Thought leadership marketing is crucial for succeeding as an agency. Learn how to excel at it in this guide on thought leadership.
As an agency, you’re essentially in the business of selling expertise.
And the most impactful way to showcase your expertise is through thought leadership.
Thought leadership is the cornerstone of any agency’s content and brand marketing strategy. Carefully planned thought leadership content can be a powerful tool in establishing your credentials and attracting clients and talent alike.
Creating a thought leadership strategy, however, isn’t always easy. Unlike traditional content marketing, there aren’t really any keywords or customer personas you can target. Instead, you often have to dig through your ranks and discover areas of expertise – and how to share it.
I’ll look at all these issues in this detailed guide on thought leadership marketing. You’ll understand what thought leadership is, how to approach it strategically, and how to create content for it.
What is Thought Leadership Marketing?
Pinning down “thought leadership” into a succinct explanation is difficult. You might call it “expertise” or a showcase of “what you know”, but that doesn’t paint the entire picture.
What thought leaders excel at is innovative and pioneering thinking. True thought leaders don’t just have expertise; they’re also able to define the present and dictate the future.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson is getting into years, but manifests to-day, as he did half a century ago, the wizard power of a thought-leader”
Emerson’s career is a good example of what a thought leader looks like. Emerson was a pioneer who defined his age and dictated the future. His writing has an almost alchemical quality that made it relevant not just for his age, but even for the present.
This can help us arrive at a more accurate definition of thought leadership:
“Thought leadership is the process of creating and sharing innovative thinking that defines the present and dictates the future. It often challenges and reshapes convention. Beyond expertise, thought leadership is instrumental in influencing the future”
In other words, thought leadership is a combination of expertise, influence, and a fair bit of prognostication.
It’s important that you understand this definition. Far too often, marketers reduce thought leadership to simply sharing their expertise. What they ignore is the convention-challenging, zeitgeist-defining, future-prophesying quality of true thought leadership.
Understand this distinction and you’ll be far better placed to craft a thought leadership strategy.
Creating a Thought Leadership Strategy
Thought leadership is a form of content marketing.
And like any content marketing strategy, it has two core components:
- Identifying the audience
- Content ideation and creation
I’ll look at each of these in more detail below.
Defining Your Audience
With conventional content marketing, you’d segregate your audience into different personas. How and when you interact with these personas will also depend on your buyer’s journey.
For instance, you might target C-suite decision makers only with your Decision-stage content. Your Awareness stage content, on the other hand, might focus target all other customer personas.
These rules don’t really apply to thought leadership content.
The chief aim of thought leadership is influence. And influence is essentially a measure of:
- How many people you reach
- How much influence the people you reach have
The first part is self-explanatory – reach a lot of people and you’ll have influence in your industry. The Gary Vees and Seth Godins of the world stand as two examples.
Gary Vaynerchuk reaches a massive audience, which is a huge source of his status as an influencer and thought leader
The second part is harder to quantify. Influence compounds influence. Get an audience of 500 CEOs who trust you and you’ll have certifiable influence in your industry, perhaps even more so than having a million average Joe followers.
Your first job in defining your audience is figuring out what kind of influence you want to have. Do you want to reach a lot of people? Or do you want to reach a limited number of influential people?
Your content strategy for either of these approaches will be very different. A Fortune 500 CEO has very different concerns than the founder of a two-person startup. And the founder of a startup has different needs than an entry-level employee at one.
What qualifies as “thought leadership” for them, thus, will be different as well. The startup founder might be happy with a how-to guide on branding, but the Fortune 500 CEO will want visionary ideas, not how-to’s.
Broadly speaking, you can divide your target audience into three categories:
- Practitioners: These are people who actually do things in any business. They might be small business owners who are DIYing everything from scratch. But mostly, they are employees who want to learn how to do something better. Practitioners don’t always have decision-making power, but they can raise awareness about issues and solutions.
- Managers: These are the people concerned with improving how an organization functions. Again, this can describe small business owners. But mostly, it includes mid-level and senior managers. Managers might not make decisions directly, but they have an outsized influence on key decisions.
- Leaders: This category includes everyone from CEOs to small business owners. People who fall in this category want big picture thinking and future-proof ideas. These are usually decision-makers and prime candidates for any sales-focused thought leadership strategy.
So how do you figure out what kind of audience you should target?
As with most things, start with introspection. Ask yourself:
- What services do you currently offer?
- What is your average client profile?
- How large is your team? What is their experience and skill profile?
- Are you serving your ideal market? If not, what market or industry do you want to transition to?
- Where do you see your agency in 5, 10, and 20 years?
- What are your existing capabilities in terms of content creation? What level of expertise can you actually showcase in your content?
Your goal should be to reach alignment between your capabilities and experience, growth plans, and target audience. A thought leadership strategy that focuses on corporate CEOs when you have nothing substantial to offer them will fail even before it starts.
Once you figure this out, content ideation and creation becomes much easier.
