Everybody Wants Thought Leadership Content. But How Do You Do It, Exactly?

Done right, thought leadership content is the single most brand-differentiating content marketing asset a company can produce. But it takes more than just having an opinion.

You know when you see a word so many times that it loses its meaning and looks incredibly weird? That’s what happened to the term “thought leadership.”

It’s been used so much by so many people to gesture toward so many different things that it’s become fuzzy, almost to the point of being useless. Everybody wants to "do thought leadership content" — but nobody seems to know exactly what that means.

And that’s a shame because hidden amid all that confusion is a style of content marketing that more brands should be learning to do well. In fact, if your brand is not producing thought leadership content, you are (and I say this with love) messing up.

The content marketing landscape is extremely crowded. But beyond that, the broader information landscape is super crowded. Like it or not, you and your brand are competing for your audience’s attention. Your opponent: the entire internet.

You need content that will help you win the battle for your audience’s attention, consideration, and, above all, loyalty. And that’s what thought leadership content is all about.

Editor's note: This article was originally published by Katie Parrott in July 2020 (read the original here). In April 2024, Ryan Baum updated and expanded it to reflect the evolving landscape of thought leadership content.

So, What Is Thought Leadership Content?

Thought leadership is a content approach that has deep roots in your unique perspective, experience, and expertise. 

That doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be completely original, but it has to belong to you and your brand in a way that is recognizably you. That’s what makes it credible, valuable, and interesting to your reader.

The biggest mistake brands make is thinking that thought leadership is a type of content, the same way that long-form blog articles or white papers or webinars are a type of content. It’s not a distribution channel either, like social media or SEO.

Instead, “thought leadership” is a long-term goal to work toward, which should influence everything from the topics you choose to your content approach — and often, even the formatting of each content piece.

“Thought leadership → tells people how to think, not what to do.” -

Jimmy Daly, CEO of Superpath and former VP Growth at Animalz (source)

The Benefits of Thought Leadership All Lead Back to Relationships

When you say you want to “do thought leadership,” what you're really articulating is the relationship you want your company to have with your space:

  • “I want our brand to be seen as a leading authority in our industry/discipline.”
  • “I want my audience to look to me as a source of relevant insights about the bigger-picture developments happening in our space.”
  • “I want us to be seen as pioneering voices our competitors envy (they should read the content and say, ‘Why didn't we write that?’).”

Now, some people reading that list may be saying, “So what? What is the actual value of shifting those perceptions?”

In the short term, thought leadership helps with lead generation by attracting the right potential customers to your perspective and product. And it pays off long-term by growing trust and brand awareness for your company.

But only if you publish high-quality content filled with truly valuable ideas at a pace consistent enough for your industry to sit up and take notice.

How to Become a Thought Leader: Share Perspective Freely, Provide Valuable Direction, Earn Industry Respect

“A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.” 

This widely attributed (but never precisely sourced) definition is from Joel Kurtzman. He coined the term in 1995, for the first issue of Strategy & Business — fittingly, one of the earliest thought leadership publications.

To become a thought leader, you need to have a unique perspective backed by the credibility of your experiences and expertise. And you need to share those ideas with your industry. That is your primary focus, because it’s in your control.

The industry's response to your ideas and whether you achieve “thought leader” status is largely beyond your control — unless you keep your ideas to yourself. Not only does that silence prevent any chance of the recognition and impact you're after, it also robs you of valuable feedback loops that refine and polish your thinking.

Your “Earned Secrets” Are the Only Thought Leadership Framework You’ll Ever Need

Producing thought leadership content happens way before you put any words to paper. It starts with asking yourself: What do I have to say, and why should I be the one saying it?

A few years ago, Ben Horowitz introduced what, to this day, is one of my favorite business strategy concepts: the earned secret. On the a16z podcast, Horowitz explains it this way:

"You did something in your past to solve a hard problem and learned something about the world that not a lot of other people know."

Experience is one way to develop an earned secret, but it's not the only one. Sometimes, you see something no one else in the market sees. That insight is no less earned than experience is.

However you come by them, your earned secrets are the core of your competitive advantage in business; they're the core of your competitive advantage in content as well.

Thought leadership content is about surfacing those earned secrets — the unique perspectives, experiences, and resources you have that inform your product and brand — and sharing them with your audience to build credibility, trust, and, ultimately, loyalty.

Ready to tap into your earned secrets and create thought leadership content that stands out? Our thought leadership marketing services can help. Let's talk!

The Five Types of High-Quality Thought Leadership (With Real Content Examples)

If you’re like the rest of us mortals, you’ve probably found yourself sitting in front of a blank Google doc, saying, “Okay, time to create some thought leadership content,” and then drawing a complete blank on what that should look like.

You know you should mine your “earned secrets” to fuel this ideation process, but where to begin? First, simplify your search by looking in the right places.

Here are the five sources of thought leadership content:

  • Counter-narrative opinions
  • Personal narrative
  • Network connections
  • Industry analysis
  • Data storytelling

There is overlap between these categories, and you can absolutely play in more than one — from post to post or even within the same piece of thought leadership content. Data can inform top-tier industry analysis. A strong counter-narrative opinion often goes hand in hand with the personal story that led you to that opinion.

