Any organization can deliver thought leadership content if it has a system for generating ideas and a process for turning them into engaging assets. Those ideas can really move the needle. Half of C-suite executives say they leverage thought leadership to make purchasing decisions in tough economic times.

The good news is that many companies have already cracked the thought leadership code using strategies that content marketers can emulate. We’ll walk through examples from organizations like Google, FedEx, Cigna, and more and break down the steps you can take to develop a thought leadership program of your own.

What is thought leadership?

Thought leadership is about establishing yourself and your organization as an industry leader. Thought leaders inspire or move others to action with new ideas, uncommon opinions, predictions, or industry commentary.

Readers have high standards for thought leadership content. The same C-level decision makers that leverage it in their decision-making processes are difficult to impress—only 17% of them rate the content they read as “very good” or “excellent.”

Thought Leadership vs. Content Marketing

At face value, thought leadership and content marketing look similar. Both require organizations to create content on topics relevant to the target audience. There are differences, however.

Content marketing is the broad strategy for moving customers through a sales funnel from top to bottom using different kinds of information at the top, middle, and bottom to achieve different goals.

Within that broad strategy, thought leadership content is one category of content marketing assets most often used to fulfill top-of-funnel (TOF) goals like building brand affinity or awareness. With thought leadership, brands build trust with potential customers and expand reach at the top of that funnel. It should work hand in hand with other content marketing initiatives.

Companies Doing Thought Leadership Content Well

Thought leadership content comes in many shapes, sizes, and formats. These include videos, webinars, podcasts, articles, and social media posts. Consider the following examples:

Kroger Uses Video to Elevate the Pharmacist’s Expertise

You can find pharmacies in Kroger grocery stores all over the country. Many of them offer COVID-19 vaccinations.

Kroger wanted to position its pharmaceutical teams as thought leaders in vaccination science. To meet this goal, the company produced videos for its YouTube channel featuring pharmacists discussing the COVID-19 vaccine in a relatable manner.

Cigna VP Uses Social Media to Discuss Affordable Healthcare

Katya Andresen is Cigna’s Chief Digital and Analytics officer. She used LinkedIn to share her thoughts on making healthcare more affordable.

Her posts on LinkedIn showcase her concern (and Cigna’s concern) about the personal well-being of her audience. She became popular during the pandemic by helping people find cost-free ways to get virtual care.

Google Uses Weekly Podcast to Discuss Innovative Cloud Technologies

Google’s About Google Cloud Platform Podcast, abbreviated as GCP, includes weekly episodes featuring technical discussions with cloud professionals about the innovations they’re pursuing to make Google Cloud better.

These episodes serve multiple thought leadership purposes: They build the thought leadership reputation of Google’s technical team and leverage the reach and influence of podcast host and head of developer engagement Stephanie Wong, who often posts about the show on her personal LinkedIn profile.

GCP: Cloud Workstations with Marcos Grappeggia and Antoine Castex

FedEx Publishes Articles to Establish Leadership in Supply Chain Trends

Whether owned or earned, articles are a powerful way to deliver thought leadership to an intended audience. FedEx uses both to establish itself as a thought leader in supply chain trends. The brand publishes on different platforms to reach different audiences.

An article discussing FedEx’s plans to work towards a more sustainable future, for example, speaks to the investor audience on an owned blog. In contrast, the President of FedEx in Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, Kawal Preet, speaks to a business audience about the big tech trends shaping tomorrow’s supply chain in a third-party interview.

Citigroup Delivers Keynote at Industry Event

Speaking engagements are a favorite way to deliver thought leadership narratives at industry events or conferences. As gathering places for both customers and peers, many companies seek both paid and unpaid speaking slots to reach a target audience.

This example from Citigroup’s chief innovation officer and head of Citi Ventures, Vanessa Colella, positions her as a thought leader in how banks can stay competitive against big tech companies.

6 Steps to Creating High-Performing Thought Leadership Campaigns

Content teams workshop thought-leadership narratives using a similar process to the one used to develop content marketing and public relations (PR) ideas.

