Thought leadership marketing is one of those terms that many use, but remains poorly understood. How does it link to content marketing? Perhaps more importantly, how well are you doing it? In this review, we disentangle some of the issues, and provide some ideas for improving and developing thought leadership in your organisation.

Thought leadership is more than content

Thought leadership is about content. But it is much more than a simple content strategy. Thought leaders develop and publish content that consistently answers their customers’ key questions, and addresses their biggest problems. And it doesn’t just provide an answer, it provides the best, most relevant answer as often as possible.

A content strategy, however, will include quite a lot that is not about thought leadership. It covers, for example, consistency of messaging across channels, accuracy of information and monitoring and responding to social media. Thought leadership is likely to be a part of your content strategy, and content is key to thought leadership, but the two should not be confused.

Thought leadership is also a long-term strategy. You cannot build up a reputation overnight. You need time to gather an audience, and become recognised as influential. Fortunately, however, B2B customers’ buying processes are also long-term. One of the purposes of thought leadership is to get involved in the conversation with customers from an earlier stage. These conversations may last some time: long enough to be considered an ongoing relationship, not a transaction.

Getting thought leadership right

In practice, this means that thought leadership marketing:

  • Is focused on customers, and particularly their issues and problems. It is easy to talk about what you know, but is that what your customers are bothered about? Thought leaders know and understand their customers’ pain points, and demonstrate that in what they publish.
  • Does not push or promote your solutions. Sometimes they won’t be the answer to the biggest problems, and advertising is a turn-off for many people. You are creating brand awareness by your expertise, not by talking about your product. The key to thought leadership is building trust.
  • Does not necessarily have a unique point of view. People sometimes worry that they are not differentiating their content all the time. Sometimes, you will share the view of others (and then you might also share their content, if that is the best way to answer your customers’ question). What differentiates you is your recognition of customers’ problems, and your understanding of the solutions.
  • Is based in deep and solid knowledge. There is nothing trite or shallow about thought leaders’ opinions. Your views need to be fully grounded in research and understanding, so that it is clear to your customers that you really do know what you are talking about. This may mean that you need to do some research of your own. The key is to focus on depth, rather than breadth of knowledge. After all, lots of people know a few things about any given subject. Only an expert knows it in depth.
  • Cannot be done by marketers alone. In some ways, it may be a mistake to use the term ‘thought leadership marketing’. Yes, thought leadership can be an important element of a marketing strategy, but thought leaders can be based anywhere in the organisation. Their distinguishing feature is their understanding of customers’ issues, and how best to address them. Marketers do not necessarily have this deep knowledge, and will need to draw on expertise from elsewhere to avoid simply advertising or promoting products. Thought leadership needs to integrate subject matter expertise with research, and draw on tools and resources from across the organisation.

All of this requires organisational commitment to reap the full rewards.

The impact of thought leadership

The impact of thought leadership is often seen as hard to measure. How can you assess the strength of trust in expertise, or in a relationship built across social media engagement over time? We have found though, there are lead and lag indicates that will show upticks within 3-4 ‘cycles’ of thought leadership based engagements. Cycle times can vary by business, but typically comprises a group of subject matter experts sharing original ideas consistently, and marketing partners integrating these in campaigns.

The issue, of course, is that if you don’t start the relationship, and get the conversation going, someone else will get in there first. Like owning a dog, if you outsource the care (in this case, the conversation), you also outsource the love. One survey found that more than three quarters of buyers said that thought leadership was important in their buying decision. Can you afford not be involved?



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