Thought leadership

Thought leadership: Ultimate best practice guide (2024)

Running a thought leadership campaign? We outline the best practice for generating thought leadership insights, creating content, and getting it into the hands of the right people.

Many companies use thought leadership to boost the visibility of their brands. But it's easy to get thought leadership wrong. Or invest your energy and, indeed, money in the wrong place.

While some people might want to work with a thought leadership agency (like us!), others might want to get started on their own. That's understandable, especially if you're dipping your toe in the water, or you're resource constrained.

So, if you're just starting out, what are the headline rules and principles of running a good thought leadership campaign?

Lots of thought leadership best practice comes down to saying something genuinely interesting to your audience. Source: Profile.

In this comprehensive guide, we tease out some of the key rules of thought leadership best practice that you might want to follow.

What is thought leadership?

But, first, it's important to start with the basics: Just what is thought leadership?

At its most basic, thought leadership is the process of marketing your business (or, potentially, yourself as an individual) on the basis of your expertise.

Don't restrict yourself to written content. Content takes lots of different forms, and you want to create a broad spread of different material that your audience might consume at different times in different ways.

Jordan Greenaway

And, usually, the best way to showcase this expertise is to create compelling insight-driven content that is read by your core audience.

As a result, at its most basic level, a thought leadership campaign will contain the following rough stages:

  • Identifying your core insight

  • Turning it into engaging content

  • Getting it in front of your target audience

For example:

  • If you're a law firm, you might want to write articles that showcase your specialist knowledge on tax law, and then get these articles printed in industry magazines and business publications.

  • If you're a health-tech start-up, you might want to create a short, punchy 30-second video about how tech is transforming healthcare, and then post and promote that video on YouTube.

  • If you're an independent HR consultant, you might want to write an extended post about how to poach the best talent, and then post and promote that on LinkedIn.

Thought leadership best practice: Generating great insights.

So, let's start with the first stage – generating insights.

When it comes to finding insights, you need to keep a couple of things in mind:

  • Stick to what people are interested in. Generate insights about topics that your audience are actively interested in. It's not enough to have an insight about just any topic (even if you personally find it interesting). You need to make sure that your audience in actually looking for content on that topic. One of the secret tricks is look at that questions people are asking on Google within your area of expertise, and use those questions as inspiration.

  • Ensure your insights are backed up by real evidence (or case studies). It's not enough to just articulate a point of view or perspective. You need to back it up with supporting evidence, whether that's data, statistics, or a case study. You need to show that you're a genuine authority, and that you know your subject like the back of your hand. In some cases, this might mean commissioning research or a survey to back up your point of view.

  • Make sure your insights are genuinely unique. The thought leadership market is very crowded, and so there's no point sharing advice, practical knowledge, or insights on a particular topic that other people have already covered. Make sure that you're genuinely adding something new and fresh to the discussion. Find an area of your market where your competitors aren't already sharing their insights. This gives you 'blue water' to establish yourself as the leader within that niche.

  • Give your insights a timely angle. People are looking for cutting-edge insights. There's no point sharing perspectives on how your market and industry worked 2 or 3 years ago. Imagine if this article (yep, the one you're reading now!) was written 10 years ago. It would be sorely out of date. Instead, make sure that your insights are responding to the trends and subjects that are being actively discussed in your industry today. Flick through the pages of your leading industry magazines. You will probably spot a couple of subjects that are written about repeatedly. That's fertile ground for insight generation.

Thought leadership best practice: Creating stellar content.

Okay, so what comes next? The real art of thought leadership comes from turning your insights into high-quality and compelling content. In other words: It needs to grab your audience's attention.

You can have the best insight in the world, but if you don't dress it up in a way that appeals to your audience, there is very little chance it will have any form of cut-though.

When it comes to thought leadership best practice, the quality of your content will really make or break your campaign. Source: Profile.

So, after you've brainstormed your topics and turned them into tangible, clear insights, you will want to follow these rules of practice to ensure that your content really stands apart:

  • Write in an engaging way and dump the corporate speak. It can be easy to make your thought leadership content sound stilted, boring, and corporate. One of the reasons that thought leadership content is so powerful is that is usually written (or created) by an individual (like a CEO, executive, or entrepreneur) – and people like hearing from people. So, resist the temptation to turn your content into faceless and formal prose. Inject personality into your articles while keeping them informative and professional.

