Thought leadership marketing.
I bet you just cringed. Thought leadership doesn’t have the greatest reputation. Most think of a thought leader as someone who carefully crafts every aspect of their image to appear smarter and more successful than they really are.
It’s easy to come off as a tool if you think thought leadership content is all about you. The reality is it’s about the people you want to lead. Every piece of content needs to serve a specific purpose for your ideal community members.
This article aims to give you everything you need to plan and execute your thought leadership marketing strategy, which you can use to your benefit as a CEO, founder, or service-based entrepreneur.
What is the Definition of Thought Leadership?
Thought leadership is the act of building credibility within your niche to position either yourself or your organization as the dominant authority on the topic(s) most relevant to your expertise.
A thought leader, first and foremost, is a subject matter expert in their profession. They have accumulated so much experience through consistent success in their career that everyone within their industry trusts them as a source of wisdom.
Now, all subject matter experts are not thought leaders. There are millions of people out there who are amazing at their jobs and certainly have a high level of expertise, but they have no interest in innovation or being “known”. How I define the thought leadership formula is as follows:
Subject matter expertise + strong social influence + a willingness to think both against and beyond the status quo.
The quantity and blend of those qualities come in many different outcomes, so I developed a 5-tier system for ranking where people are in their career journey.
Tier 1 – Highly Skilled Professionals
These are regular people who are good enough at what they do to be known and respected within their company and small professional network. They may passively participate on LinkedIn and Twitter, but they hardly create content related to their work.
Tier 2 – Intra Organizational Experts
This tier of thought leader is widely regarded within their organization as the go-to expert within a particular area of knowledge. They may occasionally and inconsistently participate in professional discussions on social media, but their primary focus is competence over celebrity.
Tier 3 – Conversation Facilitators
This level has the same competency as the previous level, but conversation contributors love to participate in professional conversations on social media. They respond to the posts of well-known thought leaders in their space, and often create their own content as well.
Tier 4 – Industry Stars
These rising thinkers have been the go-to expert within their organization for a fair amount of time. They participate actively and often in digital professional spaces like slack groups, LinkedIn, and Twitter. They are on their way to being widely known outside of their core niche and are known by most people within their niche.
Tier 5 – White-Collar Celebrities
These are the types of people that show up when you google ‘examples of thought leaders. Some examples of white-collar celebrities are Seth Godin, Oprah, and Tony Robbins. People who reach tier 5 become so well-known for dominating their domain of expertise that their names become known by professionals outside of their niche.
They may have their own company within an industry or could be at the point where their personal brand is their main income.
What is Thought Leadership Marketing?
Thought leadership marketing is the act of building a perpetual lead generation machine at the top of the funnel through useful educational content. The goal is twofold: maximize the value of your current tier while building whatever quality you need to get to the next tier.
Thought leadership content is educational, first and foremost. It can certainly have some fun and personality mixed in, but it must always revolve around actionable and valuable insight.
Thought leadership is not advertising. Authority can only be earned through organic educational content.
Thought leadership is also not PR. Great PR amplifies great thought leadership content, but it does not generate authority on its own.
3 Types of Thought Leadership Content
There are three main types of thought leadership content:
- Industry thought leadership – content focused on industry news and trends
- Organizational thought leadership – content that amplifies the ethos of the organization
- Product thought leadership – positioning the product or service as the best solution for the customer problem(s) it solves
Industry Thought Leadership
Industry thought leadership content focuses on industry news and trends. Let’s use social media marketing as an example.
Some industry thought leadership examples for a social media subject matter expert would be:
- The rise of TikTok as a viable marketing platform for brands
- How to incorporate creator economy partnerships into your social media strategy
- How to future-proof your social media strategy through building a true community
Organizational Thought Leadership
Organizational thought leadership content is all about cultivating and amplifying your brand ethos.
Educational content is the name of the game here. This type is naturally geared for corporate thought leadership but can easily be used at the personal level as well.
The following examples would work for either an individual social media subject matter expert or a SaaS company looking to position themselves as the go-to resource library of the industry.
- A step-by-step framework for creating and launching a brand TikTok strategy
- The best way to build a social media presence in 2022 and beyond
- A complete guide to building a social media strategy that gets results
Product Thought Leadership
Product thought leadership positions your market solution as the best option to the main problem of your target audience. The goal of your content is to clearly explain the features and benefits of your solution, while also providing real-world use cases as social proof.
