Ryan McDermott
Ryan McDermott

True thought leadership isn’t a marketing concept. It’s not a tactic you deploy to generate leads. It’s not a way to promote your product. It’s not quick. It’s not easy. And it can’t be done on-demand.

Instead, long-form, thoughtful content should be a deep exploration of a difficult topic and its effect on business, culture, technology and the public at large. It should pull from every content-driven discipline from marketing and advertising to journalism, art and music.

Meaningful thought leadership takes time, but it makes good business sense. Deeply researched content also helps sell products. Just because long form content should be about people and technology, not products, doesn’t preclude it from being a good sales tool.

A June 2017 survey of 1,300 business decision makers and C-suite executives by LinkedIn and Edelman revealed that nearly half of those questioned said thought leadership directly led them to award business to a company. And the same number said thought leadership helps companies command a premium for their goods or services.

Another survey by Grist supports this line of thought. About 60 percent of senior executives surveyed said thought leadership enabled them to make better business decisions, and 66 percent said it helped them stay on top of emerging trends.

“Those two responses proved by far the most popular when respondents were asked why they

read such content and reflect the fundamental objective of successful content marketing—to be of use,” the survey said.

Some other results from that survey were instructive as well. Grist asked senior executives what they look for in thought leadership. The answers aren’t surprising. Those executives want fresh,

forward-thinking content that explores issues or challenges from new and different perspectives above all else.

But here’s the rub. If you dig a bit deeper into the LinkedIn survey, you can see that it’s not just about producing content. Quality matters in thought leadership. More than half of C-suite executives surveyed said they’ve “lost respect and admiration for an organization because of its poor thought leadership content”.

“When it is executed poorly or fails to connect with an audience, it can serve as a net detriment to business development,” according to the survey.

The Grist report showed similar results. About 63 percent of senior executives said thought leadership failed when it was generic and lacked original insight.

This is key. It shows that decision makers are more than willing to engage in reading long-form content, but only if it’s worth their time. They don’t want another blog post about the cost-efficiency of the cloud; they want an article about how their business can leverage the cloud in ways that were unheard of even just six months ago.

Content marketing maven Ann Handley, who heads up content for the website MarketingProfs, said building an audience for your thought leadership is crucial because it leads to trust and loyalty.

“A built-in audience is key to a successful marketing program because it’s composed of people who value what you’re producing — who agree to hear what you’ve got next,” Handley said.

And how do you build an audience? Value-driven thought leadership.

The formula is simple. Write content that shows you’re an expert not just in what’s happening now, but also what’s next. Develop an audience from that content that comes back week after week to hear what you have to say.

The execution is not so simple. Like I said before, this takes time, energy and creativity.

To quote Handley once more: “Slow and substantive isn’t just in. It’s here to stay.”


Ryan McDermott works at Sage Communications. He formerly worked as a journalist for The Washington Times, Patch.com and FierceMarkets.