Thought Leadership Content Best Practices

Let’s start with what “thought leadership content” is vs. isn’t.

First, thought leadership content ISN’T:

  • a one-time effort for instant results
  • just content for showing off expertise
  • another marketing tactic for self-promotion

So, what really is thought leadership content?

It’s content created by [or with] subject matter experts (SMEs) that offers unique and experience-driven insights and helps to establish yourself as a trusted resource and brand in your industry.

what is thought leadership content?

In this article, I’m partnering with six content leaders and will share their best practices for creating thought leadership content.

Thought leadership content practices

First, thank you to the six amazing content leaders who shared their expertise and experiences on this topic: 

Kiera Blessing (Senior Content Marketing Manager @ Finch), Stephanie E. O’Neill (Director of Content at JLL Technologies), Peter Strempel (Head of Thought Leadership (Europe) at Tata Consultancy Services), Ross Simmonds (Founder & CEO @ Foundation Marketing), Becky Lawlor (Founder and Chief Research & Content Officer @ Redpoint), and Heather Ferguson (Senior Editorial Manager @ Alteryx).

Let’s dive in!

1. Start with positioning: identify topics you want to be known for

When we started Leaps, we were clear on the topics we wanted people to know us for.

AKA topics we’re experts on or topics we plan to get experts to speak on.

For us, those are SME collaborations, thought leadership, and content.

Gradually, we’re becoming more and more known for these topics.

Case in point: Just last week, an article we published about SME interview questions got featured in a newsletter in the customer education industry:

This is an example of the sort of outcome you can typically expect when you narrow down on topics you want to be known for. 

Once people start realizing your brand is an expert on your topics, and you genuinely share helpful and valuable opinions, they’ll start referring to you for insights on those topics.

I like how Finch’s Senior Content Marketing Manager put it:

Kiera Blessing bio

Kiera Blessing

Senior Content Marketing Manager @ Finch

“Content leaders should involve their company’s leadership in their planning process when it comes to thought leadership to get a sense of what topics they’d like to position themselves as experts or innovators on. 

“From there, thought leadership pieces should always involve consultation with the SMEs — PMMs, Product Owners, and maybe even Engineers or Customer Success Managers.

“Too many content leaders skip the most crucial part of thought leadership: interviewing their SMEs.

“As Content Marketers, we are experts in writing and attracting buyers, but we’re rarely experts in the industries we’re selling into — especially when it comes to B2B marketing.

“Content is successful when it makes your audience feel seen and heard — so it’s critical that content marketers speak their language.

I also asked for the steps Kiera typically takes to build a thought leadership content strategy, here’s what she shared:

“When building a thought leadership strategy, I always start with research. 

“I read up on the industry, learn what macro trends are affecting the space, and build a list of pain points my audience has. 

“I also take into account things that may not be pain points but are areas where my audience is looking to educate themselves or grow in their careers. 

“Once I have a solid understanding of the industry, I meet with leadership to interview them and pick their brains about what they feel are the biggest points of discussion, confusion, concern, or opportunity within the space, and how they see our product fitting into that space. 

“From there, I’ll build a list of topics and begin identifying the internal (and sometimes external) SMEs that I’ll need to weigh in on each.

“Content is only successful when your audience can see themselves in the story you’re telling. A baseline knowledge of the industry isn’t enough. 

“To actually be a thought leader, you need to be presenting new ideas, new solutions, or unique angles to existing, well-known industry norms or trends. 

“As a content marketer, you probably don’t have those unique takes; but your team does. 

“Your job is to elevate the voices of the people within your company that hold the information your audience needs. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to fill your content with direct quotes, but your team’s input and verbiage should be the basis of any content you produce.”

2. Differentiate thought leadership from sales enablement content 

We get it: marketing should drive (or at least impact) revenue.

Otherwise, it’ll be super hard to prove its impact to higher-ups. 

Understandable. But in most cases, thought leadership pieces aren’t the best place to do direct, blatant selling.

There are other content types for that, like sales enablement and product-led content.

With thought leadership content, you want to show how your brand thinks about critical industry topics, untainted by commercial intent. And that often impacts revenue at the end of the day as buyers often gravitate towards brands that share expert opinions.

I like how the director of content at JLL Technologies explained how to create non-promotional thought leadership content when I asked her to share her process:

Stephanie E. O'Neill headshot

Stephanie E. O’Neill

Director of Content @ JLL Technologies

“Thought leadership content should not sell, ever (it may indirectly, but you will lose your audience if you are trying to sell vs. educate, inspire, or entertain).

[To create thought leadership content:]

“1. Identify key topics of interest
2. Identify subject matter experts who can offer a unique perspective on the topics
3. Interview the SMEs to glean key insights
4. Draft thought leadership pieces based on what you learn
5. Distribute and promote thought leadership pieces

When I asked Stephanie to share what her SME collaboration process looks like, here’s what she shared:

“Without subject matter experts, there is no thought leadership. 

“The process is simple: identify topics, identify SMEs, interview SMEs, develop content to highlight key insights, distribute and promote resulting content.

“It’s tried and true over 20+ years of experience. 

“I think the most important thing is to tell a story vs. sell a story. Content is much more likely to resonate with people when it solves a problem or strikes an emotional chord.”

3. Address questions your audience regularly asks about

If you’re answering questions that are real pain points for your audience, you’ve won half the battle 

And that’s because people pay attention to content that addresses pain points.

You’ll usually find pain point topics in questions your audience asks about over and over.

The senior editorial manager at Alteryx shared her advice on finding these questions and pain points:

Heather Ferguson headshot

Heather Ferguson

Senior Editorial Manager @ Alteryx

“The first step is understanding who your audience is. What are they interested in? What keeps them up at night? 

