Shonda Rhimes, Seth Godin, Oprah Winfrey – what do they all have in common?
These are people whose unique perspectives have shaped industries and sparked meaningful conversations. They sell ideas and products with a simple mention. They don’t need to make a case for their recommendations – no need for lengthy landing pages, endless case studies, or thick product brochures. They have so much credibility and authority that their followers take their word for anything.
This is what a thought leader is. And it’s just as powerful for companies, too.
Thought leadership marketing is the active process of positioning yourself as a leader in your industry. You do this by mastering your niche, developing a strong and unique point of view, and then sharing this perspective with your ideal audience clearly and consistently. Over time, your ideal client begins to recognize your authority and turns to you and your business for insight and direction.
Thought leadership marketing is the next step to content marketing. A solid content marketing strategy gets people through the door – it lands you on top of Google and brings eyes to your business.
But what turns that first glance into a lingering gaze and a lasting relationship? A person who understands their audience and knows their industry inside and out. Someone who has a unique point of view that encourages fresh perspectives, incites spirited discussions, and inspires action.
When you command this level of attention and have this much authority, you stand out from a saturated market and lead it. You introduce new ideas and push the limits of what’s familiar and tried-and-tested. That’s the power of thought leadership marketing.
Your business benefit massively from thought leadership marketing if you’re in a space where:
If you’re in an industry like travel, finance, fitness, or tech, you most likely see this in your business. You started strong with your fresh take on an entrenched problem and captured a small but raving group of early-adopters. But now your reach and revenue have plateaued, and you’re searching for new ways to bring fresh eyes to your business.
With a good thought leadership marketing strategy, you see benefits at every stage of the buyer journey. You get more inquiries, faster sales cycles, increased customer loyalty, and higher lifetime value.
Becoming an expert in your industry and consistently producing thought pieces and valuable content demonstrate the mastery of your niche. An expert naturally gains credibility and authority, all of which improves your company’s reputation, leading to trust and sales.
Becoming a thought leader doesn’t only gain you new clients; it helps you create meaningful connections with other business owners across industries. Businesses that find your ideas useful to their audience will mention your brand or link to your content, which then helps you acquire authentic backlinks. They will also want to collaborate with you, opening your business to new potential clients.
When your ideal audience begins to recognize you as a leader in your industry, they stop wasting time comparing product features and price points. They won’t drop off your purchasing process or cancel their subscription. They go down the easy route and go with the business that speaks to their values – your business.
Reputation, relationships, and revenue – these are the pillars that support and sustain great businesses. It’s not a quick and easy fix but thought leadership marketing is the best way to transform your business.
I’ll start with the bad news: you cannot become a thought leader just by calling yourself one. So, no, the first step to becoming a thought leader is not updating your Twitter handle and adding “thought leader” to your bio.
Like most good things, thought leadership marketing takes time, thought, and effort. Being a thought leader takes extreme understanding – of your audience, of your business and where it stands, and of the state of the world. You need to think beyond the bubble of your personal experiences and your industry know-how. You need to have good ideas about how your industry should evolve. Only then can you have a perspective worth sharing.
As we go through the steps of creating an effective thought leadership marketing strategy, let’s make it more concrete and actionable by applying the concepts to our aspiring hero: a fintech founder who created a revolutionary budgeting app. His app is so good that it’s gotten people out of debt, allowed them to launch successful businesses, encouraged healthier lifestyles, and even saved marriages! This app has clearly helped his target audience forge a healthier relationship with money and enjoy the perks that come with financial freedom.
What’s the hitch? At the end of the day, at face value, it’s “just an app.” And there are countless cheap and free apps in the market, which, to the less-discerning eye, does basically the same things. Imagine the frustration of having a product that changes lives only for people to take one look at it and decide to just go with Excel.
So what can our fintech CEO do? Let’s go through the steps of crafting a thought leadership marketing strategy and learn from how he would do it.
Let’s start with something easy.
