Jewel Marketing
Taiwan Content Marketing

Thought Leadership: A Content Marketing Singularity



By Jason Patterson

Founder of Jewel Content Marketing Agency
Thought leadership is the only content AI can't generate, making it one of the few ways your brand can truly stand out through content. But thought leadership tends to perform differently than other types of marketing or brand-level content, which can make it singularly hard to measure, manage, and justify.

What Is Thought Leadership?

The water is muddy regarding what is and isn't thought leadership, and definitions vary. But thought leadership is content that advocates an opinion, theory, or point of view for the purposes of adding to, influencing, or advancing the discourse in an industry or discipline. In short....

Thought Leadership Is Discourse

Coming from a brand, thought leadership could be called branded discourse. But it's not the sort of discourse you find in most newspaper editorials or political opinion pieces. It's not aimed at the public (at least not directly). It's aimed at industry leaders, authorities, and decision makers (along with the rank-and-file members who want to be them someday).

Thought leadership pieces also tend to make their arguments with a little more depth and rigor than your average opinion piece (i.e., they feel more nerdy or academic), which tends to be short and snappy. But one thing thought leadership does have in common with editorials is....

Thought Leadership's Objective Is Subjective

Despite what I said a couple paragraphs back about thought leadership having an academic air, thought leadership contributes to the discourse of a certain industry, not the body of knowledge. It is called thought leadership, after all, not fact leadership.

Granted, thought leadership is often part of content that does add to the body of knowledge (like whitepapers), but adding to it is not required.

A whitepaper is a piece of original research that adds something (usually data in B2B marketing) to a subject's body of knowledge. If the authors of that whitepaper choose to interpret that data and make conclusions based on it, that part is thought leadership.

And those conclusions can't just be "water is wet." They need to be something relevant to the direction your industry or discipline is moving in. Something you believe in. In other words....

Thought Leadership Is Advocacy

Thought leadership advances or argues for something. A theory. A vision. A point of view. An opinion. All these things are products of the human mind (i.e., thoughts). What defines thought leadership are thoughts, not facts.

The thoughts involved might be original, but don't have to be. Sometimes thought leadership makes a better argument for an old point instead of advancing a new one.

Thought Leadership Is Unique

In content marketing funnel terms, thought leadership is awareness content (which discusses problems or issues your customers face) and/or consideration content (which discusses what you sell).

Though if it's the latter, thought leadership usually doesn't discuss specific models or proprietary features, but products and features like yours in a general way.

However, most thought leadership doesn't look or act like standard awareness or consideration content. It's an oddball.

Consideration is usually buyer's journey content, which thought leadership rarely is. And as to awareness, well, it doesn't quite point in either direction.

Thought Leadership Isn't Strictly Inbound

Content marketing is largely an inbound tactic. And inbound content basically works by answering prospects' questions. But thought leadership doesn't really answer questions (at least not the sorts of questions prospects typically ask on the buyer's journey).

Thought leadership adds to or advances the discourse. It is literally the cutting edge. And one doesn't know what the cutting edge is until they've already seen it. Which means they can't ask questions about it ahead of time, which is why thought leadership can be hard to find in a web search. However....

Thought Leadership Isn't Strictly Outbound

Outbound content isn't united by a single purpose. But it does have something in common. It's easy to sell (or at least it's meant to be).

Whitepapers and e-books are among your typical outbound fodder. And they might include some thought leadership. But pure thought leadership content doesn't really fit in with them.

Unlike an e-book, an opinion piece isn't something you offer at a tradeshow booth or when doing cold outreach. And unlike a whitepaper, pure thought leadership isn't as easy to slice and dice into bite-sized facts and figures for social media sharing. It's also not the sort of thing you'd offer as bait when doing social media lead gen.

Thought leadership is hard to sell. A whitepaper offers data. An e-book offers practical guidance or advice. But thought leadership is an opinion. And opinions are like assholes. Everybody's got one. And the only way anyone will want to see yours is to place it in a newspaper or have an influencer or industry leader behind it.

Thought Leadership Lacks a Natural Home

So we've established that thought leadership isn't entirely inbound or outbound. Why is this important? Because plenty of marketers understand how to plan inbound or outbound content and measure its success. But a type of content that is both and neither? Not so much.

What About Brand?

Thought leadership isn't what I would call brand-level content either (since people have thoughts but not brands), making it even more jurisdictionally thorny. Could a brand newsroom or content team run your thought leadership efforts? Yeah, they'd be a good fit. But they're rare in the real world. And brands large enough to have such teams often aren't interested in saying anything interesting.

What About Communications?

Could thought leadership be treated as communications instead of content? Theoretically, yes. But in practice, communications work tends to involve a lot of diplomacy and ass-covering, making this department an awkward keeper of a brand's thought leadership flame.

Marketing Wins by Default

Branded thought leadership tends to work better when your thought leaders are subject matter experts (SMEs) who can speak their minds, not executives who answer to stockholders. And marketing tends to have better relationships with SMEs than your comms people, making marketing a better, if still imperfect, thought leadership champion.

How Thought Leadership Succeeds

Since it's not about answering prospects' questions, the goal of thought leadership content is not about winning business or improving your SEO (at least not directly). Instead, thought leadership makes a dent in your industry's discourse (i.e., influencing what people think) in the hope you'll profit from it sometime later.

How you do this will vary somewhat by your market position. As with many things in marketing, the rules are different for leader and non-leader brands.