  • Develop an authentic and consistent tone of voice. You want to write in a style and tone of voice that is genuinely authentic – while also appealing to your target audience. Find a tone of voice that suits your personality and industry – and stick with it. Ideally, you want to get to a place where people read the first sentence of your content and think: "Ah, this is XYZ brand." If you're a lawyer, that tone might be a little more formal. If you're a tech CEO thought leader, that tone might be a little more high energy.

  • Leverage video and podcasts. Don't just restrict yourself to written content. Content takes lots of different forms, and you want to create a broad spread of different material that your audience might consume at different times in different ways. They might want to read an article on your website in the office, listen to a podcast on the way to work, or watch a thought leadership video in the evening. Make sure that your thought-leadership content strategy spans all forms and types of media.

  • Give content an extra punch with graphics and photographs. Sadly, it's not enough to just write an insightful and compelling article. You need to make it visually appealing too. A wall of text can be very off-putting, so make sure that you make your content consumable. This might mean breaking up the text with sub-headings, adding bullets (like this!), or demonstrating your points with graphics and images.

  • Ensure a blend of short-term and longer-form content. Create a blend of different content. There is sometimes a conception that thought-leadership content is all 1,500+ word articles or, even, extended research documents. Not at all. Sometimes a 300-word snap article (or LinkedIn thought leadership post) explaining a difficult-to-understand industry concept is what your audience is looking for. The solution? Make sure that you're creating a blend of different content at different lengths.

  • Don't underinvest in design. This one needs to be repeated twice or even three times: make sure that your content looks visually appealing, and that it gives your brand suitable prominence. People jump to conclusions about the credibility of a piece of content (whether it's a research pamphlet, website article, or YouTube video) based on the quality of design, so make sure that your design elevates your content rather than detracts from it.

Thought leadership best practice: Distributing your content properly.

You'd think that the hard work had all been done by now – but, sadly, you'd be wrong.

There's no use picking out a topical, timely insight and then turning it into top-quality content – if your audience cannot, then, find it.

PR & media coverage is a powerful way to give your thought leadership content visibility. Source: Profile.

You need to make sure that you get it in front of them.

  • Ensure content is SEO optimised. Online search – through websites like Google – is one of the best ways to get your thought leadership content found, so you want to ensure that your content is search engine optimised. This will mean ensuring that the content follows on-site and off-site best practice. In essence, this will mean ensuring that you're using terms in the article that people are actively searching for online and then increasing the number of websites linking to your article.

  • Push content on LinkedIn and other social platforms. Social media is a powerful tool to give your content visibility, especially if your company (or your individual executives) already have a significant, targeted following on social media. Ensure that the content is posted at the right time (usually in the morning in your timezone), and that other team members engage with the post to amplify reach.

  • Make the most of PR. Leverage thought leadership PR to get your content into targeted publications, whether that's industry, national, or even international titles. These publications will already have a captive audience, so rather than try to get these people to come to your website – go directly to them. This might involve working with the publication to interview your executives or writing columns and op-eds for print.

  • Use paid promotion to guarantee reach. Resist the temptation to think that it's possible to get your content into the hands of the right people without spending. If you have invested a significant amount of time to create high-quality content, you should actively consider promoting this content via paid means, whether that's putting money behind the content on social media or running it as an advertorial in relevant media titles.

Running an effective thought leadership campaign usually involves arranging a lot of moving parts.

These rules of practice will help you avoid some of the biggest mistakes and, ultimately, run a campaign that achieves your objective.

Jordan Greenaway

Not only do you need to have a strong, marketable insight within your industry, but you need to translate this into compelling content and get it in front of your target market.

While this is a tall task. But hopefully these rules of practice will help you avoid some of the biggest mistakes and, ultimately, run a campaign that achieves your objective, whether that's attracting customers, talent, investors, or something else besides.

Jordan Greenaway is founder and Commercial Director of Profile, the global thought leadership agency. He has been recognised as a Recommended Reputation Manager by Spear's magazine more than 6 years running.

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