While the road to thought leadership may seem long and daunting, it actually starts pretty simply: with empathy. You need to understand the people you are trying to help. And you do – that’s how you are able to create an excellent product for them. You know where they are and where they want to go. You know their aspirations, their fears, and their objections.
As you build your thought leadership marketing strategy and go beyond branding, messaging, and positioning, you now need to go beyond what you know about them as it relates to your product.
What are their most pressing problems? What are their greatest aspirations? Where are they now, and where do they want to be? Is the market going in the same direction? How can you shape the industry so that it gives your ideal audience precisely what it needs?
Write your answers down and keep it on hand as you execute your thought leadership marketing plan.
For our fintech CEO, he knows deep down that his target audience craves freedom – freedom to do what they want, when, where, and with whom, without their finances making these decisions for them. And he knows that where they are right now, they are scrambling to stay afloat and cannot even imagine what that end goal looks like. He wants to bring them to a place where they have a healthy and productive relationship with money. He knows that financial institutions right now are wired to make people spend more and get people in debt, but he’s determined to arm his target audience with the technology and information to swim against this tide and gain financial freedom.
Next, you have to look deeper into your brand’s perspective and priorities.
Sure, you want to build a product that works, that solves people’s problems in the best way possible, and that pushes other businesses in your industry to do better. But what else?
What do you stand for? How would you like your business to be known? What ideas and innovations do you think are amazing but don’t think the industry is ready for?
All of these come together to answer the most essential question: what is your vision?
Having clear ideas can help you spot new opportunities, provide alternative paths to success, and offer a new way of solving old and deep-seated problems. Your thought leadership campaign is your platform for slowly pushing these ideas and introducing them to the world.
For our fintech hero, one of his core beliefs is that new debt is not the answer to old debt, despite what banks, debt consolidators, and payday-lenders are touting. He doesn’t want his audience to resort to quick fixes – he wants to establish healthy financial frameworks that work for the people and not for the banks.
Now that you’ve clarified your vision, it’s time to define your goals.
Once your platform starts to grow and you begin receiving attention, one of the possible pitfalls is you might get carried away – you try to be edgy and provocative just to stand out, and you start failing to connect the content you push out to its business value.
Don’t go on random rants and righteous spiels about world issues that have nothing to do with your business. Instead, use your thought leadership responsibly and wield it to nudge your audience to a new, better way of doing things.
How do you prevent getting drunk on authority and sidetracked from your business goals? Always go back to what your prospects and customers need. Make sure to map your topics to the key themes that intersect with your ideal audience’s pressing concerns and what your company can do to help address this.
Now it’s time to get to work on the finer details. You have your big overarching ideas and your goals in front of you – how do you break it all down?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
What’s relevant to your audience? Address a pressing concern for your audience. Go back to the list you made and work your way through it. As you put out thought-provoking content, your audience will respond and reveal more of their needs and issues.
How does your product solve your audience’s problem in unexpected and less-obvious ways? Every good content marketer knows that you have to focus on the benefits and not the features. Our fintech CEO isn’t talking about his app’s lightning-fast load time or automation features – he’s telling his audience about how it makes budgeting intuitive, fast, and easy-as-pie. But to be a thought leader, he needs to take the conversation further. He needs to go beyond product-specific discussions and talk about broader concepts. How does his app help people get out of debt? How does it encourage a healthy conversation about finances among spouses? How does it empower his audience to make sound financial decisions and take control of their lives?
What’s a new way to tackle the problem? Talk about your fresh approach and solution to the problem. Guide your reader to understand your thought process and gently sell them on your innovative ideas.
What is at the very core of your ideal client’s problems? Go deeper. Connect with your audience not just on a cerebral level but on an emotional one. Our fintech CEO hero will go beyond topics like “how to have a 6-month emergency fund” and “how to retire at 45.” He will venture to more hard-hitting issues – how to navigate challenging, financially-crushing times like death in the family, a severe illness, or a global pandemic. He will ask the important questions: what can you buy with money? Time with your loved ones, unconventional options, the power to say no?
