Thought Leadership Content: The Fundamental Guide

Who is the most interesting person in the room when you’re at a networking event or a social outing? Simple, it’s whoever has the most unique and insightful stories to tell. Thought-leadership content is built on the same principle. By seeking to answer the unanswered or to provide unique insights into complex problems, thought leadership content captivates an audience and sparks meaningful conversations between your brand and your prospects.

A recent study determined that 91 percent of business decision-makers deem thought leadership important or critical, and nearly 40 percent of those respondents spend between one and three hours a week consuming this type of content.

However, thought leadership is just one of many levers that marketers can pull to support lead generation, but it is rarely effective on its own. Check out The Fundamental Guide to Lead Generation to unearth 38 additional lead-generation strategies that you can use to build an integrated communications strategy, including thought-leadership content.

What is Thought Leadership Content?

In a broader sense, thought leadership can be characterized as an insightful and original opinion within a given field of expertise. Thought leadership can be shared in presentations from industry experts as well as through original research studies.

Pertaining specifically to lead generation, thought leadership is a popularized content methodology whereby original research is conducted for the purpose of providing unique insights into a given industry climate or market problem. These insights can then be used to create a gated asset that can be promoted online and used to acquire contact information in exchange for the download of the asset.

An Example of Vendasta’s Thought Leadership

Thought leadership content is a powerful mechanism for businesses to leverage because it positions a business as subject-matter experts and trusted advisors on a given topic. One of Vendasta’s most prominent examples of thought-leadership content is our renowned churn study.

screenshot of vendasta's best thought leadership content

Source: Vendasta Churn Study

This study analyzed data from 100,000 businesses that use the Vendasta platform. The objective was to determine leading causes of client loss among marketing and advertising service providers and sought to determine strategies for improving client retention. This study and resulting media coverage, promotion, and remarketing has, over the last two years, generated hundreds of shares, dozens of backlinks, and led to the conversion of hundreds of MQLs.

The Pros and Cons of Thought Leadership Content

The cost of creating great thought leadership is often high, but, the benefits tend to far outweigh the cost. Here are some of the pros and cons your team may want to consider before tackling a thought-leadership project.

The Pros of Thought Leadership:

  1. Thought leadership builds credibility and trusted status. Insights gathered from original research demonstrate thought leadership, offer unique value to your customers and help to elevate your trusted advisory status.
  2. It fuels other content production. Once you’ve conducted research and published original work, you’re only half done. Thought leadership should then be paired with an organic blog strategy, video content production, email marketing, paid social media, event marketing, and additional content syndication efforts.
  3. It strengthens engagement. By pioneering ideas, your brand has an opportunity to foster more insightful conversations with your audience that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
  4. It’s PR-friendly. Unless you’re Facebook, it can often be difficult to generate media coverage for your brand. Insightful research will always be of more interest than marketing and sales pitches to third-party publications searching for great stories that directly benefit their audiences.
  5. It makes great gated content. At the end of the day, it’s all about lead generation. Thought-leadership content is among the most sought-after content to place behind a form wall.

The Cons of Thought Leadership

  1. Not every business has access to primary data. At Vendasta, we gather massive amounts of client data, which makes it much easier to generate thought-leading content. But if your business does not collect or only has access to limited data, then this marketing tactic may not be a realistic pursuit.
  2. It’s high-involvement work. Great thought leadership content requires leadership involvement, business intelligence teams, and perhaps more than one content writer and editor.
  3. Not all of it lands. The sad reality may be that you might put a lot of work into creating great original content, but if no one sees value in it, then the time may have been wasted. That’s why prior consumer research is a must. In fact, with our Challenges Agencies Face study, we began our work by conducting a massive survey on marketing agencies to determine a clear current state, then honed in on the challenges these companies faced.

How to Create Thought Leadership Content

If you’re ready to start generating more leads with the help of great thought leadership content, then these are the steps that you need to take.

1. Answer these three questions

  • What are you trying to prove or explain? 
  • Will it provide unique or original insights to consumers? 
  • Why does it matter to your target audience?

 

These are fundamental questions you should consider before beginning the process of creating thought-leadership content. If you cannot clearly articulate answers to these questions and validate your answers with data, then you may need to explore a different angle.

2. Determine your desired format

Thought leadership can be created and expressed as blog content, contributions to other publications, research papers, videos, virtual events, PDF style guides, or any combination of the above.