White papers and industry case studies dominate this space. Example topics include:
- A white paper that analyzes organic reach trends over the last 12 months
- A case study that analyzes how your client was able to grow their TikTok presence
- A “key benefits” deep dive that answers every key question about what you offer
You can also vary your content mediums within these three categories of thought leadership content. As a ghostwriter, I am a big advocate of starting with a piece of long-form written content, typically in the 2000-3000 word range. This can be chopped up into spin-off articles, infographics, Twitter threads, a podcast episode, and/or a webinar.
Let’s look at some of the benefits of creating such content.
The Benefits of Thought Leadership Marketing
The following list of benefits was composed of the lists in the top 5 results of this keyword. I will be adding my personal spin by orienting each benefit within the context of the five tiers of thought leader.
Builds the Monetary Value of Your Personal Brand
The monetary value of your personal brand, in its simplest form, is your salary. For highly skilled professionals, the only people they want to be known and recognized by are their bosses.
Rising from tier 1 to 2 is primarily about increasing your salary, which comes directly from increasing your competence.
When you go from 2 to 3, you typically have built enough of a reputation to start freelancing on the side. Going from 3 to 4 is usually when the focus shifts to primarily generating your income from your name directly through freelancing and maybe some knowledge products.
Those who are pushing to go from 4 to 5 are trying to get to the point where they can build generational wealth with their professional brand.
Increases Your Social Capital
Your social capital is defined as the links and bonds formed with friends and acquaintances. In the professional world, your social capital is tightly linked to the ability to increase your earning potential.
At each level, thought leadership marketing helps you create content worth talking about, which eventually gets attention from the tier higher than where you are currently. Once you become a celebrity amongst professionals, you have near-infinite social capital. People at this level have thousands of people who essentially do their word-of-mouth marketing for free.
Develops a Strong Community
True thought leaders have enviable communities. They have an “inner circle” that often has been with them on their rise through the tiers of thought leadership. The outer circle just keeps growing because the inner circle keeps loyally amplifying your content.
If you are in tier 1, 2, or 3, then your main focus is to show up daily on social media and keep cultivating that inner circle. At tiers 4 and 5, your focus should shift to empowering your inner circle to be such strong advocates that your community steadily grows.
The 3 Qualities of a Thought Leader
I like how the fourth result for thought leadership marketing explained the 3 qualities that makes up the essence of a thought leader through the ancient greek principles of persuasion:
logos, pathos, and ethos.
Logos refers to our logic and reasoning. Ethos deals with credibility and trust. Pathos is the realm of emotions and values.
The article names the 3 components of the thought leader: the subject matter expert (logos), social influencer (ethos), and key opinion leader (pathos).
I think that’s a great summation of the elements that make up the essence of a thought leader.
Those in tiers 1 and 2 are great when it comes to the expertise but need to increase social influence and their position as a key opinion leader.
Tier 3 does well in expertise and social influence but follows the key opinion leaders rather than being a leader themselves. People in tier 4 have realized the value of being a key opinion leader, but they aren’t yet as renowned for those opinions as tier 5 thought leaders.
These qualities can be consciously developed with a thought leadership marketing strategy. I call myself a ghostwriter, but writing is only a part of what I do. I build and execute a plan that helps you maximize the benefits of your current tier while working towards getting you to the next one.
Building a Future-Proof Thought Leadership Strategy
The core ethos of being a thought leader is to set the trends within your space at the strategic level. It takes a meticulous strategy and tactical long-term execution to not only become a thought leader, but to bear the fruits of that status.
I am going to outline the 8-step thought leadership strategy I use with my ghostwriting clients to achieve their business objectives
Step 1: Map Out Your Areas of Knowledge
If you could snap your fingers and know all there is to know on a topic related to your career goals, what would it be?
You need a clear vision of what you want to be renowned for in your field.
Start with a brainstorming session to document all of your areas of knowledge. I recommend using a mind map, as it will allow you to easily see the connections between knowledge areas.
I made a template for you to use and included it below, with an example for each stage:
This exercise will give you a good idea of where your level of knowledge currently sits on the spectrum of subject matter expertise.
The area with your most proof of competencies is your most logical bet to pursue in terms of a thought leadership strategy.
Step 2 – Determine your current knowledge gaps
Assess your current knowledge gaps with brutal honesty.
You cannot be a thought leader in a knowledge area where you are not a subject matter expert. Maybe you have a solid amount of expertise right now in most components of your knowledge area, but we all have an area or two that are weaker than the others.
