In a world of “cookie-cutter content,” Heather Ferguson wants brands to focus on content that’s driven less by SEO and more by original insights and expertise.
“It’s gotten to the point where I’m not even finding the most informative or helpful answers when I search for something anymore,” she says. “I’d love to see companies leaning on the information they know best rather than pumping out articles based on SEO results.”
If you’re wondering whether Heather follows her own advice, her track record shows that the answer is a resolute and absolute “yes.”
How to Build Successful Thought Leadership Content
Before Heather became head of content and brand at Bench Accounting, she spent a few years focusing on thought leadership content, arguably one of the trickiest types of content to master.
“It’s simply not something you can fake,” Heather explains. “You need to provide real original insight for it to be worthwhile, and you also have to be willing to have an opinion. If you’re not being opinionated and insightful in your thought leadership, you’re most likely doing it wrong.”
While thought leadership is a great way to stand out, this type of content requires top-level buy-in and participation to be successful. Those requirements make thought leadership more time-consuming and nuanced to execute than your run-of-the-mill blog post.
Heather’s advice for content marketers looking to grow a thought leadership presence is to start by identifying your company’s top thinkers and movers. “The executive team is always a great place to start, but you should also get to know your technology teams and your product builders,” she says. “They always have really interesting stories and backgrounds, and once you build trust, they can be great advocates and authors in a thought leadership strategy.”
As you outline your thought leadership strategy, keep perspective and set clear expectations. The goal of this type of content isn’t necessarily to drive leads or revenue; it’s to build an audience and brand affinity. Be upfront with managers and the executive team about thought leadership’s purpose before you start publishing.
Why Newbie Marketers Should Consider Agency Work
How did Heather’s career lead her to a specialty in thought leadership?
After finishing a master’s degree in communications, Heather took on general digital marketing work and eventually accepted a position at a marketing agency. There, she managed a roster of clients, edited content and developed content strategies.
“This was early 2015,” she recalls. “I had no idea jobs like that existed before I fell into it. It was absolutely my dream job. I got to write and edit all day and learn about different companies and industries. I never felt bored.”
She started as a content manager at the agency. When she left five years later, she managed all the inbound teams. She views that time as a tremendous learning experience and career accelerator. Heather learned how to present to executives, read and analyze reports and explain content strategies and results.
Heather suggests an agency work environment when you’re early in your career. Agencies can help you discover what you really want to do. They’re also a great place to work alongside other marketers with different backgrounds and experiences.
In 2018, the agency was acquired by Rackspace Technology, which was launching a thought leadership publication. Heather was familiar with thought leadership through her work at the agency, and she began consulting for Rackspace before accepting a strategist role to focus on launching and maintaining the thought leadership publication Rackspace Solve.
Under Heather’s watch, Rackspace Solve launched two podcasts and won awards for high-quality content.
In 2021, Heather moved on to a SaaS data company called DataRobot, where she was recruited to build another thought leadership publication. From there, she built DataRobot’s More Intelligent Tomorrow. A video she worked on as part of this project was nominated for a Webby!
How to Maintain Perspective and Staying Inspired
As Heather has moved to new jobs, including her current role at Bench Accounting, she built a trusted network of peer support with former co-workers. Together, they brainstorm, share and answer questions, talk about wins and grow in their careers.
She’s also in a local, invite-only content marketing leaders group where she feels comfortable asking questions and commiserating with peers.
For content inspiration, Heather’s been focusing lately on Slack communities and Substack newsletters. She also recommends the following:
- For thought leadership: Animalz, Ryan Law
- General marketers: Joe Lazauskas, April Dunford, Dr. Fio Dossetto, Kevan Lee, Ash Read, Emily Kramer, Jimmy Daly
- Companies: Buffer, Dropbox
We all know that a career in content marketing is not always unicorns and sunshine, but Heather looks to stay grateful for the work she gets to do.
“Content marketing is such a cool career, and I’m so thankful every day that I stumbled my way into it,” she says. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I get to write, read and think every day for a living, and keeping that feeling close helps me on the harder days.”