Mastering thought leadership content

Learn strategies to stand out from the crowd and position yourself or your brand as thought leaders. Here's where you can start...

‘Thought leader’ is a term as overused as ‘influencer’, and for good reason. The brands or people who achieve that status, seen to inject new ideas, perceptions, and expertise into the zeitgeist, can all but write their paychecks. An excellent example is Kim Kardashian - whose influence is so powerful that brands have happily paid up to a million dollars for a single Instagram post. Five-time New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell commands speaking fees of at least $100,000 a pop.

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When you’re a trusted source, you can build a large following of people who will come to you for knowledge and advice – you don’t have to spend as much time and money convincing customers to give you a shot. If the content is done right, they’ll believe it and buy it.

But here’s the catch – positioning yourself or your brand as a thought leader isn’t just about repetition or huge budgets (although they help). Achieving actual thought-leader status requires a content strategy with these foundational elements.

Genuine expertise in a unique niche

The clue is there in the name. As a thought leader, you must lead the thinking – be genuinely expert – in your niche.

Authenticity and humanness

Authenticity is essential in any marketing effort, but it's imperative to stand out in your industry. According to LinkedIn's recipe for thought leadership, ‘authenticity should be the main ingredient’. Be real with people, be honest about struggles and how you overcame them, and use language that reflects your voice.

Generosity and fearlessness

A thought leadership strategy is about giving away your time and your expertise. Your targets will see it, yes, but so will your competitors, and you need to be okay with that. It means you back yourself to still succeed.

Building your Thought Leadership strategy

If you tick the attitude boxes and are sure you can find a niche to own, here’s how to build your thought-leadership strategy.

Define your audience

It all starts with who you’re trying to attract. You need a clear understanding of your audience’s pain points, what they’ll find valuable and the kind of content they’ll respond to.

Fight the urge to target 'everyone' – the more focused you can be, the better your strategy will work. You will almost certainly be talking to just one subsection of your brand's wider target audience, and that's okay – deliver great things to these people, and you'll have more chance of connecting with others.

Once you’ve narrowed down who you’re talking to, push yourself beyond demographic markers – take steps to understand this audience’s humanity.

Read more: how to identify your target audience.

Find your niche

Finding your ‘own’ unique niche can take time. You can speak to many topics, but your niche needs to tick a few boxes. It should be one that:

  • You’re deeply passionate about – you’ll be producing much content around this, so do yourself a favour and choose a niche you won't quickly get bored with.
  • You’re very knowledgeable in – and perhaps most importantly, one in which you’re continuing to learn and upskill.
  • Is exciting and valuable to your target audience – ask yourself, ‘How will this content add real value to my audience?’
  • A competitor isn't already filling it – you don't want to add to the noise, so try to find a real gap. That ‘gap’ could be that no one is talking to that niche, but it could also be that no one is doing it well. You can claim a niche by adding fresh thoughts and ideas to your content in higher volumes than your competitors.
  • Intersects with your brand objectives – there’s no business benefit in becoming a thought leader in hand-designing model cars if you sell accounting packages.

To help clients define this niche, we start with an exploration phase, asking these questions and more:

  • Why do your customers love you?
  • What enables you to win business off competitors?
  • What makes your team or leaders come alive with excitement?
  • What speciality or specific skill do you have?
  • What is your team already speaking or blogging about?
  • Are any wider social or environmental goals important to your business?
  • Do you have an attitude or approach that’s unusual in your market?

We often reach out to your customers and broader team to explore these topics, map them out and overlay them with what your competitors are already doing. Doing this surfaces a few niches to test and measure.

Case study – Ethique builds its brand with purpose.

Ethique is an NZ beauty brand founded on a desire to rid the world of plastic bottles – a topic it was passionate about and was exciting and valuable to its intelligent, green-minded audience. It ticked all the boxes and was a niche Ethique has built its thought-leadership status on for years. Its founder, Brianne West, has also established herself as a thought leader in the purpose-led business space.

Plan where you’ll appear

Getting the content sorted is one thing, but you also need to make sure people will see what you create. Thought leadership isn't to move people along the buying funnel –it's about building a following and prestige activated by other marketing tactics. However, the buying funnel is a good way of thinking about the different kinds of content people will need at different times – the only difference is that you're moving them not towards becoming buyers but becoming fans or followers.

