Many people think thought leadership is just another buzzword. But if Redshift by Autodesk, Johnson & Johnson, or MR PORTER’s Journal can successfully build brand awareness and become leaders in their area by creating thought leadership content, we need to stop and think again.
Becoming a leading expert in any field doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a lot of work that involves creating a strategic thought leadership content plan, not to mention critical mistakes you can make along the way. But it’s worth trying because if done right, it can establish your brand as a great, trusted source of information and keep you at the top of customers’ minds.
This article will explain what a thought leadership brand is and give you 6 practical tips to build it.
What is a thought leadership brand?
Thought leadership is an approach to content that brands use to educate their target audience in their industry, provide valuable insights, and build credibility for themselves. A thought leadership marketing plan could include creating blog posts, videos, ebooks, reports, social media sharing, webinars, podcasts, or conferences. It’s a long-term strategy because it takes time to produce, promote, and get valued by the audience.
Once you become recognized as an expert, people—your customers, competitors, and your industry as a whole—will see you as a thought leadership brand or a thought leader. You will increase your brand awareness, generate more leads, improve social proof, and boost customer engagement. American Express is a good example of building a brand by doing thought leadership.
What’s a good example of a brand benefitting from thought leadership? In 2007, American Express launched OPEN Forum to provide small business owners with insights, ideas, and connections to grow their businesses. From an online community, OPEN Forum is now a go-to source for business owners to exchange ideas and learn from each other. It’s also American Express’ the number one source of leads for new cardmembers, making the bank a leader in their industry.
6 tips for building a thought leadership brand
Doesn’t what American Express did with OPEN Forum sound great? To get to that level for your brand, implement the following tips to get the most out of your content, and turn your brand into a thought leader in your industry.
1. Understand your target audience
Let’s discuss those winners over at American Express again. They started OPEN Forum with a laser-like focus on helping small businesses grow. They put themselves in the shoes of small business owners to find out what those entrepreneurs need, what they want to learn, which content they care about, and how American Express can provide a solution.
“How do you align your branded content with relevance for your readers? In American Express’s case, using data to gain as much insight into the interests of our audience solves this challenge. What are our fans reading most often? What’s resonating with them? We used those answers to craft relevant content for our audience.”—Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, SVP of Partnership & Business Development of American Express.
Your customers are those who will read your content and evaluate if your brand is a thought leader or not. Hence, it’s crucial to start your thought leadership strategy by doing research on your target audience. What are their pain points? What questions are they looking for answers to? What motivates or inspires them? Join the platforms where they discuss, conduct interviews, or do any other ways to learn about them. In doing so, you can be sure you’ll go in the right direction.
2. Analyze what competitors are doing
Every brand wants to become a thought leader, but many fail to do it. The reasons are many, but a major one is that they create content covered well elsewhere or replicate the content without mentioning their perspectives. They put a lot of effort into the thought but forget the leadership. If what you do is just paraphrasing what’s already said by your competitors (or other experts), you’re not doing thought leadership. Remember, to make your brand a thought leader, you need to lead.
That’s why, after learning about your target audience, you need to do thorough research on your competitors. What are they talking about? What kind of content are they producing? Where and how often are they posting? Is there any missing point in their content? If you want to cover the same topic, how can you make your content distinctive? By analyzing published content in your industry, you can find the gaps, get inspired, and develop new ideas for your content marketing strategy.
3. Figure out what you’re an expert in
A brand doesn’t need to know everything to become a thought leader. But a thought leadership brand knows what they’re sharing and does it better than the others. They understand their niche and create content that brings new, unique, or more valuable insights to their customers. They identify their strengths and take action to get the most out of them.
On their blog, LinkedIn shared an interesting infographic on 3 types of thought leadership that a brand can choose to develop their thought leadership content strategy:
- Industry thought leadership: Focus on the news, trends, innovative technologies, and insights about the market the brand serves. For example, Burning Glass Technologies creates thought leadership content about labor and the job market.
- Organizational thought leadership: Embody the vision, mission, values, culture, and uniqueness of the brand. For example, everything Patagonia shares on its blog speak its purpose.
- Product thought leadership: Become the best solution for customers. For example, REI Expert Advice Blog establishes itself as a place where everyone can “learn new skills, choose and maintain gear, prep for your trips, and have amazing adventures.”
Choose a type of thought leadership you want to pursue and ensure your messages, as well as strategies, are aligned with it. Remember, not every company is in a good position to become a thought leader of everything.
4. Don’t be afraid to promote your content
Your company website is the first, great place to share your thought leadership content. But that doesn’t mean you should limit yourself on your blog. It also includes being active on social media platforms, guest posting on other relevant sites, speaking on podcasts, or organizing events/webinars.
Besides, you should diversify your content format because each channel has specific requirements on content type, and more importantly, your customers learn differently. Some prefer using infographics and images. Some learn fast when they watch videos. Others love to read. By developing your thought leadership content in different formats, you can easily reach many people and expand your brand awareness.
Note that it’s one thing to promote your content, another thing to keep it in control. Being too promotional can annoy your audience and potentially destroy your brand.
5. Maintain authenticity
Ensure your content is authentic and genuine to your brand. That doesn’t necessarily mean your content needs to be completely original, but it needs to bring real values and includes data that helps your audience make better decisions.
Developing a unified brand voice is a good way to bring authenticity to your thought leadership content. By doing that, you can deliver your content consistently everywhere and improve brand recognition—whenever your customers see your content, they know exactly what you’re all about.
6. Be careful with outsourcing content
A brand can partner with a publisher or content marketing agency to develop and distribute content. But it should be noted that thought leadership is intimately connected with your brand, who you are, and what you stand for. What you create is your ideas, research, your perspectives, your experience, and your expertise. Hence, you need to be proactive in delivering it.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean you can’t hire an agency to help you with thought leadership content. In fact, a trusted outside vendor can greatly assist you in building a thought leadership brand, from ideation to distribution. But you should do this after you already earn a badge of authority in your field.
The collaboration between Microsoft and Gimlet Creative in co-producing the “.future” podcast series is an excellent example of doing that right. Microsoft creates content and then gives it to Gimlet Creative for packaging and distribution. Remember, the best person who can communicate what’s in your head is just you.
It’s not easy to become a thought leadership brand
If it were easy, everyone would be one, which, in turn, means nobody would be. As David McCullough once said, “If everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.” It can be a long, challenging journey to be called a thought leadership brand.
Take a significant investment of time and energy to determine your brand’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, identify your target audience, choose a specific area to lead in, lead by saying something new in your area, and be authentic in whatever you’re doing. Sooner or later, you’ll become a thought leader—something you can be proud of.