Determining the best format for your project primarily depends on the desired outcome. If lead generation is your goal, then it might be wise to create a gated PDF and pair it with blogs that link back to the gated asset download. However, if your desired outcome is reach and impressions, then you may want to consider executing a public-relations (PR) strategy with exclusive contributions to major publications.

3. Build an outline

Once you’ve identified a subject, you’re ready to craft an outline. Regardless of your chosen format, the outline is an essential element in the success of your thought-leadership endeavor.  

Here are the steps to formulating a strong outline for thought leadership:

  1. Clarify the scope of work. What is the project objective? Is the subject broad or narrow? What creative freedom do you have? What is the desired format?
  2. Brainstorm an initial outline. Always start with your existing knowledge on the subject and use that to carve out a first draft of the outline. Structure it as a table of contents.
  3. Consult the experts. Work with the experts within your organization who can help you develop your project outline.
  4. Do your research. Once you’ve exhausted your existing knowledge as well as that of other internal subject experts, it’s time to look externally.

4. Create a work-back schedule

Create a project timeline to manage the completion of each task and deadline. Schedules and project plans aren’t necessary for smaller content projects but can be impactful to the success and turnaround of larger projects. Key components of the workback schedule include task lists, task descriptions, assignees, and due dates.

Here are the steps for creating a workback schedule:

  1. Organize columns by date. The columns of your schedule should be set up in a calendar format so that tasks/deliverables can be pegged to specific dates.
  2. Organize rows by tasks. Rows should identify various tasks as well as scheduled work and completion dates for each.
  3. Include assignees and projected durations. Accountability is key in large content projects, so be sure each task has someone assigned to it and a projected duration.
  4. Optional additions:
    1. Fixed due dates. If there are immovable due dates, then these should also be noted in your schedule.
    2. Color coordination. If there are various project phases that might involve different teams, you may want to use color to denote these divisions and provide a key to explain the color categorizations.

 

The end product should look something like this:

sample workback schedule

Source: Ext Marketing

Paid tools like Asana and Trello can be helpful in the creation and organization of these schedules.

5. Research

With thought leadership, there is always a research stage in your development process, and this is often the most important step. If you want your work to truly stand it out, you should leverage primary data to inform your content. This can be information that lives within the software you develop, in the client data you hold, or in survey result findings.

Great thought leadership can be built from secondary data, but primary data provides original findings and often correlates with a greater overall impact. If using secondary data, source reputable experts such as Forrester and Gartner. Then, look to tell an original story from that third-party data. 

6. Tell a story

Great thought-leadership tells a story. And all great storytelling follows an outline, often described as, the hero’s journey - an age-old storytelling structure that sees a character venturing to find something they need, being confronted with conflict, finding a wise mentor who provides guidance, then overcoming that conflict and realizing growth and development.

Here is the classic outline:

the hero's journey framework

Source: Wikipedia

However, this exact formula should not be directly applied with thought-leadership content. But, certain parts of this formula can be extrapolated and used to create stronger reader engagement. 

Here’s how you might apply this framework to thought leadership:

  1. Position the reader as the hero.
  2. Present pain points as the source of conflict in the reader’s journey.
  3. Position yourself as the wise mentor by providing thought-leading insight and guidance to help them overcome the conflict.
  4. Show the reader a path whereby challenges are solved with the help of your business.

7. Publish, market, and remarket

Always ensure that adequate marketing muscle is allocated to the promotion of your work.

Key areas to focus promotional efforts include:

  • Social-media marketing to amplify the reach of your content through organic and paid avenues. 
  • Content syndication tactics like forum marketing and PR strategies to acquire earned space in external media.
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) and blog marketing strategies to build backlinks and improve organic conversions.
  • Add the content to new and existing email campaigns.
  • Formulate speaker pitches from the content produced.

Conclusion

Thought-leadership content is one of the most effective value delivery mechanisms available to modern marketers. It helps businesses lead important discussions by answering difficult questions and providing unique insights into complex problems that their audiences are facing.

But, thought leadership content is rarely effective unless paired with an amplification strategy. Some of the best advertising tactics for extending the reach of thought-leading content include: organic social media, a PR strategy, paid social media, email marketing, and a blog strategy. 

Discover how you can build all of these lead-generation motions (and more) into your inbound strategy by downloading The Fundamental Guide to Lead Generation today.

About the Author

Brock is a Marketing Analyst at Vendasta with a passion for the more creative things in life. He also answers to Archie - for obvious reasons... And when he's not putting his fingers in paint, or saving Riverdale, he can usually be found asking Google one of the many more embarrassing "how to" questions.

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