By Natalie Marinaro
Trust, confidence, believing in something bigger, having a vision for the future — these are some of the most important qualities that employees and prospects look for when selecting who to work for and do business with. Helping leaders embody these qualities and establish this type of authority is one of the biggest requests we get from clients. We define the ask as thought leadership strategy.
While it may seem like a simple activity — where clients just tell us what their leaders want to talk about and we magically secure coverage around said topic — successful thought leadership is actually quite complex. Curating a message that’s unique yet has enough broad-based appeal for media and stakeholders requires an artful blend of data, insights and humanity. When done right, it has the power to deepen business relationships, reach new business audiences, inspire current employees and attract new talent.
For businesses looking to build a successful thought leadership strategy, here’s how to get started.
Step 1: Beware of thought leadership in disguise.
The most soul crushing thing we hear from clients is, “[XYZ leader] wants to talk about [insert topic of choice]. Can you come up with a plan for that?”
Listen, we know you mean well, but thought leadership programs should never be based around what someone wants to talk about. Sure, we want to know the issues you care about (more on that in section 3), but this approach is problematic for a few reasons:
- It usually means they’ve seen someone else talking about this topic, and now, they’re trying to tell a “me too” story. Unless you’re offering a wildly different perspective, this isn’t thought leadership; it’s not unique and it won’t elevate your profile. You simply become another talking head in a sea of noise.
- It’s marketing jargon, disguised. If you’re thinking that talking about how a specific technology (aka your business product) will matter to a business audience, typically that is not thought leadership. That’s a press release, case study or blog that should be published.
- It’s a personal passion not relevant to the business (or media). Thought leadership programs should not be built around a leader’s personal habits or interests. While, yes, sometimes those make for interesting “leads” in business advice stories, most often it’s uninteresting to media and doesn’t differentiate you. Also, a lot of the “culture habits” that your company loves are usually “loved” by other companies too.
So, let’s find something to talk about.
Step 2: Define the greenspace.
We let data drive thought leadership strategy. Simply put, we conduct research audits to uncover media greenspace and opportunities for us to own conversations. Here’s our approach:
- Analyze the landscape. Define 1-2 competitors and 2-3 thought leaders you admire and run content analyses. Ours leverage a few tools (thanks to our digital team) that help us understand what other leaders in your space are saying, including:
- Organic and paid keywords they’re owning / buying — this tells us what themes matter most to their business and helps us predict emerging topics we can “take over”
- Top performing website pages — this tells us what topics are resonating for your competitors so we can start creating content that takes away some of their views
- Blog content — this is more of a manual review where we analyze owned content and determine how we can re-focus, re-imagine and differentiate our perspective
- LinkedIn content — with an eye on engagement, we look at what content and posts perform best for competitors; while some may not be relevant for our program, it helps us understand how we can best “deploy” the content and optimize our odds of readership
- Review the green space. In addition to reviewing competitive coverage, we also run industry media audits to:
- Understand the top / most frequently covered (relevant) themes. Often, we get our best thought leadership insights from “second tier” themes that are mentioned alongside or referenced in “frequently covered theme” stories.
- Define publications with the loudest voice (and where we see opportunities for placement).
- Determine what data, research and owned content exists around specific themes (and what is missing from conversations). This is one of the most important aspects of our audit. Curating proprietary data reports and campaigns is one of the most strategic ways to become a thought leader as it provides concrete data to back up your claims, advice and predictions.
- Evaluate analyst positions. We want to ensure our recommendations, predictions and future forward claims have merit and / or even support from people who study business shifts for a living. If they don’t, then we need to understand that too and work with you to define what we’ve uncovered and why it matters to businesses.
Step 3: Layer in passions and perspectives.
Once we know our media opportunities and what topics will resonate with media, solve business challenges in your industry and generate reader interest, then we layer in your perspectives, examples, business stories and passion points. We want to make sure these stories are unique to each leader, and once we’ve defined “thought leadership lanes,” we’ll schedule an hour or two to speak directly with you to get your take on these themes. We want to hear your stories, experiences and “a-ha moments” that will help our pitches stand out.
So, to sum up, thought leadership strategy is both an art and science. It’s incredibly time-intensive to and should be heavily influenced by data and insights — and if you’re looking to create a voice and business momentum through thought leadership, we’d love to help you get started.
Keep in Touch
Want fresh perspective on communications trends & strategy? Sign up for the SHIFT/ahead newsletter.