Creating Thought Leadership Content
As I said before, what kind of content you create depends on the audience you want to attract. Neil Patel and Seth Godin are both marketers, but their target audience is very different, which is reflected in their content.
Regardless of your target audience, you can divide all thought leadership content into three categories:
1. Product thought leadership
Product thought leadership content focuses on Practitioners. All how-to, best practices, top tips, etc. content falls into this category.
Your goal with this content-type is to showcase what you know – a demonstration of your knowledge and capabilities.
Thus, this content is in-depth, long-form, and educational. The level of difficulty you tackle will depend on your target audience and the top itself.
Here are a few examples:
- How to Write the Most Compelling Creative Brief
- How to Create A Business Website That Stands Out
- 8 Best Practices of Agencies That Win More New Business
Coming up with content ideas
Since this content is educational, you can often rely on keyword research tools to come up with ideas. Find keywords people in your target market are searching for, then create content around it.
An easy way to find good ideas is to append “how to”, “tips”, “best practices” to your core keywords. You can also search for these keyword combinations on Google to see what your competitors are creating (such as ‘“how to” + [core keyword]’ or ‘[core keyword] + tips’).
Long tail keywords can work really well for product thought leadership content
2. Industry thought leadership
Where is your industry headed? What’s in-trend, what’s not? How will your business change in the next decade?
All such content falls within the industry thought leadership category.
Such content usually targets Leaders, i.e. people with the ability to make and influence decisions. This is one of your most valuable audience groups, so investing in content that can appeal to them is important.
Here are a few examples of such content:
- The Future of Voice Technology in Marketing [Workamajig]
- Why “Data Looks Better Naked” [BBDO]
- Learning is the New Work [Degreed]
Since this content also targets experienced leaders, your thought leadership has to come from authentic expertise, not half-baked knowledge. Your readers will be able to sniff out false insight from a mile.
Coming up with content ideas
Industry thought leadership content usually:
- Addresses pressing industry issues
- Predicts the industry’s future issues
Think about the big problems in your industry. Ask yourself: how would you change things if you had unlimited resources? What steps would you take to drive growth?
It’s unlike product thought leadership, content in this category is usually short (since you’re targeting time-starved leaders) and focuses on earned expertise. You can’t talk effectively about key industry issues unless you’ve spent a considerable amount of time dealing with them.
Walk the talk and you’ll come up with industry thought leadership content ideas easily.
3. Organizational thought leadership
This content focuses on issues that mostly Managers would worry about – organizational structure, operational excellence, employee/client management, company culture, etc.
Your goal with such content is to share your experience and insight. Some of this can be from first-hand experience (say, you create a post on working with remote contractors). Some can be in the journalistic style where you distill the latest research on operational topics.
This content is neither as broad in scope as industry thought leadership, nor does it emphasize execution as much as product thought leadership. Instead, it focuses on focuses on sharing the latest thinking on a topic – firsthand or otherwise.
Here are some examples of this content-type:
- How to Scale Your Agency Culture [Workamajig.com]
- How to Start an Agency [Julian.com]
- How To Get Your Team To Look Forward To Mondays [Forbes.com]
Coming up with content ideas
The keyword that defines organizational thought leadership is “optimization”. You’re essentially teaching readers how they can effectively optimize their businesses, teams, or cultures.
One way to brainstorm ideas is to think of the issues that plague your own organization. What problems have you dealt with in your agency recently? How did you deal with them? What does the latest research say about them?
Publications recognized as thought leaders in your industry (or in the broader business field – like HBR.org and Economist.com) are also a great source of ideas. For one, they share the latest research on key industry issues. Condensing and combining multiple studies in a journalistic style can yield very effective thought leadership content.
Choose the right content format
Not all thought leadership content should be a blog post or article. Some content works better as a podcast, video, eBook, or webinar.
Choose the content format based on the topic, the audience, and how much content you actually have to share.
- Podcasts are better suited if you have deep expertise and extensive experience on the topic.
- Webinars are best for Practitioner-focused content that you have deep expertise in.
- eBooks work best for organizational and product thought leadership content.
- Videos work best when you’re creating organizational and product thought leadership content, particularly for “how-to” and “best practices” focused content.
Think of your target audience before choosing a content format. Ask yourself:
- How busy is this audience? Do they have time to consume my content in its entirety?
- Do they use the platforms, websites or apps my content will be distributed on?
- Is the content format suitable for creating and consuming the insight I want to share?
For instance, busy decision-makers can’t spare the time to read 3,000-word articles or watch 1 hour webinars. Shorter articles will work best for them.
Keep your audience in mind and your thought leadership content will easily find its home.
Over to You
Thought leadership is a powerful tool in your agency’s marketing arsenal. Not only does it let you showcase your expertise, but it also helps you reach out to and influence decision-makers.
Follow these tips to bring clarity to your thought leadership strategy. Define your audience then create content that appeals to their interests.