The following steps will guide you through choosing the right people to drive a successful thought leadership program and setting up a system for coming up with new ideas, vetting them, and using them to create high-impact content.

1. Create your thought leadership strategy.

Just like any marketing initiative, you should create thought leadership content with your company goals in mind. Build the foundation for a successful thought leadership program with some familiar strategic exercises:

  • Define your target audience. Develop thought leadership content based on topics that interest your buyer personas, investors, or potential employees.
  • Define your goals and KPIs. Thought leadership is typically a TOF initiative, so think impressions, engagement, brand awareness, brand affinity, and uplift.
  • Run a gap analysis. Map the topics other thought leaders in your space are discussing, and learn their point of view. Include the formats and channels they use and pinpoint any gaps you can fill.

2. Find your thought leaders.

The most important part of your thought leadership program is finding and defining the voices you choose to represent your brand. Choose them with great care. There are two types of thought leaders you can tap for your program:

  • People who already work for your company. The executive team is one place to start, but great candidates may exist at all rungs of the corporate ladder.
  • People who don’t work for your company but are industry thought leaders. Partner with them to author content on your site or speak on stage at industry events.

Regardless of the route you take, you’re looking for someone experienced in their field, has a strong point of view, keeps up with industry trends, speaks with honesty and transparency, and wants to share their expertise with others. Want is key here. It is always hard to produce high-quality content and harder still to do it with someone who has no interest in sharing their ideas.

Bonus points if you can identify people who already have experience sharing their ideas in some way, whether on stage, in writing, or in front of a camera. Those candidates may already have a strong social media following or network with which they can share the content you create together.

Depending on who you pick, be prepared to train your thought leaders. For example, send spokespeople through media training if they’ll frequently speak with the press or send event speakers to stage training, etc.

3. Create a content plan.

Once you know who your thought leaders are, you can determine a strategy for sourcing ideas. Consider the following options:

  • Sit in on meetings with internal thought leaders to listen for ideas.
  • Review buzzy articles or opinions gaining traction in your market to see if your thought leaders have an alternative point of view.
  • Ask for ideas from other employees or even your freelance team. Contently has a feature to solicit ideas from your freelance team called pitch requests.

Much like a typical content marketing plan, you also need to nail down the formats you’ll use to bring thought-leading ideas to life. Consider the thought leader when choosing formats—someone with stage fright would probably be better leveraged authoring bylines than giving a keynote, for example.

4. Create content.

Take into account the strengths and weaknesses of your thought leaders. Will they be writing their own articles, for example, or will you need a freelance team?

Where does their work end and yours begin?

Once you answer those questions, you can develop smooth content operations with two familiar steps:

  • Staff a freelance team. Even if your thought leaders want to create content, they likely won’t always have every skill you need to bring the ideas to life. Contently has an elite team of over 160,000 professionals you can work with.
  • Create a standard workflow. While the details of each workflow will change depending on the type of content you create, establish a clear agreement with your thought leaders about timelines. Set expectations ahead of time, so they don’t become a bottleneck.

5. Publish and distribute content.

Your thought leadership content is part of your broader content marketing strategy. Distribute it according to how it fits into your TOF goals.

Some places it might make sense to distribute include employee networks, third-party publications, partner sites, corporate social media channels, or a dedicated email blast.

6. Measure your results.

Keep track of your impact at the top of the funnel by tracking engagement, impressions, brand affinity, and other key performance indicators (KPIs) that you have identified as important to you.

Social media management tools, social listening tools, and website analytics are helpful here. For larger thought leadership programs, working with a third party to conduct a brand lift study is another way to measure brand awareness or affinity on a larger scale.

The key to good thought leadership is authenticity.

Thought leadership fails when it feels forced. The thought leaders you choose can make or break your program. Those with strong opinions or points of view will be the best to work with.

Once you’ve found that star lineup, leverage this guide and their thought-leading ideas to create tangible impact on the bottom line

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