How to Build a Thought Leadership Strategy

How to Build a Thought Leadership Strategy

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Thought leaders are market leaders.

In fact, nearly half (49%) of company decision-makers credit thought leadership with influencing their purchasing decisions, according to Edelman and LinkedIn’s 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study. With that much at stake, it’s imperative that your thought leadership content create an impact.

But there’s much more to thought leadership than coming up with great ideas. “There’s no shortage of ideas, perspectives, research and writers,” says Erik Samdahl, vice president of marketing at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). Thought leadership marketing must be governed by a unified marketing strategy with clear goals and a repeatable process.

“To produce thought leadership pieces that generate business,” Samdahl continues, “it takes proper coordination between marketing, sales and product teams to determine where demand is and what will at once provide value to the reader while also leading the reader back to the source: your company.”

So why does thought leadership matter? It’s a scalable way to influence people well outside of your organization. “Thought leadership is successful when you can get people to take your ideas and carry them forward to their communities,” says Denise Brosseau, thought leadership strategist and CEO at the Thought Leadership Lab.

To do that, you need a defined strategy and a framework for moving those ideas forward. Here’s how to create a thought leadership strategy.

Align With the Business Strategy

You can’t develop a strategy without goals. “First you need to determine what exactly you want to accomplish,” Samdahl says. “Presumably, you want a strategy to generate leads, publicity and ultimately business.”

It’s important to set some concrete goals at the beginning of your development process. “I always start with the end in mind,” Brosseau says. “What are you measuring that success by? What are the metrics you’re using?”

Determining objectives and key results on the front end allows you to work backward to develop your roadmap for achieving them.

To develop a thought leadership strategy that actually drives business results, you and your B2B marketing team must assert your expertise. Your thought leadership can’t produce business outcomes if you’re just there to passively publish items sent to you from other parts of the business.

“In some firms, there is a tendency for the marketing department to be viewed as a support or service center,” says Subarna Ganguly, senior content marketing manager at Workday. But there’s no strategy in that. “It’s very important to be extremely aligned with the business,” Ganguly declares.

Marketing has to actively develop a thought leadership strategy that not only aligns with the overall business strategy but also spins it forward. In order to do that, marketing leaders have to stay in the loop about what’s happening or about to happen in the business.

What products, platforms or solutions are business leaders preparing to launch? What problems will those items solve? You must know the direction the business is taking before you can develop a way to help get there.

“We can, right from its inception, visualize thought leadership aligned with the business and sales strategy,” Ganguly says. “That’s where it starts: from there, we work out a thought leadership strategy.” Sit very close with the business and leadership teams and work with them to envision the future.

To create timeless thought leadership pieces that aren’t tied to specific events or market trends, Ganguly recommends asking these questions at the outset:

  • Is the idea aligned to the business? Will it support the B2B brand image and drive sales goals?
  • What audience does it speak to? Is it aligned with the business’s target market?

The answers help direct bigger ideas into specific pieces of content that drive the business forward.

Define Your B2B Thought Leadership Strategy’s Target Audience

Of course, it’s impossible to develop specific content without first identifying who will be consuming it. Your target audience should align with the business’s target market.

More specifically, thought leadership content should appeal to upper-level decision-makers at your targeted client companies.

While decision-makers are your first target, be mindful of attracting other readers, too. The goal behind thought leadership isn’t just to drive sales or lead generation. “You want to increase your brand positioning, enhance your market visibility, improve loyalty to your brand and bring a follower base to your social media pages,” Ganguly says.

Effective thought leadership campaigns also build trust and share big ideas. Don’t just think about your audience demographically, Brosseau says. Find out: What does your target audience believe today? What are you trying to move them towards or away from?

Think about how to engage your audience in a conversation. For example, if you’re wondering how to build thought leadership on LinkedIn, you can’t just blast links at people. It’s about bringing forward an idea, and articulating the change you want to see in the world, Brosseau says.

And since the goal is to engage your audience, you have to understand how they consume content and participate in the larger conversations your thought leadership inspires.