Awareness, aka reaching out: go wide, be entertaining
Get out there in front of as many of your targets as you can – build your networks on LinkedIn, boost posts, give away content toother sites and speak for free at conferences. These people have never heard of you, and, in all honesty, you’re interrupting their day. This content is your chance to prove you’re worth paying attention to, but it can be light and entertaining.

  • Consideration, aka bring them into the fold: add value
    Once people know who you are, it’s time to give. Deliver on-point, super-interesting content that they can seek out themselves. When people click on your site, will they find valuable blogs, infographics, FAQs or whitepapers? Are these updated regularly? It's your chance to show credibility and value – a source of trusted and helpful information.

  • Conversion, aka win them as fans: make it exclusive
    This is the pointy end – rather than coming to your site sporadically, they’ve decided they want to hear directly from you regularly. Most commonly, this takes the form of email, but it could also be connecting with you on social, joining a group, forum or community on Slack, or coming to in-person meetings. Again, the point here is not to convert your audience into buyers but fans.

Develop your voice

Equally as important as what you say, is how you say it. Your tone should be consistent and likeable to your audience. That’s easier if you’re building the profile of an individual – it’s more complex for a brand. An easy way to do that is to make the most of your human genius for communicating with other humans – imagine your brand as a person, then ‘act’ like that person.  

Read more: bringing your brand tone to life.

Build your calendar

The fastest way to fail at building a thought-leader position is to start writing without planning. You’ll either run out of ideas and fall off the content writing wagon or write about something outside of your niche – and in many cases, you'll do both. Before you start creating, build a map of all the topic categories and sub-categories that go into your niche. For example, when Ecrotek wanted blogs to help dominate the hobby beekeeping market, it defined sub-categories like bee-keeping, equipment, regulations and more. You can easily define and test many topics, arrange them on a calendar, work ahead and never run out of ideas.

Write something new

The foundation for any thought leadership strategy is written content on your social pages, email, website or all three. The goal of the writing isn’t just quantity (although that’s important) but also quality. Everything you write should add something new – a new angle, new expertise or an easier, more exciting way of explaining something.

Publish consistently

While more great content is always better, what's most important is consistency – consistently excellent writing published regularly. Unless you have someone on your team who has the skill and the time to prioritise creating this, it is nearly always cheaper– and certainly more effective – to outsource it.

Read more: Why DIY blogs are more expensive than you think.

Promote your content

Every time you publish an article, get it out there – send it to your database, ask your teams to share it on LinkedIn, and consider spending money on boosting it to your followers.

Go beyond your 'owned' channels

As you build your reputation, you’re more likely to be invited to appear in other publications – mainstream media, trade mags or partners’ websites. It's a good idea to sponsor or speak at conferences and tradeshows, at networking events and comment on other social platforms. This creates a positive knock-on effect. As you get better known, you’ll bring more people toyour content and be more likely to be invited to contribute to more prestigious platforms.

Keep building your expertise

This strategy can never be set-and-forget. As you bring your audience on the journey, you must stay ahead of them – this is where the leading part comes in. Read books, go to conferences, take courses – whatever it takes to help you hold your forward position.

Protect your relationship with your audience.

While this strategy creates ripe ground for marketing tactics, you need to protect the trust you've built – your direct sales need to be carefully implemented and, better yet, done with a genuine desire to, again, add value.

Time to stop marketing and start leading

While Kim Kardashian and Malcolm Gladwell’s success looks almost effortless from the outside, their positions have been built on decades of hard-won influence. Positioning yourself or your brand as a thought leader will take time, but with consistent focus and sound strategic thinking, you’ll get there.

The results are well worth it – lead the industry in your niche, and your competitors will spend their time playing catch-up. Meanwhile, you keep delivering value, and the business success will take care of itself.

Need help to master thought leadership? Talk to us about defining your niche, building your strategy and getting exceptional content streaming out to your audience.

Helen Steemson

The lead copywriter and creative director at Words for Breakfast. She spends much of her time working with the copy writing team across a variety of projects.