadership content” online, according to the 2021 Edelman-LinkedIn Thought Leadership Study. This type of high-level content leads 57% of corporate decision-makers to discover new companies they hadn’t previously considered—and 47% do end up purchasing as a result. Thought leadership content is a great leveraging tool for little-known brands or companies breaking into new markets.
- Connecting with audiences: In-person sit-downs with corporate executives are far and few between. Direct interaction with a B2B sales rep takes up 5% of an executive’s decision-making time. Executives spend 83% of their time researching online. Over three-quarters of B2B decision-makers prefer this low-pressure method of considering solutions, providers, and pricing. When done well, thought leadership establishes a personal connection with hard-to-reach decision-makers and proactively answers questions to pave the way for smoother transactions.
- Exuding value: Last year’s study found that thought leadership content not only secures business, but allows companies to command a higher premium; 41% of decision-makers surveyed said they’d pay more to work with a demonstrated “thought leader.” Charging a higher premium isn’t the ultimate end game for a winning company, but it is a natural benefit when your brand becomes synonymous with quality and value.
MarketSmiths Case Study
As the world’s largest and most influential professional network, LinkedIn helps millions of businesses connect with top talent. Throughout the year, LinkedIn’s growth marketing team kicks off new initiatives to expand its user base at various points along the acquisition funnel. While other agencies and copywriters had fumbled in representing the delicate nuances of the industry—requiring often-extensive redos and rewrites, MarketSmiths hit the ground running. Since 2018, we’ve steadily produced ebooks, landing pages, informative guides, articles, and other content that hits the mark, successfully boosting SEO, driving traffic and product interest, and meaningfully connecting with a global audience of recruiters, business leaders, and more. Our work enables the LinkedIn team to focus on broader strategic initiatives—and continue scaling its expansive community and reach.
Quality content is the building block for thought leadership
To get the most delectable steak, you start with a quality cut of meat. The same holds true for a piece of thought leadership content. All thought leadership content is quality content—offering the sort of depth and professionalism of a “top three” search query.
Ultimately, B2B decision-makers who consume thought leadership say they’re looking for:
- Expertise: Audiences want valuable insights. They want a unique understanding of their problems and solutions that alleviate common pain points. They want a fresh perspective and a voice that doesn’t parrot what others are saying or doing.
- Authority: Audiences are looking for proprietary insights and deep dives on specialized topics from subject matter experts—in other words, uniqueness. Yet, they’re also looking for tie-ins to credible third-party data from established, trusted sources.
- Human Voice: Audiences are foregoing hifalutin verbiage for entertaining, approachable conversation. For your tone, think Jimmy Kimmel or Jim Gaffigan. Readers resonate with content from a clear point of view, rather than a faceless brand.
Remember—whether you’re searing grill marks onto your steak or delivering thought leadership content—you want it to look good, too. Today’s reader expects thoughtful ideas and thoughtful design. You’ve got, at most, one minute to appeal to your reader with choice fonts and colors, digestible paragraphs, skimmable subheaders and bullets, and compelling graphics.
Thought leadership is all in how you cook it.
Once you have your quality content, you have to be careful not to overcook it. Understanding the difference between true thought leadership and its many imitators can help you achieve a truly satisfying entree.
Thought leadership is NOT:
- About you. Overuse has made “thought leader” an insufferable business cliche—called “icky” or even “egomaniacal” in some circles. David Brooks once described the life of a thought leader as a continuous “battle for attention,” culminating with “powerless lunches” and “pleas for mercy” with the jerkish “new versions” of oneself. The tragic journey of self-aggrandizement is not something anyone wants to read.
- Industry parroting. In The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker broke down every story ever written into seven themes. Similarly, companies can get stuck in a rut of repurposing the same old news stories and competitor blogs. Unoriginal parroting is tedious to read and rarely inspires action.
- Your product pitch. While a thought leadership piece may end with a final pitch, your brand shouldn’t dominate. If your first paragraph opens like a press release, you’ve created promotional content—not thought leadership. Many white papers and ebooks do a great job of opening with thought—delivering strong sales copy, followed by summarizing industry positions, and trends—but the final effort falls just short of leadership.
Elevate your content to thought leadership by crafting a piece that is:
- Relevant and audience-focused. Readers care only about urgent matters of direct importance to them. They want a useful insight, something they hadn’t considered before, or an entertaining laugh. Before you can create thought leadership content, you’ll need a pulse on your industry and your buyers to deeply understand what fascinates or troubles them. Market research, drawing up buyer personas, and conducting subject matter expert interviews are all important precursors to the creation of thought leadership.
- Personal and credible. To come up with a truly unique piece of content, begin by considering your highly-specific target audience: what information they’re searching for, what they need, and why. Draw unique connections from your knowledge base and events in your professional/personal life. The more difficult part of “thought leadership” to articulate boils down to tone. You know the voice of a leader when you hear it—clear, composed, confident. That’s why many companies hire professional writers who are formally trained to convey information in a likable way that resonates with credibility.
- Proactive and forward-thinking. Your readers want to come away with something—a new idea or solution. Connect with and educate your audience, sharing your most authentic self. Rather than just describing the pain points of today, exude leadership—how you’re steering the ship toward a better course to meet current challenges and future trends. Like a perfect dinner date, you want your content to let your companions know, “I understand you, and I’m here for you, whenever you need me.”
Developing high-level content can be challenging, but it’s worth every bite. You don’t need an abundance of seasoning or sauce. You just need a little salt (insight) and pepper (personality).
If you, like us, love a fine meaty piece of content, let’s talk thought leadership. Reach out to our copywriting team today.