In this article…

We pull back the curtain on how an enterprise company is currently building their thought leadership program.

The company: Hack The Box (HTB)

Industry: Cybersecurity

Employees: 2700+

Goal: strengthen brand authority among senior leaders in cybersecurity.

HTB’s thought leadership goal is similar to that of most other brands. 

Most companies use thought leadership to either build or solidify existing brand authority.

HTB is doing the latter — as they’re already a leader in cybersecurity. 

We’ll show you the behind-the-scenes of how they’re doing it in this article.

First off, why build a thought leadership program?

Thought leadership programs cost money.

Sometimes a few thousands.

Other times, hundreds of thousands of dollars go into it.

So there has to be a strong “why” for it.

For HTB, they’ve had a strong presence among cybersec experts for years.

But now, they’re solidifying their presence among mature professionals and leaders with their thought leadership program – or the “SME program” as Hassan Ud-deen, HTB’s head of content, puts it.

(For clarity, ‘SME’ here is Subject Matter Expert. So that’s “Subject Matter Expert program.”)

Hassan udeen

Hassan Ud-deen

Content Marketing Lead @ Hack The Box

“The thought leadership program (we call it the SME program) is a powerful bridge for connecting with specific audiences in a credible way.

“With nearly 3 million community members worldwide, HTB has been the de facto platform for helping technical cybersecurity professionals develop “hands-on keyboard” skills. 

“But things are evolving, fast! 

“Our products and the audiences they target are maturing beyond individual employees. 

“We’re speaking to decision-makers, budget holders, and internal champions who are responsible for entire departments and teams. 
So a radical shift in our approach to content is needed.”

The HTB approach to building a thought leadership program

Any thought leadership program launched with a spray-and-pray, throw-spaghetti-to-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach fails 90% of the time.

No, that isn’t a real statistic. 

But after spending over ten years in content marketing, and working on several content projects, I can tell you for free that 90% is close to reality.

To execute and hit the goal(s) you’ve set, you need a documented thought leadership strategy, process, or approach you’re following.

For HTB, their approach looks something like this:

  1. Set a clearly defined goal
  2. Get buy-in from leadership 
  3. Source content for experts from experts
  4. Create a content distribution strategy

Let’s unravel each of these.

1) A clearly defined goal

Your company may have multiple goals they’re trying to hit.

From lead gen to reducing long sales cycles and so on.

But you’re better off targeting one of those goals with your thought leadership program.

A single goal will let you focus all resources in one direction and make a significant impact.

But with multiple goals, it’s easy to spread resources too thin only to drive minimal impact for each goal.

targeting one goal vs multiple goals at once

HTB’s goal for building a thought leadership program is clear: 

They want to support and engage with senior leaders in cybersecurity.

Your goal might be different, what’s important is to identify one for your business and build your thought leadership program around it.

2) Get buy-in from leadership 

Thought leadership programs aren’t direct response ads or campaigns.

So you can’t go to your boss and say, “If we put 100k in, we’ll get 500k back in X months.”

In most cases, you’ll have to paint a vivid picture of how your thought leadership program will benefit the business. 

Otherwise, no budget — especially in economic situations like this.

So how did HTB’s content team convince leaders to back their thought leadership program?

“We started by running a “pilot program” for Q1 to “prove the concept,” says Hassan.

Both Hassan and HTB content writer Fiona Leake shared their process for running their pilot program (which has now continued as their thought leadership program):

Hassan & Fiona at Hack The Box

“We source our own unique list of experts to contribute to all our content. 

“This includes featuring them on webinars as panelists, contributing insights to articles, or hopping on video interviews. In my eyes, it’s the perfect storm of journalism + content marketing — there’s a raw element of newspaper-like scrappiness and marketing strategy. 

“Here’s the simple method we used to kick the program off (that’s now got leadership buy-in): 

1. Develop a simple form for experts to opt-in to your program. We started with a simple Google Form briefly sharing the type of content we wanted to create, and who we wanted to work with. 

2. Work with customer success/sales to identify power users you can reach out to. They’re usually experts at their jobs and are happy to contribute content. 

3. Develop a manual outreach cadence. Our content writer, Fiona, has done a great job of putting together a list of relevant job roles and SMEs.

“We try to reach out to a certain amount every week and offer them the opportunity to become “HTB SMEs.” (Having an audience/user base in the millions helps.)

