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How To Make Thought Leadership Content Thoughtful and Leading

Thought leadership content? It’s a common part of the job, but do you do it well?

Too many B2B brands don’t, says Lisa Gately, principal analyst at Forrester.

She recommended some things you can do to change that in her Content Marketing World 2022 talk, Most Thought Leadership Isn’t Thoughtful or Leading: We Need to Fix That.

One thing to keep in mind before you dive into her advice: Expect to play the long game.

“Thought leadership serves brand equity goals,” Lisa says. “And that’s going to be built up over months and years.”

Definition of great thought leadership

Thought leadership is not a one-off campaign, a collection of a content marketing team’s collateral, or a strategy.

So what is it?

Lisa defines thought leadership as “an intentional exercise of knowledge, skills, and expertise to increase awareness, elevate perception, and drive preference related to key issues that an audience cares about.”

The key part of that definition? Addressing an issue your audience actually cares about.

Thought leadership addresses an issue your audience actually cares about, says @LisaGately of @Forrester via @GregLevinsky @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

According to Forrester research in 2021, 63% of tech buyers say vendor content focuses more on style than substance, and two-thirds say the content is biased toward the vendor. Their disappointments are ones likely experienced by many types of B2B buyers.

The role of thought leadership is to quell, not exacerbate, these issues.

Thought leadership content can meet a need buyers crave – forgoing direct self-serving purposes and showcasing a company’s expertise supported by credible, data-driven sources, Lisa says.

4 dimensions of successful thought leadership

A strong thought leadership platform stems from an “outside-in approach” – beginning with market and audience factors, not the organization’s product or internal requirements. Plan for an 18- to 24-month commitment, Lisa says.

Commit 18 to 24 months to develop a successful thought leadership program, says @LisaGately of @Forrester via @GregLevinsky @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

Four elements make up thought leadership success – market context, audience insights, corporate alignment, and organizational readiness. Lisa details each:

1. Market context

Understand what’s happening in the marketplace. Market context can be broken into three factors – market interest, theme durability, and competitive presence:

  • Market interest: Research industry conversations internally and externally, particularly around your competitors, across myriad channels. This research helps determine where your company’s voice fits into the conversation.
  • Theme durability: Because thought leadership is an ongoing content marketing exercise, identify and partner with internal and external subject matter experts. Your SMEs should be engaged to ensure the content’s theme can be planned for at least a year.
  • Competitive presence: Look at other areas in the marketplace. Lisa suggests reviewing competitors’ content, monitoring their patent filings and research-and-development activity, and partnering with the competitive intelligence team to do a full-scale sweep.

2. Audience insights

Tailoring your content themes to what your audience wants to consume sets your thought leadership on the path to success. Detail this insight into three factors – theme relevance, buying process support, and customer evidence.

  • Theme relevance: Test topics with customer advisory boards or partner networks. Their input can help provide more confidence behind the work you’re doing (or indicate you may want to revisit the theme.)
  • Buying process support: Map your themes to the steps in the buyer’s journey.
  • Customer evidence: Seek suggestions and input on potential topics from the intended audience, and you’ll be more likely to hook them in when you publish the content, especially if those audience members are incorporated into the thought leadership – a practice known as customer advocacy marketing.

3. Corporate alignment

Positioning your company as an expert on a thought leadership theme starts with your SMEs. Fame and popularity are not a prerequisite for SMEs. Credibility is key. It encompasses three factors – theme expertise, corporate alignment, and executive support.

  • Theme expertise: Selected internal or external SMEs should be knowledgeable about the themes.
  • Corporate alignment: Engage with leaders in marketing, sales, legal, product, etc., to galvanize your colleagues around the thought leadership themes.
  • Executive support: Ensure the thought leadership program fits into the company’s ethos.

Successful thought leadership themes stand the test of time and line up with what the company does. Lisa says, “If you’re choosing something that’s just a reach too far, it’ll be hard to activate it and get the results you’re expecting.”

Successful thought leadership themes stand the test of time and line up with what the company does, says @LisaGately of @Forrester via @GregLevinsky @CMIContent. #CMWorld Share on X

4. Organizational readiness

A thought leadership program isn’t implemented overnight. Communicate and get agreement upfront to the stakeholders that a successful thought leadership program requires investments in time and resources.

Organizational readiness divides into three factors – time to value, budget, and team:

  • Time to value: Start with the view it’s the long-term, multi-year investment focused primarily on brand-building objectives.
  • Budget: Align expectations with resources and use benchmark data to build a plan for the resources needed.
  • Team: Build your schedule wisely. Make sure everyone involved considers thought leadership as part of their job, not just a shiny object on the side.

Assess your company’s thought leadership program

As you improve your thought leadership program, it makes sense to evaluate your themes. Lisa suggests creating a thought leadership theme scorecard with input from a cross-functional thought leadership team. It can help you understand the current themes and identify which presents the best opportunity to gain traction.

Here’s how she suggests creating that scorecard:

  • Label columns – dimension, factor, description, and score. (You also can add two columns to weight the ratings – weighting [as shown by a percentage] and weighted score.)
  • In the dimension column, add a drop-down menu of the four dimensions – market context, buyers and customers, corporate alignment, and organizational readiness.
  • In the next two columns, list the related factor and description.
  • In the next column, add a drop-down menu with the score options – one, two, three, four, and five.
  • The last two columns allow you to assess the importance of each factor – weighting (as a percentage) and weighted score.

Click to enlarge

Here’s how each line of the standardized scorecard appears (minus the score):

  • Market context – market interest – There is growing interest in the theme among nonbuyer market participants and influencers.
  • Market context – theme durability – The expected longevity of the theme is high.
  • Market context – competitive presence – There is ample opportunity to claim a point of view.
  • Buyers and customers – theme relevance – The theme is directly relevant to the needs of a wide variety of buyers and customers.
  • Buyers and customers – buying process support – The theme directly supports a key phrase of the buying process.
  • Buyers and customers – customer evidence – The organization has current or former customers that can be used to support the theme.
  • Corporate alignment – theme expertise – The organization has experts or unique data that can support the theme.
  • Corporate alignment – corporate alignment – The theme is aligned to the organization’s skills and identity.
  • Corporate alignment – executive support – The organization’s executives are willing to support the theme.
  • Organizational readiness – time to value – The expectations for thought leadership are realistic for when it will deliver value (18 to 24 months).
  • Organizational readiness – budget – The necessary resources and budget are in place to execute against goals and objectives.
  • Organizational readiness – team – There is a dedicated team with recognized responsibilities for thought leadership programs.

Go through line by line and give each a rating of one to five, with one being very low and five being very high.

Then, add up the score for each factor and calculate the weighted score.

“The long and short of it is, the highest weighted score gives you the best themes,” Lisa says. “If you’re trying to explain to people why you selected your themes, this gives you a repeatable method, something that’s much more objective.”

Once you’ve identified the themes, engage with your SMEs to create successful thought leadership content, integrating it throughout the buyer’s journey, sales and marketing cycles.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute