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Using a Thought Leadership Council to Serve Up Great Content

Executing a content marketing strategy is a daunting task.  As the wealth of information on this site and popularity of how-to posts attest, there is great interest in the key pillars of content marketing process. Joe Pulizzi’s post How To Effectively Manage the Content Marketing Process is a fantastic outline of six key strategies that are imperative to making a content strategy work.

I’d like to add a seventh: establishing an effective Thought Leadership Council.


A Thought Leadership Council is the team of key subject matter experts from across the organization who generate content ideas. Call it what you will — an advisory board, steering group, content working group or editorial board — but think of it as you would a dinner party. There’s a subtle chemistry involved in planning a Thought Leadership Council meeting so it ends up being enjoyable, satisfying and as stress-free as possible for everyone at the table.

Stick with me, because I’m about to go off on a metaphorical tangent.

Who should be involved in your Council

First, you need a Host: this is the most senior individual responsible for the content marketing strategy, whom Joe calls the project manager. (In project management terms, this is the executive sponsor.) This person has already made the case for content marketing and kicked it off as a strategy that is important to the organization.

The Host determines the guest list for the Council, and must have the clout to mobilize people to participate. The Host invites guests to the party and ensures they have a good time while they are there. The invitee should feel proud to receive an invitation and delighted to accept. Getting invited to this party indicates a certain level of status within the social sphere (aka organization).

The Chef
is the managing editor, the person who will translate the vision of the Host into an appetizing menu of delectable content.

Wait Staff
This is a classy affair, so we also have wait staff who make sure the party goes off without a hitch.  They take coats, park cars, serve cocktails, help with kitchen prep, offer hors d’oeuvres – i.e., make sure whatever is being served meets the Chef’s high standards and the Host’s objectives.  These are the writers, designers, web developers, translators, copy editors, etc. who come from various places within and outside the organization and whose activities with respect to content marketing are directed by the Chef.  With the exception of the lead writer (the head waiter?), they don’t generally have a seat at the table, but are important contributors to the outcomes while watching attentively from the sidelines.

Finally, we have the Guests. They are enthusiastic epicureans (although they may not cook for themselves) and great conversationalists who bring news of the outside world to the party. They understand their role as guests is to create a climate of sparkling repartée and lively debate on topics about which they are passionate and in which other guests will be interested. (If the analogy is to hold, this is a potluck, and each guest brings a dish to form the overall menu.  Or perhaps the guests are bringing the groceries for the meal …).

At this point, it’s clear a non-metaphorical summary is in order.

How to organize your Thought Leadership Council

Holding an effective Thought Leadership Council meeting hinges on who you invite and how you structure the event.

The senior executive must be accountable
The Thought Leadership Council must be established by the most senior individual who holds accountability for the content marketing strategy.

Council members should represent the broad organization
Select Council members from across the organization (geography, practice area, etc.) who have these capabilities:

  • Subject matter expertise
  • First-hand knowledge of customers
  • Credibility and reputation within and outside the company
  • Capacity to brainstorm.

They should be senior decision-makers, who don’t have to take decisions about content back to someone else for approval.

Council members should understand how their participation will benefit them
The people most likely to make strong Council members are also people who already have multiple demands on their time.  The executive sponsor should make a compelling case for participation by highlighting the value to the member (not what you need from them, but what they will get from you). For instance:

  • Professional support to write thought leadership communications crediting them
  • Enhanced industry and public profile
  • The opportunity to be involved in a high-profile, innovative task force directly linked to business goals.

It’s important to have a clear structure for the meeting
Be sure to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Council members from the outset and set the context for the meeting as a brainstorm session. Facilitating a brainstorm session takes a certain skill.  The following meeting structure can be helpful:

Part 1:  Generating ideas  – a free exchange of thoughts where no idea is a bad idea

Part 2:  Clustering – what are the major themes into which ideas can be grouped?

Part 3:  Prioritizing the best ideas

Part 4:  Shaping up the top three or four themes (depending on timing) into story outlines

The size of the Council should be manageable
Six to eight people is ideal, plus the executive sponsor, the managing editor and the lead writer.  Have Council members identify an alternate should they be unable to attend any meeting.

Scheduling depends on the volume of content required
To create a six-month editorial calendar for a monthly eNewsletter, which includes three main stories and some secondary sidebars, I am working with a client whose Thought Leadership Council meets quarterly for a full day.

Follow-up and project management is critical
After the meeting, the editor:

  • Refines the story ideas (often with the writer)
  • Determines which audiences the ideas are most relevant to (ideally, based on customer personas)
  • Determines what channels or formats are appropriate
  • Plugs the details into the editorial calendar
  • Releases a summary calendar back to the group

The editor also manages the story production process by creating a production schedule which details the steps involved from outline to publication.  The production schedule is used by the editor, writers, the web developer, designers, copy editors and others who are involved more tactically in content marketing production.

Have you had any experience with Thought Leadership Councils or similar groups?  What other suggestions would you offer for making them work most effectively?  Did this post make you hungry for more information?