The current Wikipedia entry for the term “thought leader” says:
“The phrase “thought leader” is identified by some writers as an annoying example of business jargon and appeared in Forbes magazine’s 2013 annual “tournament” of “corporate America’s most insufferable” business buzzwords and clichés.”
Despite the overuse and corruption of the term, strategically targeted and well-executed thought leadership will continue to be the best way to raise your profile and build your visible expertise. Thought leadership report “Suite Dreams are Made of This – Value of B2B Thought Leadership Survey”, published by Grist, found that 66% of executives use thought leadership “to stay ahead of emerging trends” and 60% “to help them make better, more informed decisions”. 52% of executives surveyed also said they read thought leadership “to help me understand best practice”. It remains a very valuable and relevant marketing device.
It is particularly valuable for professional services. In the same survey, when executives were asked to identify from where they are most likely to seek out thought leadership material, respondents most commonly identified professional services/advisory firms (44%).
A true thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognised as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialisation, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organisation for said expertise. Do you need to be a thought leader to sell your professional services? Not necessarily, but you can use a thought leadership content strategy to achieve your marketing objectives.
In a professional services firm, you and your leadership team are all experts. Ultimately, expertise is what drives the business. It is why people seek you out and are willing to pay for your advice and services. Visible expertise is about being known for your knowledge, skills and experience. In today’s highly competitive environment, where clients have a great deal of choice available to them, you need to differentiate yourself and your firm. Prospective clients are making purchasing decisions based on their perceptions of your expertise. You need to establish trust and credibility more quickly than ever before and it doesn’t happen as organically as it used to.
Content marketing is about building the brand, driving client action, and ultimately driving sales, by engaging the target audience. Thought leadership is achieved by using particular styles of content, to establish authority and build profile and positioning. The thought leadership content establishes the author, and the brand, as a thought leader.
Thought leadership content should be used to build your profile as an expert in your area of expertise. Thought leadership ultimately helps you position yourself and your service as significantly valuable to potential clients. Prospective clients will seek you out and this will allow you to realise your optimum value.
The key is to develop a targeted, structured, and informed content strategy, including thought leadership content, to increase brand engagement and become known as the subject matter expert.
So, what are my top five ingredients of strategic thought leadership content?
This is about targeting your thought leadership content and this is necessary for any marketing activity. You need to know your audience before you can begin to strategise, write or design. If it’s not written for the right people, they won’t read it. Knowing your audience will help shape your strategic thought leadership content.
You don’t need to be known to everyone; you just need to be known as a thought leader in your chosen target market. Becoming a thought leader involves specialising in a sector of the market, or providing a niche service, and developing thought leadership content (presentations, articles, white papers, books, videos etc.) that demonstrates your expertise in this area.
Your thought leadership content needs to resonate with your target audience. It needs to ‘ring true’ for them, where they clearly identify with the issues raised. Well-crafted content can help you reach and grow your target audience, build relationships with that audience, and enhance your credibility as a leader and expert in your space. The best thought leadership strategies help you build and maintain trust with the audience. The goal is to develop initial trust, so they keep your brand top of mind and you’re the first person they think of when a need or opportunity arises.
One of the ways to develop trust is to give them something for nothing. By sharing your insights and expertise with your audience without any strings attached, you’re giving them a reason to trust you. When you let go of the need to promote your services and focus on providing practical, real-life value to your audience, you’ll earn their trust.
3. Point of view
Many firms delay going all in on thought leadership by focusing on their lack of a ‘unique point of view’. They assume that there is so much noise in the marketplace that they can only compete if their content is differentiated and completely unique. But your audience isn’t necessarily looking for your content to be differentiated all of the time. They are just looking for the best answers to their questions.
You can differentiate with your point of view, when appropriate. When you do want to establish true authority on your topic you can produce deep research on the subject. You can present a depth of knowledge that no one else has. When doing this, you need to define your clients’ challenges and define the best ways to overcome them.
Day to day, you can differentiate with your consistency and by becoming an authority and helping your clients through your content.
Another key ingredient is courage. You will only develop successful thought leadership content if you ‘put yourself out there’. You need to have confidence is your expertise and in your point of view. Readers will respond positively if your writing is authentic and if you are writing about what you believe to be true. Quantitative and qualitative research will often confirm what your experience tells you, and facts are necessary for credibility, but clients will always respond to your real-life examples.
Stories are powerful, so have the courage to ask your existing clients, for feedback, for their stories and for their point of view on the issues.
The last and most crucial ingredient is visibility. Your brilliant expertise, and leading thoughts, are useless to you if people can’t access them. This is where your content strategy will need to be targeted and efficient – leveraging and amplifying your thought leadership content on the most appropriate social media platforms, in the most popular industry magazines, conferences and events etc.
Prospective clients are increasingly searching for answers online, so firms that have a solid content strategy, building a strong presence in a niche market, with you and your firm’s leaders ‘front and centre’, will feel the benefits of more enquiries. A good marketer can help you identify your target audience and develop relevant content that will resonate with that audience. A cleverly designed and clearly articulated content strategy can focus your efforts in the most valuable areas.
It might be tempting to dismiss thought leadership as business jargon, and therefore ineffective, or too hard to build the profile and achieve results. Thought leadership, will always build authority, credibility and visible expertise. The good news is that it’s not as hard as you might think. Develop a strategy, which targets an area of expertise to a particular audience, develop your thought leadership content systematically and consistently and you can become known as the ‘foremost authority’ or ‘visible expert’ and ultimately a legitimate ‘thought leader’.