“From that knowledge, then you build a list of topics that would appeal to your audience in a space that your company has unique information and understanding of. 

“This is important — find that intersection of topics that your company/thought leaders have expertise in with topics that are interesting to your audience. 

“I start working with subject matter experts at the very beginning of a thought leadership exercise. Their insights often drive the identification of topics and themes. 

“Some questions I like to ask are: 

“1) What is a question that you get over and over that you’d like to clarify through a piece of content? 

“2) What is something in the industry that you have a strong opinion about? What are you most passionate about in your career? 

“From these questions, I then build an editorial calendar and use the topics and audience insights to build out the content.

“Subject matter experts are also consulted in our editorial process as fact-checkers and reviewers, so we can verify that what we are saying in our content is accurate.

“I like our process because I find it gives us original insights that resonate with our audience.” 

4. Go beyond defining already defined terms

Ever opened an article or video about a topic and the first thing you see is a definition of something you already know?

For example: you’re a marketing manager with 10 years of experience. 

You’re doing a campaign for a new product release and need a landing page template, so you google “best landing page templates for {use case}.”

You click a search result and the first subheading says “What’s a landing page template?”

Marketers often do this for SEO but it’s usually pointless.

And with how Google is ramping up on only ranking content that speaks to humans more than search engines, this practice won’t even be relevant for SEO anymore.

So, with thought leadership content, you want to go beyond defining things that have already been defined a thousand times over.

I like how the Founder & CEO of Foundation Marketing put it:

Ross Simmonds headshot

Ross Simmonds

Founder & CEO of Foundation Marketing

“The main thing that content leaders get wrong about thought leadership content is that they view thought leadership content as simply being insights that define terms that have already been in the vocabulary of the audience in which they’re trying to speak to. 

“If you’re really creating thought leadership content, you need to bring new thoughts and new ideas to the market. 

“That means you might want to take a contrarian opinion to something that is oftentimes talked about. Or you want to bring research and data to confirm something that you as an organization may have believed and aligned your path forward with but may not have actually executed. 

“The right way to execute thought leadership content is to simply ensure that the thoughts you’re bringing to life are original.”

I also like how the head of thought leadership (Europe) at Tata Consultancy Services put it:

Peter Strempel headshot

Peter Strempel

Head of Thought Leadership (Europe) @ Tata Consultancy Services

“The main issue [with thought leadership] is the inflationary use of the term ‘thought leadership’.

“Any kind of storytelling or communication that expresses a view is branded thought leadership.

“But real thought leadership has to combine deep knowledge and original insight; not simply opinions. Ideally, itbuilds on original research and thus provides data no one else can offer. 

“Besides, thought leadership should take community-wide discussions and problems, and offer new and workable solutions.

And when I asked Peter to share the steps you’d typically take to create thought leadership content, he said:

“By and large, the choice for any new thought leadership content follows the question whether the topic lies in the thought leadership triangle of ‘client interest’, ‘our expertise’ and ‘our strategy.’ 

“Once that is confirmed, the rest depends on the scope, the purpose, and —  of course —  the budget. 

“Sometimes we may only repurpose existing intelligence to a specific use case or audience. 

“In other instances, we may go so far that we design a large global study, involving 1000s of respondents. 

“So there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The basic conditions simply have to be met.”

Ross also further shared the steps he typically takes to create thought leadership content:

“It starts with discovery. You have to discover a lot more of the value that your audience is looking for in their day-to-day job and then understand the nuances that lead to that value being realized. 

“What I mean by that is you have to become immersed and obsessed with your customers. Study them, spend time with them, interview them, conduct research on them, and understand the problems that they’re struggling with. Then do the work to figure out a solution that is so valuable, so helpful, and so insightful that it’s worth creating. 

“This doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a definition of a certain term in your industry. 

“You have to go deep and provide insights and ideas that no one in your industry is talking about or that haven’t been talked about in a very very long time.” 

5. Use original research and/or expert interviews

There are very few things that beat original research and expert interviews when looking to share content that demonstrates thought leadership.

Case in point: this article you’re reading.

You’ve probably read it this far because expert insights have been helpful, but more importantly, original and interesting to read.

That’s what original research and/or SME insights can do to your thought leadership content.

I like how Redpoint’s founder and chief research & content officer put it:

Becky Lawlor headshot

Becky Lawlor

Founder and Chief Research & Content Officer @ Redpoint

“In my view, what makes content thought leadership is that it is presenting novel information or perspective to a topic, so when I start from that as the premise, the question is how can we do this? 

“It typically comes down to either having some original research to share or through interviews with experts on the topic who have novel perspectives that are based on their years of experience.

“Usually it’s an interview with the SME on the topic, but I like to make sure that even though I have questions to ask, that the structure of the interview is loose enough for the SME to suggest different avenues of exploration on a topic than I might have planned. Often, this is where the real gold is.”

 

Add persistence and distribution to the mix

Thought leadership content — when crafted strategically with persistence and a working distribution plan — can make your brand a go-to and trusted authority for expertise and authenticity in any market.

All you need is to:

  • align with audience interests, 
  • collaborate with subject matter experts, and
  • offer original insights.

Do all these with enough persistence and distribution and results will show up.

Co-founder at Leaps | Website | Articles

Hi, I’m Victor 👋🏽 — co-founder @ Leaps — a tool that makes it super easy to run SME interviews for content at scale without calls & meetings.

This way, you're better able to create content that:

- truly connects with decision-makers
- shows thought leadership and builds brand
- moves deals forward, drives pipeline, and so on