That’s why spinning approachable content is so important. Make sure you’re creating content that is relevant to your target audience of decision-makers, but also makes sense — and is a great read — to anyone who stumbles upon it organically.

“You can do that by striking that delicate balance between ensuring that your content speaks to the right audience with the right level of expertise,” Ganguly says, “but at the same time is bereft of any technical jargon and is told in a story that makes sense to anyone who reads it.”

Identify the Current Thought Leaders in Your Organization

An important piece of developing a thought leadership strategy is assessing the expertise you have access to within your organization. Start by defining your company’s thought leaders.

These are typically (though not always) senior business leaders. “Some ‘thought leaders’ in your organization are self-apparent,” Samdahl says. “They’ll be an executive, a functional leader or simply a smart, charismatic individual contributor.”

Thought leaders will usually have several years of experience in the field across different levels and deep expertise in the topic.

Develop relationships with HR leaders. Ask them to help you stay in the loop on new talent joining the company, especially at the upper levels.

You should also develop a habit of introducing yourself and your team to any new senior-level leaders joining the organization. Get to know them, their background and their experiences in their field, Ganguly says.

What topics are they proficient in? What thought leadership experience, if any, do they have? Have they published anything before?

Make a database of the subject matter experts (SME) at your company. Compile any thought leadership pieces they’ve already produced, whether at your company or prior to joining your organization.

“It’s not easy to do,” Ganguly concedes, but assembling a repository of knowledge from each SME beforehand helps you assess the expertise you have available within the company. Additionally, keeping a record of previously published pieces prevents you from repeating material.

Develop a Process for Spinning Ideas Into Content

With a thought leadership strategy aligned to business goals in place and company thought leaders identified, you need a defined process for turning good ideas into specific pieces of content.

The tactical process of generating thought leadership content differs by company, Brosseau says, but the basic steps include:

  • Gathering an idea from a company expert.
  • Working with the expert to reflect on, articulate and expand their idea.
  • Gathering input on a draft from the expert and from their peers.

Whatever your process, it should be consistent across the company.

Take an iterative, agile approach. As you create pieces of thought leadership content, spend time debriefing. This can help you distill a toolkit, methodology or framework that can be repeated. Consider working with HR or learning and development leaders to help design a functional process.

The thought leaders at your company are typically very busy people, and they may struggle to find time to sit down and write. Consequently, the raw ideas received by the marketing team can be on the rough side. It’s up to you to see the potential in an idea and polish it into something you can drop into a media plan.

Ganguly says thought leadership content can sometimes develop from a single slide with a few bullet points or a few paragraphs of writing in a stream of consciousness style. “The process starts with an idea or a very rough draft, and from there I usually map out the future of that piece,” Ganguly says. “I think about how we can transform that into several pieces.”

Complex ideas with the potential to be built out, especially if they’re part of existing or ongoing research, are good candidates for white papers or other long-form content.

Case studies can be folded into long-form content, while notes or graphs can be developed into a compelling infographic.

Trending topics that don’t require a lot of research can make a good short article or blog post. By the time that thought leader has produced three or four short posts, there’s usually enough content for a white paper. That, in turn, can be adapted into a video or other media content.

Ideas for thought leadership shouldn’t be single-use; plan to get a digital marketing campaign’s worth of mileage out of them. “It has to have an application with different formats,” Ganguly says.

Take a Bold Perspective

An effective thought leadership strategy requires bold content. That means that SMEs can’t be timid in their perspective on a topic. It’s up to you to get them to own their expertise.

How? Start by owning yours as a marketing professional. “Marketing can help distill great ideas to powerful, bold messages,” Samdahl says.

Position yourself as a strategy advisor. Ganguly tells thought leaders: “You may be the SME, but I am the marketing and thought leadership expert.” The ground rule for thought leadership is that the perspective must be unique.

Help your experts refine their ideas to the point where they can articulate the value they contribute to the industry. This will become their content value proposition.