What has worked for you and your clients? You have a proven solution – it’s time to flaunt it. Go through your case studies and tell the world about your results. Make the human element the star of the story – and your product the funny, supportive, and indispensable sidekick.
How can you make your ideas clear and simple? For our CEO’s target audience, “financial freedom” can be a vague, even unimaginable concept. What does it mean exactly? Break down your ideas into frameworks or models that simplify the problem and your proposed solution. Turn your vision into a strategy that your audience can follow. Share best practices, strategic road maps, and practical how-to guides. Show your audience your product’s potential for transformative and life-changing outcomes.
Once you have a couple of ideas, plan out an editorial calendar and start creating content.
Once you’ve produced your content, it’s time to publish and let the world in on your perspective.
Make your business website the hub for your thought pieces. If you already have a good content marketing strategy in place, you’re already getting views. A thought leadership marketing strategy converts these views to engagements, conversations, and sales.
Look for platforms where it makes sense to share your views – these are the platforms where your target audience hangs out when they are particularly receptive or actively searching for the information and ideas you have.
For the finance niche, for example, Reddit, Quora, and Medium are great spaces. These are forums that encourage “adulting.” Instagram and Facebook, on the other hand, are not ideal for our budget app guy because people go there to feel good in the moment. IG and FB-users may scroll through “painful” topics like budgeting – but if you can find a way to present your ideas in a fresh, YOLO/FOMO-way, then go for it.
Tap into multiple resources. Find niche Facebook groups, partner with social media influencers, and go on podcasts and YouTube interviews.
Make your ideas a part of your company culture. Your goal is to have employees that are your product’s biggest fans.
Send weekly update emails to your employees to keep them in the loop and fire them up. Empower them to talk about your company and your product in their own words – let them have their own platforms and come up with their own content.
Maybe our fintech founder has an employee who just got out of student debt – let her talk about it. One of your developers can’t stop geeking about your app’s new features? Encourage him to vlog about it.
As long as everyone’s messages are aligned with the company’s marketing strategy, letting your employees act as brand ambassadors will help you reach a wider audience while staying authentic and true to your brand message.
By now, you have a full whiteboard of concepts and ideas and ready to embark on your thought leadership marketing campaign. Before I leave you to roll up your sleeves and get to work, I have a couple more tips and reminders.
Engage with your audience. Always remember that thought leadership is never one-sided. There is no leader without followers, no hero without fans. Start and continue conversations with your people – reply to emails and DMs, share their stories, and amplify their voices. Use these interactions to generate more content ideas and refine your perspective. Be obsessed with your target audience and grow with them.
Measure your impact. Always go back to your goals. Are you cultivating a reputation as a trusted authority? Are you building and strengthening relationships? Are you generating more sales? Decide on the KPIs that matter to you and track them.
Adjust and grow. A thought leader must continuously keep their finger on the pulse and grow with the times. To continue leading, you need to stay ahead of the curve. Listen to your audience, learn from other thought leaders, and cultivate your fresh perspective. A leader’s work is never done.
Thought leadership marketing turns a business from good to great and brings it to new heights. It lets you break through the noise of a saturated market, hold your ideal audience’s attention, introduce groundbreaking ideas, shape the industry, and build a better world.
Remember to always keep your audience’s needs and aspirations in mind as you build on your thought leadership portfolio. Have clear and defined goals, stay true to your business perspectives and priorities, meet your audience where they are, and inspire your employees and followers to spread your message.
Ready to boost your business with a well-crafted marketing strategy? Whether you’re a small business struggling to grow your brand or a big company looking to attract the best talent in the industry, I can help you launch your thought leadership marketing from strategy to execution. Get in touch and let’s get to work!
Adriana Stein is an Online Marketing Consultant based in Hamburg, Germany. Originally from the US, she is a native English speaker and specializes in helping companies with their SEO & content marketing strategies, along with graphic design, brand copy and website development.