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How to Create a Thought Leadership Program


How to Create a Thought Leadership Program

Updated Apr 12, 2024

What’s your big idea? What one idea or topic area do you want to be known for? When people think about your organization, what do you want them to say? The answers to these questions should be the essence of your thought leadership program.

Chances are your organization is full of people who aren’t shy about the experience, expertise and opinions they bring to their work each day. Thought leadership is all about pulling those ideas out of your team’s heads — and emails and phone conversations — and using them to build your organization’s brand.

Thought leadership is the most advanced form of content marketing. We’ll show you how to build a thought leadership program that establishes your organization’s expertise by generating big ideas, building a content engine to bring those ideas to life and encouraging your employees to share them online.

3 Tiers of Content Marketing

Content can generally be grouped into three tiers, which are likely to evolve with your goals and available resources.

SEO-Driven Content

You want potential customers to find you online. This approach involves chasing keywords so prospects can find you, read your content and decide whether you’re the right fit for them. Often seen as the entry point for content marketing, this strategy often relies on generating a high volume of how-to content based on long-tail keywords.

Customer-Driven Content

You have excellent customer relationships, and you want to build on them in your marketing. If you care more about building those relationships than simply being “found,” this strategy is often a good fit. You’ll focus on case studies and profiles of customers on your blog. This can be a particularly effective content strategy for smaller and midsized B2B companies.

Idea-Driven Content

This is the pinnacle of content marketing — true thought leadership. You’re still practicing good SEO and uplifting customer stories, but that’s not all. You’re also gathering and sharing deep internal expertise, often working ahead of industry publications. You’re introducing new paradigms.

People reading this type of material may even forget that it’s marketing.

So how do you get to that idea-driven tier? Start by digging up those big ideas — knowing they are most likely to originate outside your marketing team.

Uncover Your Big Ideas

Many organizations start the idea-generation process by brainstorming within the marketing team. That can generate some ideas, but no matter how clever you are, relying too much on your marketing team in unlikely to yield something original. You have to cast a wide net to find strong ideas worth sharing.

Look for the Big Thinkers

These people are the “connectors” — they work across departments and can see the big picture at your organization.

Who are the employees everyone looks to for ideas and answers? Who has been at the organization for a long time and knows everyone in the industry? What do they have to say about current events and trends?

Don’t forget about thought leaders, influencers and trendsetters outside of your organization, too. They can help your customers and prospects understand marketplace intricacies or upcoming trends while associating your brand with that expertise.

Keep an Eye Out for Interesting Data

Your organization collects data about your operations and customers and likely has access to industrywide data, too. How can you use what you already have to tell a useful story? Maybe you can transform a recent customer survey into a state-of-the-industry report. If you’re tracking how customer needs have changed over time, you can share what that means for the future of your industry in an article or infographic.

Develop Original Research

A powerful way for your brand to showcase its expertise is by sharing original research or survey results. You might already have the data in hand. But if you’re not satisfied with your current data, you can survey customers and prospects about the burning questions in your industry. Presenting this research will educate and enlighten while highlighting your brand as a possible solution.

Building Your Content Engine

Turning ideas, data and research into compelling content isn’t easy.

Even the sharpest thinkers sometimes have trouble translating ideas into content. Scaling up that process to create an ongoing content calendar can also be challenging. You need a strong team and a smooth process to make it happen.  Create a content marketing engine that produces your thought leadership efforts by using these six steps.

  1. Establish a Strategy

    “Strategy” can be an intimidating word, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, the best strategies are simple. A good content strategy answers these questions:

    • Who are we trying to reach?
    • What do we want to offer them?
    • How are we going to make a connection?
    • How will we know when we’ve succeeded?
  2. Document Your Plans

    Once you’ve established your strategy, you can start to plan content. Create a content calendar that maps out topics, channels and the team members needed to produce the campaign and each asset in it.

  3. Establish Accountability

    How do you follow through on the content calendar you’ve created?

    Break every piece of content into steps, and assign an owner for each step. Project management software such as Basecamp, CoSchedule or Monday can help organize these projects into easy-to-follow action steps with firm deadlines assigned to an owner. Keeping track of deadlines and assignments identifies where the bottlenecks are, making it easier to improve the process over time.

  4. Build Checklists & Templates

    Don’t reinvent the wheel every time you create a piece of content. Templates and checklists allow you to focus your energy on the ideas rather than how you’re going to get the work done.

  5. Get Creative With Formats

    Not every expert is a fantastic writer. Putting the onus on them to create publication-ready copy is a common mistake made by floundering thought leadership programs. Don’t force it.

    Instead, play to the strengths of your experts. This might mean interviewing them through video or audio, then transcribing the results. Your team might go another step and craft a narrative piece that incorporates quotes from that transcript, or create video or audio snippets to accompany the text.

    What matters most is capturing your thought leaders’ ideas and adapting the material to appropriate formats for your audience.

  6. Assign People to the Right Roles

    As you rev up your content engine, observe where things slow down. If people are having trouble staying on task and hitting deadlines, your content team needs a managing editor or content marketing manager. If content isn’t being promoted on social media, or the messaging doesn’t align, you might need a more intentional and collaborative approach with your social team. If articles don’t have the right tone and polish, you might need to hire an editor to elevate your content.

Spread the Your Best Ideas

Great content is meant to be shared. The problem is that people don’t necessarily know how to go about sharing it on their own.

Employees may be reluctant to share content from their organization without some encouragement. Don’t assume your employees will share your branded content. They may fear saying the wrong thing or feel awkward sharing work news without guidance. Having an internal promotion strategy is just as important as your production strategy.

Market Your Marketing

Take your external marketing efforts and turn them inward. After all, you send emails to prospects and customers to keep them informed about your business; employees should get the same level of intentional communication. Send an internal version of your marketing newsletter to employees —  full of links to content they helped produce — and invite them to share it outside your company.

Help Them With What to Say

Encourage your colleagues to share thought leadership online by providing sample language or ideas about what to say on social media. As with any social sharing, making it easy is vital. A simple cut-and-paste of suggested text ensures employees get the messaging right.

Track and Reward

When sharing content is part of their jobs, employees are more likely to do it. Set expectations about how and when they should share content. Then establish a reward system to reinforce its importance.

Thought Leaders Are Market Leaders.

Interesting thought leadership content that gets results is possible for any marketing and sales team, even those with fewer resources. The keys to success are exciting ideas, a strong creation process and sharing what you know.

Ready to see how content marketing can drive growth for your firm? Schedule a brief consultation and learn how our framework can help you:

  • Develop your reputation for thought leadership.
  • Fuel your account based marketing with differentiated content.
  • Strengthen your employer branding by telling the stories of the people who power your company.