Why thought leadership is worth the work.
A practical conversation on:
Why thought leadership matters
How you can build a productive thought leadership program
Thought leadership can be an incredibly effective tool for building trust with your audience and moving them down your sales funnel. This is particularly true in specialized industries where businesses need to educate and guide buyers through slow-moving customer journeys and then continue to reaffirm their value over the course of long-term business relationships.
So why do so many businesses struggle to build effective thought leadership programs?
It’s not due to a lack of good ideas — innovation is happening everywhere, and at a faster pace than ever before. What it usually comes down to is a lack of:
Organizational understanding of what thought leadership is
Bandwidth to execute
Strong creative partnership
One of the most common challenges businesses face when creating effective thought leadership is figuring out how to expand the scope of an expert-driven piece to make it more accessible to a wider audience. This is particularly essential in the B2B space, where thought leadership often needs to speak to executive decision makers focused on resources and ROI, as well as operational experts who are looking for new insights and improved processes.
To learn how to overcome these hurdles and accelerate your thought leadership program, read on for an in-depth Q&A and best practice discussion with our Senior Copywriter, Luke Carroll.
What is thought leadership?
At a very high level, thought leadership should offer a timely or unique perspective on a high-value topic or key challenge in your field.
The point is to freely share your expertise in a way that helps your reader build their understanding of an issue, explore potential solutions and define a set of actionable next steps.
How do you decide on a topic for thought leadership?
A good topic for thought leadership enables you to join a current conversation and add meaningful value for your audience. High-value content doesn’t just demonstrate your expertise, it should be relevant and useful to your target audience. Don’t try to force your content to fit a current trend or topic and be wary of creating content that is more focused on selling solutions than sharing insights, as this could damage trust with your audience.
What should we write about?
Original research is the gold standard. If you have new research that you’re ready to share, you’re ahead of the game. But this type of thought leadership requires a significant investment of time and resources. If you’re not ready to go that route, there are still a lot of other avenues you can explore.
Deciding what to write about might be easier than you think — you just need to start with a clear and actionable definition of what thought leadership is. Expressing a timely or unique point of view doesn’t have to mean creating “paradigm-shifting” or “world-changing” content from scratch.
Sometimes it’s enough just to share an existing perspective from within your organization, even if the idea isn’t technically groundbreaking. Your brand voice, your position in the industry and your expertise count for a lot, and many of your customers are waiting to hear your take on today’s most pressing topics.
You can find ideas by answering a few of these questions. And you can ask your coworkers these questions, too.
What big new ideas are you working on right now? Where did they come from?
What makes your approach different? Why?
What makes your organization different? Why?
What is one thing you wish (your customer/other people in your field/other people in related fields) understood better about the problems you work on every day?
What are your customers’ most common problems? Why do those problems occur?
What new insights have had an impact on your organization’s strategy?
What is the new business idea/approach that you can’t stop thinking about?
“What if …?”
Oh, and one more note — this is critical to building a sustainable thought leadership program:
Remember, you can always call on your teammates for support. Your organization is full of highly intelligent people doing very interesting work. There are lots of great ideas just waiting to be discovered. What ideas draw out strong opinions from your colleagues? Those are good topics for thought leadership.
What are some impactful thought leadership strategies?
Your overall thought leadership strategy should be established at a higher level than a single campaign or piece of content. Level-set the scope and tone of your thought leadership presence up front.
First, it’s important to define your goals. Here are some examples:
Shine a spotlight on a particular expert, or on your organization’s expertise
Educate audiences on a new idea in greater depth
Help audiences learn and implement operational best practices as they evaluate or build solutions
Position yourself/your organization as a go-to source for information on the latest trends
Share a point-of-view on an emerging trend or topic.
Next, identify your primary audiences:
Who are you communicating to?
What do they want or need?
Where do they currently look for answers?
Then decide the channels and platforms for communication:
The channels and formats you use will depend on your insights, goals and audience. But your primary piece of content should always be surrounded by a supporting campaign, full of bite-sized pieces of promotional content that share some of the most engaging and digestible ideas from your primary deliverable.
A multi-channel approach that leverages a mix of social media content, long-form blogs, infographics, whitepapers and audio-visual formats can help create multiple points of entry to your ideas and solutions.
If time and resources are a constraint, consider a phased approach or focus on the approach that will achieve the most engagement.
Finally, be sure to establish a look, tone and feel early on:
Good design can help you make an impression on your audience and communicate your story effectively. Repeatable formats, clear visual elements and thoughtful designs help make your content more accessible, which can help drive higher engagement with your brand and ideas as a whole.
Great design can make connections within your work clearer for the audience — and even inspire better, more digestible writing from your experts.
Are there any memorable thought leadership projects that you’ve worked on?
I recently worked on a thought leadership piece for a financial services firm — a short white paper that was part of a larger repositioning strategy for a service that has been in the market for decades. It was exciting and challenging to interview and work with subject matter experts with decades of experience, to help them clarify and succinctly tell their story for a broader audience.
In this example, interviewing the primary subject matter expert (i.e., topic thought leader) allowed me to explain some unspoken assumptions and help lower the barrier to entry for audiences who don’t work with these services on a day-to-day basis. I simplified dense technical language and brought the tone and structure of the white paper in line with other materials. As a result, the white paper moved quickly through approvals and will soon be available to help sales teams re-educate clients on the value of this service. The campaign is ongoing; having already worked so closely with the team to reshape this piece, we are in a good position to develop any support materials, from emails to infographics to social media and more.
What takes a thought leadership campaign from good to great?
Take the time to get input from your subject matter experts, and as many related stakeholders as possible, especially for large-scale projects. This helps ensure the end product incorporates a wide range of perspectives, rather than just one person’s vision. By making the idea more relevant and digestible to a wider audience, you can give it more staying power over time.
How do you help your clients improve their thought leadership campaigns?
We solve the creative partnership and bandwidth challenges for our clients.
The team at Notion helps B2B clients across a wide range of industries develop their most forward-looking content into digestible presentations, reports or whitepapers. We provide guidance on how to develop and plan thought leadership campaigns around new research or ideas and help define the best channels and formats are, depending on the type of content being shared.
We then lead the overall creative execution (content development and design). At each step, we think about how to simplify the complex, make the content more engaging and how we can make your deliverables work harder — like combining several assets into a toolkit, making a PDF report interactive, etc.
Notion also offers full-service video production services. Video is a great way to make an impact; you can build rapport with your audience by having one of your experts present their ideas in an engaging, bite-sized format, and illustrate complex ideas using simple animations.
The cost and approach for videos can vary, from high-production value to quicker, more economical campaigns. These days, many audiences are increasingly receptive to less-polished, “Microsoft Teams”-style interviews. A straightforward documentary style can be useful to have in your thought leadership toolbelt; the lack of fine production polish can help build a sense that you’re hearing the unvarnished truth straight from the experts.
At the end of the day, the goal for any thought leadership program should be to build market awareness and trust by sharing actionable insights for free. Sharing your expertise tells your audience that your organization is knowledgeable, willing and able to help them find solutions to their toughest problems.