The only way to truly be a thought leader is to identify these weaknesses and employ a concerted effort to turn them into strengths. You must pursue all knew information within your chosen area of knowledge with a passionate curiosity.
If you are new to an industry but want to eventually be known as a subject matter expert, stop here. Your strategy is simple. Go as deep as you possibly can down the rabbit hole of the knowledge area you want to be an expert in.
The great equalizer of the digital age is accessibility of information. There are tons of free resources for you to learn about any topic you can think of.
The same advice goes for someone who is in the middle of their career but doesn’t quite feel they are worthy of calling themselves an expert.
If you have an area you are truly a subject matter expert in, though, then you are ready to execute steps 3-8.
Step 3 – Define your target audience
Thought leadership is about influence. The clearer you are on who you are actually trying to influence, the more effective you will be.
You probably already have some familiarity with the concept of buyer personas. Defining your target audience for thought leadership content revolves around reader personas.
The strategy for creating a reader persona is mostly the same as a buyer persona, but there are two key differences.
The first is intent. You are trying to get a reader to trust you and associate you with being an expert in your knowledge area. It is more about establishing a true connection rather than moving them through your marketing funnel (even though that is still ultimately your goal).
The second is specificity. Each piece of pillar content you create will have a base reader persona, and that persona will have several spin-offs for secondary, teriatary, and tangential content.
Don’t get overwhelmed. You can create them as you go. So when you first start, all you need is the persona of your content pillar.
We will go into the pillar method of planning and creating content during step 5.
I like to use mind maps for brainstorming my reader personas as well. Below is my reader persona mind map template:
Below are the questions in each of the 8 subsections. Create a doc for each persona and then answer these questions.
Reader Persona Template
- Who are they?
- Socioeconomic background growing up?
- Socioeconomic status now?
- First job in their career path?
- Current title?
- How did they climb the career ladder?
- What do they want to achieve?
- In the next 5 years?
- In the next 12 months?
- What is keeping them from achieving their long term goals?
- What is keeping them from getting from where they are to where they want to be?
- Why are they interested in the topic?
- What content length are they looking for on this topic?
- What style of writing and tone of voice do they prefer?
- How familiar are they with the topic?
- What are they hoping to learn?
- Where do they hang out online?
- What social platforms do they spend the most time on?
- Are they frequent email users?
- Where do they read most of their online content?
The most effective reader personas are tethered to some sort of real-world data. There are several social listening tools that can help you build these personas off of real people, but start with manual social listening on social media.
Search your topic and pay attention to what those interested in the topic are saying and sharing.
Step 4: Analyze the thought leaders known in your area of expertise
Once you have a clear picture of the reader trying to reach, you need to analyze those who are already influencing this audience.
This is similar to a competitive analysis for your business, but differs in that other thought leaders aren’t necessarily direct competitors.
The path to thought leadership is more collaborative than competitive. A person can simultaneously be a part of as many digital communities within a given vertical as they want, but only do business with one at a time.
Finding these thought leaders is pretty easy. Just Google “[your industry] thought leaders” and some sort of listicle will pop up. Run the same search through Twitter and LinkedIn. Build a spreadsheet list of people from these searches. Collect the following data:
- Follower count for each social platform
- At least 1 sample of highest performing content on each social platform
- Links to owned properties
- Sample of best written content
- A few things you like about what they are doing
Don’t spend too much time on this. Just a brief sketch of the top 3-5 people will do just fine.
- Competitive analysis framework
Step 5: Develop a thought leadership content plan
The biggest reason those who have the necessary expertise fail in an effort to become a thought leader is they don’t have a content plan.
Here is how I build my content plans. If you want to do it exactly like me, you’ll need the following tools:
- Ayoa (or any other mind mapping software)
- Keywords Everywhere (just $10 for 100,000 credits. Chrome extension that lets you see KW data right in search results)
- Google Docs and Sheets
1 – Brainstorm subtopics for your ideal area of knowledge
You want to expand on your ideal area of knowledge and come up with every subtopic possible. Let’s look at an example.
Thought leadership is my ideal area of knowledge. Here is a slice of my brainstorm of subtopics within that domain:
2 – Google your ideal area of knowledge
Install the Keywords Everywhere Chrome extension and purchase 100,000 credits for ten dollars. This is necessary to get the most out of this stage.