Typically a thought leadership piece will add to an existing conversation or use evidence and experience to disagree with a commonly held perspective. The content doesn’t have to be controversial. It does, however, have to say something new and support that position.

“If you’re going to talk about this topic in a way that’s not going to raise any eyebrows, present any new perspectives, trigger any conversations, any debate, any engagement,” Ganguly tells SMEs, “then it’s probably not going to be published.”

Encourage thought leaders to dig deep into their individual professional experiences, but keep them focused on the larger context, too. That’s where thought leadership delivers the most value. Work with thought leaders to help them pinpoint what’s different about their perspective, and why sharing it is important for their industry.

Develop a process for reviewing ideas, Brosseau says, especially with other business leaders who can offer their own perspectives. Workshopping an idea can help a thought leader sharpen and refine it.

Create a community setting where people can share and workshop their ideas. Brosseau suggests looking at Vistage's "care-frontation" practice as a model. Care-frontation is built on trust, and invites participants to share ideas that they haven't fully formed yet. The intent is to weed out the weak ideas and strengthen the strong ones. Sharing ideas in a safe, positive environment can be empowering — especially for those with the biggest, boldest proposals.

Thought leaders should be well-versed not just in their field but in how their work intersects with other aspects of the business. Workshopping ideas with peers in other departments can help refine them and account for other perspectives moving forward. Gathering other perspectives can also help you ensure that you aren’t publishing ideas that have already been well-stated elsewhere.

“We have to have that step,” Brosseau says. Bringing thought leaders together to workshop, question and push back on ideas empowers them to take a bolder perspective — without fearing they’re going to fall on their face.

Take Pixar, for example. The company’s “Braintrust” is a collaborative model for sharing and refining ideas. Your marketing team can help thought leaders be bold and refine their ideas against other peoples’ perspectives.

That can have a huge impact — and not just on your marketing campaign. “Most companies don’t think this way,” Brosseau says. “They don’t understand the power of their ideas to influence their industries.”

Upskill the Next Generation of Your Company’s Thought Leaders

A sustainable thought leadership strategy relies not just on the expertise of current thought leaders, but also on identifying and upskilling the next generation to speak with authority. When it comes to finding the “people who are comfortable in the spotlight,” Brosseau says that “there is often a lot of unrecognized talent.”

First, you have to identify the up-and-coming experts who want to share their knowledge and perspective. “Provide a means for people to raise their hands and volunteer, or for employees to recommend their peers,” Samdahl suggests. Having colleagues nominate each other can help you find the professionals with the most charisma, and potentially the best stories to tell.

“If we’re going to make our organization be seen as a thought leader,” Brosseau says, “we have to look for that talent throughout the different departments, levels and people in the organization.”

Beyond identifying these people, we need to create platforms and opportunities for them to step forward and share their ideas. Consider inviting employees to collaborate with the marketing team to create a post for the company blog, for example.

Or take inspiration from Change.org. Its Life Hacks program allows anyone in the company to come forward and give a talk on any topic. “The idea was to give them practice in front of their peers in a very low-threat setting,” Brosseau says.

Up-and-coming thought leaders could gain experience putting forward a perspective, shaping a point of view, articulating an argument and just generally being in the spotlight. This helped give them the confidence to represent the organization in a more professional capacity.

What programs or processes could you implement to train the next generation of thought leaders? “What are [you] doing to keep the bar low for people to step into these roles?” Brosseau asks. Thought leadership succession planning can help your company strengthen its muscle for sharing bold ideas, and increase both visibility and trust in the market.

Thought leadership content can propel your business forward. With a carefully thought-out strategy, institutional expertise and an effective process in place, your company’s thought leadership can raise the bar in your industry. By successfully identifying and supporting the next generation of thought leaders, you have a chance to become one of the special businesses that stay strong over time even as competitors fall away.

Clare Chiappetta serves as editorial coordinator and staff writer, with a specialization in HR and the future of work. She earned a master’s in English from Southeastern Louisiana University, and continues to explore the world through books, films and music. Test your most esoteric pop culture references on her.

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