How To Build Thought Leadership

By Nigel Cliffe

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Back in 2016, I published a LinkedIn article titled ‘Thought Leadership. What’s it all about?’. In the article, I stated that ‘thought leadership’ was THE buzzword of the modern business world at the time but that the term was often abused and confused with ‘content marketing’.

This still seems to be the case today, according to the results of a new thought-leadership study by LinkedIn and global communications marketing firm Edelman.

“Marketers and their colleagues can be guilty of using the term as a catch-all for pretty much any form of branded content.”

Tom Pepper, in his LinkedIn article ‘The most important through leadership study you’ll see this year’.

So, what exactly is thought leadership?

In the recent Edelman and LinkedIn study, they defined thought leadership as free content that organisations or individuals create on a subject in their field of expertise when they believe others can benefit from reading about their views on a topic. Thought leadership can come in a variety of content formats, including videos, blog posts, webinars, research reports and essays. The study’s definition also stressed that the content it classed as thought leadership did NOT include content that mainly concentrated on promoting or explaining products and services. For instance, case studies, although valuable content in their own right, did not count as thought leadership in the study.

In my opinion, thought leaders are people who publish content that encourages readers to take a fresh view on a topic or issue and results in a change in readers’ thinking or approach. Readers, after being informed with new knowledge or a new take on an issue, can then investigate different solutions to burning issues they are facing.

things to do for great thought leadership

5 Things You Should Always Do When Creating Thought Leadership Content

1) Be Relevant

Ask yourself if the topic you are writing your thought-leading content on is a high priority for your potential market at the moment. According to the Edelman and LinkedIn study, 60% of decision-makers surveyed in the UK, Germany and France reported that content relating to what they are working on is a critical factor in influencing them to engage with the content.

2) Aim to Educate

Your thought-leading content should always aim to educate your readers, add value to their lives, expand their horizons and enhance their understanding! The Edelman/LinkedIn study found
that 73% of decision-makers surveyed believe 50% of the thought leadership they see lacked valuable insights – so watch out!

3) Be Innovative

Question if the content you’re producing in the name of being a thought leader has involved original and new research. Anyone can churn out existing research. Straight away, readers can see through artificial content that someone has produced for the sake of it, or purely to jump on the bandwagon, rather than adding anything new to the discussion or debate.

4) Be Bold

If your content contains a unique perspective or an unusual or ‘provocative’ view you’re onto a winner. Content that does this can gain a lot of attention whilst also improving your brand’s corporate reputation. 93% of decision-makers involved in the Edelman and LinkedIn research stated that it is important for companies to be bold and set out a clear vision for the future (by releasing strategic and consistently high-quality thought leadership content).

5) Be Engaging and Memorable

Always ask yourself, does your content provide quick ‘take out’ messages that will stay with the reader long after they have finished reading? Half of the decision-makers in the Edelman and LinkedIn survey said that they prefer thought-leading content in formats that can be digested in a few minutes. Think visually appealing infographics, short, snappy videos or easy-to-follow blog posts.

thought leadership things to avoid

5 Things to Avoid When Creating Thought Leadership Content

1) Don’t Sell

Thought leadership is NOT advertising. Avoid promoting or describing a product or service. Instead aim to captivate your target audience by adding your valuable insights, new research or a refreshing take on an issue that is dominating their agendas.

2) Never Publish Untested Content

I’d always recommend testing your thought-leading content out on different groups who are similar to your target audience to gauge their feedback and if you have room for improvement. Do they think it’s unique and insightful? Does what you have written challenge their views and misconceptions? It’s always worth testing, trust me!

3) Don’t Confuse Thought Leadership with Content Marketing

Although the two terms are often confused, they are, in fact, very different from one another. Where thought leadership is helpful, fulfilling and innovative, aiding the reader in understanding a topic, content marketing’s purpose is usually to grab the attention of a defined audience in order to convert them into customers or a lead. Where thought leadership is neutral, content marketing is generally more heavily branded.

4) Avoid Dumbing Down Content

Just because decision-makers appreciate engaging content, it doesn’t mean to say you have to dilute the content altogether! Make sure you don’t lose the value and quality you are trying to convey as that’s what decision-makers expect more than anything else from thought-leading content, according to Tom Pepper’s article.

5) Don’t Underestimate the Power of Thought Leadership

The Edelman and LinkedIn survey revealed:

  • 54% of decision-makers in Europe said that they use thought leadership as a vital way to assess organisations that they are considering working with.
  • 46% stated that they have asked a previously unconsidered supplier to bid on a project after experiencing their thought leadership.
  • 49% of decision-makers reported that they have awarded business to a supplier as a direct result of their thought-leading content.

So don’t fall into the trap of thinking investing time, research and effort into valuable thought leadership content doesn’t matter!

Why getting thought leadership right matters

Why It Matters to Get Thought Leadership Content Right

  • Over half of decision-makers in the Edelman and LinkedIn survey said that they’ve stopped following a writer or organisation after reading disappointing thought leadership.
  • 42% responded saying that poor thought leadership has decreased their respect for a business. And we all know that respect, like trust, is hard to recover!
  • 28% of decision-makers reported that they’ve decided against awarding a piece of business to a company because their thought leadership was disappointing.

Poor thought-leadership can have negative (and sometimes irreversible) impacts on a brand’s reputation.

I hope this advice helps you stay on track for positive, fulfilling thought-leading content creation!

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