It takes more than relevant, well-written content to establish your brand as an industry thought leader. Here’s how to publish genuinely insightful content that proves your credibility and expertise to your target audience.
Hardly any of the ‘thought leadership’ brands publish these days lives up to its name. It doesn’t draw the reader in. It doesn’t contain useful insights. And it doesn’t position the publishing brand as an expert in its field.
Even on occasions when the piece in question is interesting and well-written, it isn’t what you’d call true thought leadership.
It doesn’t ‘lead thoughts’.
There is a place in every content strategy for content that’s tailored to your audience’s needs and pain points. But there’s so much ‘relevant’ content out there these days, and research from marketing intelligence specialist Beckon shows that 95 per cent of it gets completely ignored.
True thought leadership goes one step further and says something that’s never been said before. It provides new, useful information on a complex and compelling issue. And in doing so, it positions a company (or individual) as an expert in its field.
Over the past decade, we’ve helped some of the world’s most recognisable brands publish genuine thought leadership that does just that.
Along the way, we’ve conducted extensive audits of the content landscape in a wide range of B2B sectors to develop a deep understanding of what it takes to cut through the noise in each vertical.
Today, we’ll walk you through how we do it so you can use the same techniques to inform your own thought leadership strategy.
In the process, you’ll see how to develop ideas for genuine thought leadership – whether you’re writing a blog post, commissioning an external contributor, developing a flagship content piece or anything else.
When we’re done, you’ll be in a better position to engage business leaders at every stage of the purchase process.
Find the gaps in your audience’s knowledge
In order to develop true thought leadership, you need to find out what your audience already knows.
That’s true no matter what type of content you’re looking to create. You can’t contribute something new to a conversation by telling people what they already know or saying something that’s already been said. Yet, the vast majority of B2B content does exactly that.
Our research shows that 71 per cent of executives find most branded content boring, expected and repetitive.
Nine times out of ten, you can trace the problem with bad thought leadership back to decisions made during the planning and research phases
It’s not enough to find topics that are new and interesting to you. Senior company decision-makers are broadly experts in their field. There’s no guarantee an idea will seem bold or innovative to them just because it’s unfamiliar to you and your content writers.
True thought leadership takes those interesting topics and goes a step deeper to identify common misconceptions or knowledge gaps.
If a Goldman Sachs executive penned a roundup of the previous year’s economic trends, that might be interesting. But if the company used its specialist tools and proprietary techniques to accurately predict the biggest trends of the next 12 months, that would be thought leadership.
At the same time, remember that your content will only seem credible if it relates directly to your company’s natural strengths and expertise. Goldman Sachs could create content about next season’s fashion trends, but it would never be as authoritative as the company’s macroeconomic insights.
So, take the audience pain points, interests and priorities that form the basis of your content strategy and use all the tools at your disposal to investigate them in-depth:
- Search data will show you what questions your customers are asking online and which key phrases appear in existing content.
- Social listening tools can help you see how your audience feels about specific topics and highlight when an issue is trending online.
- Auditing existing content in the marketplace will reveal what information is already available, what hasn’t been done yet, what’s out of date and what has been done badly.
- Interviewing prospects directly often uncovers deep insights into an audience’s specific thoughts about an issue.
Taken together, this information will paint a clear picture of where there are opportunities to provide your audience with real value. Then, it’s just a matter of working out the best way to create authoritative content that fills those knowledge gaps.
Given the amount of research involved, you’ll typically want to develop a plan that lets you turn the insights you uncover into a flagship content piece you can use as the backbone of your editorial calendar.
A proven way to uncover original insights
One tried-and-tested technique for making sure your brand’s content says something genuinely new and establishes your industry expertise is to commission a piece of original research.
Many marketers don’t even consider research because they assume it’s expensive and hard to get right. But that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s not just huge brands like KPMG, Salesforce and Edelman that use this approach as the lynchpin of their thought leadership strategies.
BuzzSumo and Mantis Research’s State of Original Research for Marketing 2018 survey shows that half of B2B organisations have published original research in the past 12 months. What’s more, 92 per cent of respondents say they plan to do so in the year ahead.
“Our State of Agile Marketing research has been a virtual gold mine for subscribers, backlinks, and real money-in-the-bank clients,” says AgileSherpas president and lead trainer Andrea Fryrear.
She adds: “I’ll see someone has downloaded the report, and within a couple of days (sometimes a couple of hours!) I’ll see that same someone requesting a call to talk about becoming a client.”
Research is popular because a well-chosen topic can establish your brand as the ‘go to’ source for a particular set of insights. Almost three quarters of B2B buyers say reading original research influences their purchase decisions, according to the CMI and SmartBrief.
What’s more, repeating the same research annually will enhance your reputation as the custodian of that knowledge over time.
The key when embarking on your own research project is to start with a clear proposal that outlines what you want to research and how the results will say something that adds to the conversation in the market.
The one thing you don’t want is to put resources into a research project only to discover your findings aren’t thought leadership material.
Use the steps outlined above to find the gaps in your audience’s knowledge, then consider how you can combine quantitative and qualitative research to bring the project to life. This may include conducting surveys, analysing proprietary data or interviewing key industry thought leaders.
Hold yourself to the highest standard
More than a quarter of B2B decision‐makers say they’ve decided against awarding business to a company because its thought leadership was disappointing. So, it’s essential to scrutinise any thought leadership project you embark on to make sure it’s up to scratch.
In the planning stages, that means considering your audience’s expectations. You need to understand the level of insight you must promise to draw your audience members in and hold their attention.
But once you have a finished draft, it’s just as important to consider whether the end-result delivers on your original brief.
On occasion, the thrust of your editorial may evolve during the content writing process to reflect the insights your team uncovers – and that’s fine. It’s better to create something that’s right than to shoehorn a narrative into your thought leadership that’s at odds with the facts.
The real question to ask yourself is: “Does what we’ve created genuinely add to the conversation on this topic?”
Remember that the more ambitious the project was to begin with, the higher the threshold here will be. When you promise your audience bold new insights, you must deliver bold results.
If your first draft isn’t up to scratch, you may need to go back to the drawing board. Great thought leadership will establish your brand as an expert in your industry. But to do that, you must be publishing ideas that are genuinely unique, innovative and useful to your audience.
- True thought leadership contains unique insights. It provides new, useful information on a complex and compelling issue and positions a company or individual as an industry expert.
- The planning stages are vital. Investigate your chosen theme in-depth to uncover gaps in your audience’s knowledge and spot opportunities to deliver real value.
- Hold yourself to the highest standard. Scrutinise the final draft of any piece of thought leadership you produce to make sure it lives up to your original brief.