Let’s face it – we all want to call ourselves ‘thought leaders’. It sounds amazing and it would make a fantastic job title. “And what do you do Madam?”, “Well Sir, I lead thought” – cue dropped jaws and jealousy.
Respondents to a NewsReach survey about the state of content marketing in the UK found that most people agree that thought leadership will be an even more important part of content strategy in the future. It’s the must-have of the content world and businesses seemingly can’t get enough of it. However – I’m going to say something quite controversial – most people don’t do it right.
The rise of the thought follower
There is a very simple formula for creating great thought leadership: Unique thoughts + facts and figures + expert views = content gold. The businesses that follow this are winning the content race. Take Deloitte for instance, which has established itself as a thought leader by commenting on industry developments and giving useful insights and opinions on its own research. By being brave enough to put its beliefs out there, it helps to shape the way readers view issues, all while giving the company a real voice.
However, many business fail to add the actual ‘thought’ when creating thought leadership and find themselves simply regurgitating or reinforcing the opinions of others.
In my experience, this is the result of a disconnect between wanting this sort of content and actually being able to deliver it: Businesses have heard about thought leadership, they know they should be doing it, but when it comes to giving their opinions, they don’t really know what they’re supposed to be saying.
Sometimes this is the result of an unwillingness to rock the boat and attract ‘negative’ attention. In other instances, businesses have a deadline to generate content and don’t have time to get a conclusive answer from executives about what their opinion is, preferring instead to collate the thoughts of others and ‘present a balanced view’.
However, when it comes to thought leadership, there is no room for neutral or beige content. Its point is to add something unique to the discourse surrounding a subject, which can then be used to generate debate. After all, no one will tweet “Barry explained that Joe Blogs thinks content marketing is great”.
Why does it matter what you think?
Your competitors will probably be aware that if they want to perform well online, thought leadership is where it’s at.
“I predict a glut of so-called “white papers” on everything under the sun, composed by PR execs with six months’ experience, clogging up the internet,” Stuart Anderson, head of marketing and communications at Clarion, told Newsreach. “The challenge for the content marketers will be to convince users that the content they are marketing isn’t part of this spring tide of “me-too” dross.”
Thought leadership is only useful if you have something to say and aren’t afraid to tell people about it. Readers are looking for a reason to care and you have to give it to them.
If you do this, the benefits are plentiful. At a basic level it will give people a reason to download your white paper, read your blog, share your content and tweet about it. You’re also much more likely to be re-quoted by other thought leaders.
This will all help to establish your business as an industry expert, giving it a clear brand and public face that gives customers insight into your values and priorities. Google will also love you and you’ll find that one opinion piece can be used as the lynchpin of a wider content strategy.
It’s hard work having an opinion
Of course, becoming a thought leader isn’t an overnight process. It takes time, commitment and cultivation – one white paper does not a content success story make.
Luckily, businesses are waking up to the importance of content marketing. The Content Marketing Institute, in partnership with the UK Direct Marketing Association (DMA), found in its 2014 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends report that 88 per cent of UK marketers now use content marketing. Forty-two per cent of businesses have a documented content strategy and 31 per cent direct a considerable part of their total marketing budget to content.
However, alarm bells start ringing when it comes to thought leadership. Just 48 per cent of UK marketers cite this as a goal, compared to 62 per cent of North Americans and 54 per cent of Australian marketers. Forty-four per cent of UK marketers also say they struggle to create engaging content, while 66 per cent feel they have a lack of time to produce the sort of content they need.
It would be a lie to say thought leadership is easy. It’s not. To do it right takes company-wide cooperation. You need to get everyone on board with a strategy and to agree what the company position is on key issues. Once you’ve got this, you need to tell people about it and justify your claims with facts and other expert views.
What’s more, you can’t afford to drop the ball once your opinion is out there. The point of thought leadership is to generate debate and engage people, so time has to be dedicated to replying to comments and questions, monitoring social media and cultivating further debate.
Promotion is half the battle, so be prepared to support thought leadership with additional content, appearances at trade shows or even talking about issues with other agencies.
Put the effort in, and you’ll see the return on investment. Do it poorly and it will be hard to truly realise the benefits of thought leadership.