Thought leadership is a key foundational element to your communications program. Authorities with expertise in a specialized field just seem important on a visceral level, but we’ve also been told by experts of its influence on buying decisions, market education, and on building your brand. And we’ve heard it directly from the source itself. 96 percent of B2B buyers reported wanting content with more input from industry thought leaders, according to HubSpot, a nod to thought leadership’s impact on the path to purchase.
That should be good enough, right? But how do you explain to a C-suite executive who’d rather focus efforts elsewhere in the business why this is worth their time, energy and effort to establish themselves as a thought leader?
We all have people in our personal and professional lives whose voices we trust. A blog we follow, speaking engagements we attend or social channels we peruse consistently because we like what they have to say. They educate us on a topic of interest, provide fresh perspective and sometimes, hit us in the gut with a salient point that makes us say, “I never thought of it that way before.” That’s the quintessential thought leader.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's May '19 PR Firm Rankings Magazine
Thought leadership is a powerful way to connect with your audience. It brings you—and your company—into relevant and meaningful conversations. And, most importantly, it builds trust. In a LinkedIn study of more than 1,300 business decision makers and C-suite executives, 82 percent reported that thought leadership has increased trust in an organization. People listen to and buy from people and, by extension, companies they trust.
Here are some key considerations for building out your company’s thought leadership platform.
Set your strategy
Building out a thought leadership platform can feel overwhelming. It can be tempting to just dive into the tactics and content creation machine. Before you lock yourself into a room and start typing your own version of Moby Dick, take some time to set your strategy. Define why thought leadership matters for your industry and company. Is your company early stage in a new market (you may need to hyper-focus on educational content) or late stage in a mature market (where differentiation and customer success stories are key)? Are there gaps in the current resources/research available in your space? Are there voices of authority? And, if so, what are they saying? This will help determine how and where thought leadership can work for your business.
Define your thought leadership pillars
We call this finding the white space. Put your data and analytics tools to work by taking a look at what the market is talking about: where’s the conversation focused, what are the trending topics, what are your competitors saying, and what are they not saying? Map these conversations back to what topics and messages matter to your company and identify where there’s an opening in the conversation to bring forth your company’s expertise. A trending topic that doesn’t map back to your business doesn’t serve your needs. The sweet spot is in using this data to clearly define your thought leadership pillars and drive focus to the conversations that will have meaningful impact on your business.
Develop your POV
Creating compelling points of view to drive your thought leadership pillars is critical to success. If you’re saying the same thing everyone else is, you’re not setting yourself or your company apart from the pack. In fact, a contrarian point of view can be exactly what’s needed, but equally important is an insightful one. Put yourself in your customer’s or prospect’s shoes; this is your opportunity to help them. How can your POV educate them? Create a new way of thinking about a business problem or challenge? Plant a seed for how a new technology application could work for their business? Or correct misinformation that exists in the market? This is your chance to join the dialogue and start building trust.
Choose your cast
Outline your thought leadership bench and align pillars and topics to their areas of expertise. Being thoughtful about creating clear “swim lanes” for your thought leaders is critical to establishing credible and consistent industry voices. Beyond expertise, it’s also important to consider “passion topics” for your thought leaders. When someone is speaking on a topic they are passionate about, they bring another level of energy and enthusiasm to the conversation that translates to their audience. If your thought leaders aren’t excited about or don’t believe in their talk track, it’s a non-starter. Passion topics create authenticity.
Make it omnichannel
Creating a thought leader is, at its core, about creating someone’s personal brand. Our “brands” are three-dimensional, and our strategies need to be as well. The core considerations here are your content mediums and channels, which are influenced by where your audience lives. Are there “must attend” events you should be speaking at? What are the top-read industry publications you need to be in? What social media channels are critical? If your audience isn’t on Instagram, don’t waste efforts on building a presence there. Focus on the channels and mediums that matter most.
Back it up with content and data
Your content is the lifeblood of your thought leadership strategy, supported by the fact that 47 percent of buyers viewed 3-5 pieces of content before engaging with a sales rep, according to Demand Gen Report. And this content will come in many shapes and sizes. As you’re considering your channels, also consider your mediums. Long-form content plays a big part—bylines, blogs, eBooks and LinkedIn posts—and can provide essential platforms to express your ideas and POVs. But don’t forget about the power of short-form, videos, quotes and posts. In a recent survey, 64 percent of respondents said watching a marketing video on Facebook influenced a purchase decision in the last month, according to Animoto. Whether it’s video or some other type of content, they all serve a purpose in building your platform. Understand the unique power of each and put them to work for your brand. And back it up with data. Data makes your content sing and grounds your POVs in reality.
Don’t be self-serving
It can be a fine line to walk at times in ensuring your thought leadership platform supports your business objectives but doesn’t become self-serving. Your product and innovation stories have a time and place but your thought leadership content needs to serve a greater good. There can be tie-backs to your business, but you lose your audience when you begin using your thought leadership platform as your product or company platform. Turn on your listening channels—on social, blogs and in the media—to learn about what the industry is talking about and learn how you can contribute to that dialogue. Informed POVs are built from a listening-first approach.
Measure and refine
If it can’t be measured, then it doesn’t count. If you want to build support for why thought leadership should sit at the core of your communications strategy, you need to show proof. Like everything in marketing, thought leadership is an act of testing and refining. Set clear success metrics at the outset and be sure you have a plan—and the tools—in place for measuring impact. Media traction, SOV, social shares, engagement, likes, downloads, attendees: these are all ways to look at measuring success. There’s nothing like hard metrics that matter to C-suite believers.
Finally, don’t forget that success takes time, effort and patience. In the famous words of William Edward Hickson, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
Darlene Doyle is Executive Vice President, Client Relations at PAN Communications.