Leader Brands Control the Discourse

Thought leadership from leader brands exists to get the industry you serve talking about what you want them talking about. To get them thinking their problems are the problems you solve. To get them thinking the future will be the future you envision (and to spend their money, write the laws or set the standards accordingly). At least those are the big picture goals.

Some people will tell you that good "small picture" indicators for thought leadership success are things like followers numbers. That works for people. Not so much for brands. Especially large ones. Because gathering more followers means shit when you're a large brand. You've got oodles already.

You don't need to know if people are listening. You already know they are. What you need to know is if your message is working. This means things like social listening. Search traffic volume. Surveys. These sorts of things.

Non-Leader Brands Attract Attention

Non-leader brands have been getting a lot of bad advice about thought leadership over the past ten years, because they've been told to look for success in the same way leaders achieve success, but that doesn't work. Because nobody cares or talks about you when you're a non-leader.

So don't look at Fortune 500 tools like social listening. Use your eyes and ears.

When a small and relatively unknown brand (without a rockstar CEO to propel it) starts out on a thought leadership program, you're going to see little-to-no tangible business benefit for a while.

But if your thought leadership is saying something new or interesting or adding value in some way (especially if you've got some original research or practical guidance mixed in with it), and if you keep putting in the reps on enough channels (maybe for six months to a year), followers will gather, and people you want to notice your thought leadership will eventually notice it.

And then they ask your author for an interview. Or they ask for a quote to include in an article. Or they ask your author to be a podcast guest or to write a guest blog or byline.

Keep your expectations modest at first. It probably won't be the New York Times that reaches out the first time. Your first byline or interview as a thought leader might be in a publication so obscure, you're the one earning them press.

But don't think you're above this stuff. You need to be seen as in-demand, so that means saying yes a lot. If you keep taking these opportunities (and get seen taking them), better ones will follow. And eventually the media will start asking you for your take on other things that are not necessarily your original thought leadership points.

In short, your thought leadership efforts will feel less like giving speeches and more like a conversation. And when that happens, congratulations. You're no longer just a thought haver, you're a thought leader. Because people are actually asking you what they should think.

And when you're a thought leader, your goal shouldn't simply be influencing the discourse. Because you aren't just a knowledgeable fan anymore. You're on the court with the other players. And your goal now should be what leader brands do, control the game.

Who Should Your Thought Leaders Be?

Don't make the mistake of thinking that success in your industry automatically makes you, or qualifies you to be, a thought leader. Many executives and industry leaders are asked for their takes and opinions by the media, but that alone isn't thought leadership.

Thought Leaders Think Voluntarily

A thought leader mostly offers thoughts of their own volition (i.e., spontaneously and not when asked). Which means thought leaders write, speak, or host. Not just for business reasons. But because they want to.

Thought Leaders Want to Be Thought Leaders

Trust me, the drive needs to come from within. When seeking thought leader candidates among your executives and SMEs, you want someone who's already a thought haver and thought sharer.

If someone is not inclined to do this, you can't incline them. It won't work. The half-assedness of the endeavor simply won't endure, because your source will view it as a tedious distraction from the work they should be doing, not a fun part of their job they're lucky to get paid to do.

What Brands Should Be Doing Thought Leadership?

B2B leader brands should all be doing thought leadership, of course. But thought leadership is also surprisingly startup-friendly, for two reasons.

One, there are fewer lawyers and approval layers watering down what you say. And two, the social media reach for your top people will often be larger than your brand's reach, making thought leadership from the former a good way to augment the latter, especially since people tend to be more attuned to people as thought leaders (as opposed to brands).

Mid-sized companies are probably the least suited to thought leadership. They often have the same approval problems when it comes to non-lobotomized content that large companies do, while lacking the power and money to get the world to eat thought leadership from their hand the way the Fortune 500 can.

But that doesn't mean it can't be done. It's just harder.

Don't Let Thought Leadership Intimidate You

Considering what I've just told you, a thought leadership program might sound exhausting. Generating original thoughts? Getting subjective opinions approved? Yeesh.

But remember something. There's thought leadership. There's thought leadership content. And there are thought leadership programs.

Most thought leadership, at its core, boils down to a single argument or point that's one sentence to one paragraph long, with most thought leadership content simply a house you build around that single point to justify it.

And a thought leadership program need not be anything more than the building of different houses to justify the same point. And if that one point is taken up and accepted by all or part of your industry, third parties will start building their own houses for that point, with you just needing to curate them (which means less work later on).

A thought leadership program is not about having a hundred original thoughts. It's about having one original thought and repeating it a hundred times in a hundred ways. And if that thought is a good one, and you repeat it well and often, people will come to you and ask you to repeat it for them. And then they'll start repeating it.

Later they'll start coming to you for new thoughts and that's when you know you've succeeded.

A Parting Thought....

The difference between a successful and an unsuccessful thought leader is that a successful one both offers and gets asked for thought leadership, while an unsuccessful one merely offers it.

If you want to make the "getting asked" part happen, try answering first.

A thought leader is also a thought follower. Make comments on other thought leaders' articles and posts. Answer questions asked in the industry community. And don't just be thoughtful. Be useful.

If all you do is preach, you're not listening. And when people figure out you're not listening, they won't listen to you.

So don't just shout into the void and expect people to gather. That's what crazy people do.

Happy thought leading.

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