Don’t get too wrapped up in search volume. We are building a thought leadership plan, not an SEO plan, even though there is definitely some overlap.
I use the volume numbers moreso to get a rough feel of topic popularity.
That being said, you do want to follow basic SEO best practices in your content. This means each article needs to have a target keyword, as well as some secondary keywords that relate to it. This is called a keyword cluster.
I do this quick keyword search to get my target keyword for the cornerstone content of my topic pillar.
This article is my cornerstone content and the target keyword is thought leadership marketing.
A piece of cornerstone content touches on all of the subtopics you brainstorm in this step. It is your linkable asset that you want other people within your industry to link to as a trusted source of information.
3. Create an “article web” mind map
This is to brainstorm spin-off articles for each of the subtopics in your cornerstone article. Below is a section of what mine looks like. You will see that I plan on writing a shorter secondary article on each step outlined here:
The idea is to create a strong internal linking structure around all of the keywords most closely related to thought leadership marketing and have them all point to the cornerstone content.
4. Create a spreadsheet to plan and track workflow
This is where you track when you are going to write and publish your secondary articles. If you use Ayoa you can do this in the app on a task board, or you can create a task board in your favorite project management app.
I have over 60 article concepts in full web, which is enough for 6 months’ worth of content at a pace of an article published every three days. That takes care of the first half of my 2022 thought leadership content strategy.
The next step is really an extension of the content plan.
- Creating topic pillars
- Utilizing mix of long-form, social media, audio,video etc
- Light SEO research
Step 6: Make a realistic time and money budget for your plan
Based on some rough estimates, guestimating what some more advanced tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs would say, I will need the following to rank within the top 5 for thought leadership marketing in 6 months.
- 1 all-encompassing pillar article in the 3000-4000 word range.
- 60 spin-off articles at ~1000-1250 word length (publish 1 every 3 days).
- ~100 backlinks from moderately authoritative sites.
That is a LOT of work. The on-site content would be about 275 hours. Then you have to consider at least half of those backlinks would have to be generated through guest-posting, which tacks on another 150 hours for the content and about 75 hours for the outreach efforts.
Finally, you want other blogs to link to your pillar, which is why the crux of your content needs to be a linkable asset.
This 8-step thought leadership plan is my linkable asset and will be the center of my outreach pitch.
Tack on another 2 hours of work per link for a conservative estimate, so that’s roughly another 100 hours for those type of links.
So I estimate about 600 hours of work total over the next 6 months. Now, as someone who ghostwrites thought leadership content for a living, I have the luxury of not being constrained by a monetary budget.
I just have to be realistic about my time budget.
Being Realistic is Key
600 hours over 6 months roughly breaks down to 25 hours a week. I would have to work 55-hour weeks consistently to get this done on top of a full client load. Not impossible, but it is definitely a home-run swing.
In reality, it might become a 9 month timeline depending on what happens on the client front. This is why all content plans must be designed with agility as a focal point.
For someone like you who has very limited time, such a plan would be impossible. Even a plan that requires 5-10 hours a week may be too much of an ask.
That is why folks like yourself outsource their thought leadership content to ghostwriters like me.
Step 7: Build a daily social listening routine
Social listening sounds like it is complicated but it can be as simple as being a daily active user on the social media platforms where your target readers are hanging out.
Twitter is the best platform for social listening. You can use tools like Tweetdeck to set up a custom timeline that monitors a certain topic. Being active on Twitter not only helps you build a community of people interested in your content, but it also helps you learn about industry trends in real-time.
Having knowledge of trends as they grow is what allows you to have the innovative opinions necessary to establish thought leadership.
Find the questions your audience is asking on Reddit and Quora. There are several social listening tools that help you monitor blogs, videos, and other content for keywords, but start with a basic manual strategy.
Step 8: Monitor KPIs weekly to make short and long-term strategy tweaks
The final step of the thought leadership marketing strategy is to build yourself a simple KPI dashboard in either Google Sheets or Excel.
Conversion-based metrics aren’t really important in measuring the success of a thought leadership campaign. Remember, thought leadership content is primarily geared towards the top of the funnel. Some metrics to look at include:
- Changes in total # of keywords piece is ranking for week-to-week
- Changes in amount of traffic an individual piece is ranking for week-to-week
- Significant changes in either target KW rankings or high-volume KW rankings
- Amount of shares and Traffic from social shares week-to-week
- # of passive backlinks built week-to-week
- # of active backlinks built week-to-week