Thought leadership marketing is a topic we talk about a lot within The MTM Agency. It is a communication strategy we believe can be effective at delivering increased awareness and can positively contribute towards a brand’s positioning. However, thought leadership campaigns will only be truly successful if the organisation, or individuals within it, has a unique perspective and the experience, reputation or technical capability to say something genuinely different, and make it stick.
This article attempts to explore what it takes to become a real thought leader and the strategies used within the discipline to deliver effective results. We will also discuss the value a well-defined content strategy brings and how social media can play an important role.
What is Thought Leadership Marketing
The first mention of thought leadership I could find came from Joel Kutzman in the early 1990s. He was an editor for Strategy and Business Magazine and used the term to depict a futurist. He describes a person who is widely known for their unique perspective, which is considered pioneering or unusual at the time. In Kutzman’s definition, the leader’s ideas need to have an impact on society, represented in a number of different ways, such as creating a new market, product or approach.
If we are aiming to meet this definition, we will almost certainly fail. In reality, there are very few true thought leaders. Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg are two individuals who had a sizable and lasting impact on the world – they genuinely changed the game and started a new conversation. But, they come from a short list.
Another, more practical definition that I prefer to use is; ‘the process of engaging your audience and stakeholders through content or activity that has real value and provides a unique perspective on a topic, whilst establishing your brand/individual as the preeminent expert in the field and differentiating yourself from your competitors in the process.’
The difference between the definitions is impact. To be a true thought leader and meet Kutzman’s definition, your output should have a real and notable impact on the world. When it comes to marketing, most of us would be satisfied with changing the perceptions of our target audience and leaving the changing of the world to others. And that’s fine too. Although you are unlikely to meet the most stringent definition of the discipline, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore the potential thought leadership offers and decide whether it is right for you.
The Content Strategy of Thought Leadership Marketing
To implement an effective thought leadership campaign, you need a detailed and well-considered strategy. You need to know what conversations are already taking place and where they are happening. You need to know what messages and opinions are being shared, whose voices are being heard, and what’s gaining traction with your audience.
Once you understand the landscape, you can define your own position on specific subjects, as well as your tactical approach to engaging your audience. In addition to reflecting the intelligence you’ve gathered, your strategy should also convey how your output will be unbiased, relevant, timely, insightful, and have real value. Your research may also uncover other revelations related to channels, language, tone, or subject matter, and they all need to be added into the mix.
When you’ve completed this process, you should have a good idea of whether you can add to the conversation with something that hasn’t been heard before. That ‘new perspective’ doesn’t have to be revolutionary but it does have to offer a point of difference compared to the other voices out there.
With your strategy defined, you can begin to develop the more detailed themes, topics and messages for your content. You can then start to build a content calendar, incorporating all your business and marketing activity to create a forward-looking schedule for your team to work from. The content calendar plays a strong role in maintaining the agreed frequency and consistency of message, so don’t underestimate its importance. It is also a living document so should be regularly reviewed and updated.
If you are working with a communications agency, they will be able to manage this entire process on your behalf but it will still require significant input from you and your team to maximise its effectiveness and the more involved you are, the better the outcome.
Thought Leadership and Executive Influence
As part of your strategy, you will need to define which voices within your organisation will be used to establish your thought leadership positioning. If you select senior, executive level figures, you can begin to explore the difference between thought leadership and executive influence. It may be one voice or several but each must be able to lay claim to ‘expert status’ and demonstrate contextually pertinent opinions within the field or topic they are discussing. Understandably, senior or executive figures are more likely to fit these requirements, but not always. Regardless, each voice must then have its own strategy developed, identifying the subject matter areas, the key messages, the tone of your content, and the channels you intend to target. This should not be an arbitrary process but instead, reflective of your target audience and your thought leader’s preferences.
Executive influence, although similar to thought leadership, is not the same thing and there are a number of factors which determine the distinction. Dynamics such as how often opinions are displayed, the quality of the outlets in which they appear, as well as the people that view and share those opinions, are all important. The easiest way to demonstrate the difference is to use a simple example. If you are discussing the financial implications of Brexit and the importance of tariff-free trade in the FT, you will expect a different audience to a technical feature on emerging developments in Singapore’s energy efficiency standards, appearing in a trade publication. Both leaders take a unique view on their respective topics but only the former would be typical of executive influence, due to the expected audience, quality of outlet and nature of the opinion.
Content Marketing and Thought Leadership – what’s the difference?
It’s all just content, right? Wrong. Thought leadership is just one category of the much bigger world of content marketing and, while the two disciplines may share some characteristics, their respective differences are significant.
As explained above, to call your content true thought leadership, it must contain original ideas. You have to be adding to the conversation, not just echoing what other leaders have said. The goal of thought leadership is to make your audience think, to educate them and, ultimately, to change their opinion. In comparison, content marketing in its broader sense does not need to do this – it might just be entertaining or fun and is typically more about visibility and awareness than it is positioning.
Anyone who has created thought leadership content knows that it takes time and effort. It’s not something that can be whipped up in a minute. Conversely, content marketing can – even if it isn’t the strategy we would recommend. Not all content marketing is designed to simply improve search-engine rankings and bombard audiences with messaging, but unlike the thought leadership method, which focuses on a limited number of key messages, there is definitely a greater emphasis on quantity to increase penetration.
Organisations choose thought leadership as a marketing strategy because it has the potential to enhance their reputation, to build stronger relationships with clients and prospects, and ultimately to increase revenue. Thought leadership is about ideas, expertise and authenticity – not products and services. When your content is primarily designed to increase demand in a specific product or service, even if it involves innovative thinking, it is demand creation and it sits firmly at the content marketing end of the spectrum.
Thought Leadership and the Influence of Social Media
On the surface, there is a disconnect between the detailed, accurate and unique requirements of thought leadership and the disposable, transient nature of social media. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story and there are a number of ways in which social media can be utilised effectively for thought leadership purposes. LinkedIn is perhaps the most obvious channel, taking the crown as the most appropriate home for B2B thought leadership content, but YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or even Instagram, can all play a supporting role.
When it comes to social media users and how they digest content, we know that atomised content works better than something big and siloed – like a single white paper. Atomising your content into multiple assets can significantly extend its lifespan and therefore offers a potentially greater return on your investment, but you need to be careful that you don’t diminish its intrinsic value in the process.
When it comes to atomising a thought leadership piece, you need to understand where you intend to use it and what the audience of that channel wants. Could your article be turned into a PowerPoint style presentation for a LinkedIn group? Could it be a round-table forum video for YouTube, an infographic for your own blog or a print product sent to key prospects? Each simplified content piece can be linked to and reference the more detailed version, but by breaking it down into engaging chunks, you increase your potential audience size and provide the opportunity for your audience to see your output in the channels they use and in a format they enjoy.
Remember, social media is about people, not businesses or logos. That’s why the most powerful form of social capital is personal, not corporate, and that’s perfect for thought leadership.
No easy wins
Overall, if you were to take one nugget from this article it should be that real thought leadership marketing is not easy. Having the desire to be a true leader isn’t enough, you need a new and genuinely unique perspective and the ability to provide accurate, relevant, and valuable information to an audience you understand. However, if you invest the time required to understand your position, and if you can meet the requirements above, thought leadership can have a truly transformative impact on your business and your bottom line.
If you would like more information on thought leadership or how The MTM Agency can assist you at every stage of the process, drop us a line and let’s start the conversation.