4. Refine your content sourcing systems. Create templates for welcoming SMEs/experts. 

“Organize your directory with better labeling so you know who to reach out to. Build processes for finding the right subject matter expert. 

5. Launch it. We’re now rolling out “official” badges SMEs can use on their LinkedIn. 

A Hack The Box badge for SMEs

“We’re promoting them in our monthly newsletter to 150,000+ readers. 

“We’re (also) sourcing panelists (from our roaster of SMEs) for high-profile webinars. 

All of this is supported by our SME program, and the value has been clear to our senior leadership team.

Ultimately, the pilot program showed leadership the possibility of creating and publishing expert-led content that helps to engage decision-makers.

3) Source content for experts from experts

I posted this on LinkedIn not too long ago:

You get the drift: content for experts should come from experts.

Hassan put it like this:

“Think about it: 

“If you had to develop a security policy for your entire organization, would you trust some SEO’d blog post written by a general writer or content from a fellow Chief Information Security Officer who’s been in the game for years?”

The answer’s obvious there.

So the team contacted HTB power users and enrolled those interested in contributing to the SME program.

But sourcing content from these experts wasn’t all smooth sailing for them.

As they gathered insights from experts at scale, interviewing them, organizing expert insights, following up with them, and keeping track of where things were at became tedious.

That’s when they turned to Leaps to make content sourcing more organized, easier, and faster.

“This is where Leaps has been a game-changer for us,” says Fiona.

“As more and more SMEs/thought leaders opted in, keeping track of their responses, following up, and asking questions was extremely time-consuming. 

“Leaps instantly halved the amount of time it took by automating most of this manual process to sourcing credible expertise.” 

An example of a Leaps dashboard showing how it helps to manage the SME collaboration process

Here’s how Leaps helps HTB automate the manual process involved in interviewing their experts for content. It:

  • makes it easy for their experts to respond to their questions via voice notes (speech-to-text) or texts — without having to sign up. 
  • sends the SMEs automated follow-up messages, reminding them at intervals they set to respond to questions before a deadline
  • Organizes all insights from the SMEs per topic so they’re easy to find
  • manages and tracks SME collaborations in one central platform so the team can see which SMEs have/haven’t responded, read/haven’t read their questions, passed/not passed deadlines, etc.

Learn more about Leaps here. (Opens in a new tab)

4) Map out a content distribution strategy

Content distribution doesn’t look the same for every brand.

For instance, if your brand is like HTB, you may have a large community of fans to promote your content to. All you’ll need is to produce thought leadership content that’s solid enough for them to want to share.

If your situation looks nothing like HTB’s, you’ll need to get even more creative. 

You might need to partner with influencers, run paid partnerships, start your own community, etc. Bottom line: content distribution isn’t the same for all brands; you’ll have to find what works for you.

But back to HTB…

By collaborating with SMEs to create content, they benefit from SMEs’ natural desire to share. 

And if you follow HTB on LinkedIn, you’ll see SMEs they’ve worked with sharing their content:

Imagine you partner with 10 SMEs over X days, weeks, or months and they each share your content with their connections.

That’s a big deal — especially in B2B — because it lifts your brand perception in the eyes of buyers, partners, and other industry stakeholders.

Fiona says it like this:

“The goal is to produce evergreen valuable content while giving a platform to professionals in the industry who will then naturally distribute our content

“This raises our authority as respected individuals will share our content and have their voice heard.”

And as mentioned earlier, beyond SMEs sharing their content, the HTB content team is also rolling out “official SME badges” that SMEs can post on LinkedIn as a badge of distinction.

Since HTB is a well-known brand in cybersec, this is indeed a badge of honour for most people in the industry.

So they’ll want to share it alongside the content they’ve been featured in. 

Next on the distribution agenda is HTB’s email newsletter which has over 150,000 readers.

Inevitably, this will further spread the news about the HTB brand and its content.

And then there’s an SEO play in all of this as well.

“At the moment, we’re tracking blog SEO performance,” Fiona says.

It’s a smart strategy because everyone searches for something about their job at some point.

So it only makes sense for them to see your content right when they’re looking for it.

Bottom line: set up a  process and follow it

One of the most ineffective things to do when launching a thought leadership program is to go all out with “rando acts of content.” 

Instead, if we’ve learned anything from this case study, it’s to follow a process:

  • define your thought leadership goal, 
  • get buy-in from leadership,
  • source insights from SMEs for content,
  • map out a clear content distribution strategy

In most cases, this is enough for you to kick off your thought leadership program. Good luck!

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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