But again and again, our work developing ghostwritten thought leadership at Animalz has proven that each of these inputs on its own is plenty to generate high-quality thought leadership content.

1. Counter-Narrative Opinions

You may be familiar with the phrase “narrative violation:” something, usually a company or product, that breaks from the consensus of how things are supposed to go.

If you have a strongly held opinion that goes against the conventional wisdom of your industry or discipline, you are a prime candidate for some counter-narrative thought leadership content.

The canonical example of this style of thought leadership content is Basecamp. Cofounders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (aka DHH) have built their brand with their incredibly strong opinions about how business should be done and, just as importantly, how it shouldn't.

You may be familiar with their greatest hits:

Writing an entire best-selling book about your perspective on running a business = the final evolution of the thought leadership Pokemon.

DHH and Fried's opinions aren't random. They're closely tethered to the products the Basecamp team builds and the type of talent they're looking to attract. They are deeply aware of industry trends and news, so they can push back effectively, but only where necessary — not just to be contrarian.

So when Jason or DHH is strongly opining about the state of business, they're not trolling peers who disagree with them for fun; they are doing thought leadership. They are actively cultivating a connection between their brand and the people who resonate with their brand's point of view.

Counter-narrative thought leadership is not about being contrarian for the sake of it. It's not enough to be contrarian. Thought leadership content also has to ring true.

We've all had the experience of reading something put out by someone we admire and thinking: YES. THANK YOU!

That's the feeling that good counter-narrative thought leadership aims to inspire. And finding that counterintuitively true thing is the art and science (but mostly art) of counter-narrative thought leadership content.

Sometimes, opinions come from simple observation or accumulations of experience that are too diffuse to point to directly and say, “Here's how I learned this.” Other times, opinions arise from specific, concrete stories — stories that need to be shared.

2. Personal Narrative

If there's one thing that people love, it's a good story. The human brain is hardwired to respond to stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end that feature people, places, and things.

Tell a story about yourself, what you've learned, and what brought you to where you are today, and you’ll have an amazing angle on thought leadership content.

Our go-to example for this type of thought leadership content is Chris Savage, cofounder and CEO at Wistia. Chris is a pro at turning reflections on his experiences with building and growing Wistia into thoughtful, compelling thought leadership content that founders and people in the tech scene are excited to read.

One example is this post from a few years ago in which Chris and Wistia cofounder Brendan Schwartz share the story of how an offer to sell Wistia led them to buy out their investors and take on $17M in debt financing instead.


In this post, Chris and Brendan not only share the story of what happened with the refinancing, they also share the philosophy of business-building that informed it.

That philosophy underlies everything about the Wistia brand and product — not least their championing of brand affinity as a marketing strategy. Wistia's core story is about playing the long game: prioritizing long-term trust with your audience over vanity metrics and quick wins, which also happens to be what thought leadership is about.

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Courtesy of Wistia.

That perspective, and the story that informs that perspective, also resonates with a lot of people. And it keeps those people coming to Wistia and staying with Wistia as customers, as partners, and as prospective employees. That's the marker of great thought leadership content.

A seeming limitation of this type of thought leadership content might be that we only have so many lived experiences. How many industry-advancing, convention-challenging insights can those experiences produce?

But anything worth saying can and should be said again and again because anything worth hearing will need to be heard again and again before it truly sinks in. Get creative — even case studies and other standard content pieces can fit nicely into this repetition.

Skilled thought leadership creators return to the well of their core experiences over and over to find new insights to share.

And if you do truly hit the bottom of your personal story, there's always your network.

3. Network

Network effects: The more people use your product, the more other people also want to use your product, and the more valuable your product becomes. And, as with your product, so too with thought leadership content.

The all-time winner in the network-based category of thought leadership content has to be the First Round Review, the content marketing arm of venture capital firm First Round Capital.

What the First Round Review picks up and executes to perfection is First Round Capital's earned secret: its network. By virtue of investing in all of these extremely promising companies, First Round is able to surface subject matter experts with something worthwhile and interesting to say on practically any subject related to business building. 

And they know exactly how to extract those insights and takeaways to pour them directly into the First Round Review.

For example: 

  • This article featuring the cofounder and CEO of Front, Mathilde Collin, on the importance of discipline 
  • This field guide to making large remote teams work, from NerdWallet VP of content Maggie Leung 
  • This reflection on starting and growing businesses in tough times, from someone who has done it three separate times: Crossbeam founder Bob Moore 

This, in turn, creates a virtuous cycle between First Round Capital, their content operation, and the founders and teams they are looking to invest in:

  • Look at all the talent at our portfolio companies and all the smart things they know!
  • Don't you want to be one of our portfolio companies?
  • [Becomes portfolio company.]
  • Now your team is talent that we can tap for our posts!
  • Repeat from the top.

This is why network is a potent and lead-pulling option for venture capital firms in particular: Your network is literally your product. The founders you work with and the operators and vendors you're connected to are the “value-added” features that pull new deal flow into your firm like the world's most powerful content marketing tractor beam.

If you're not a VC firm, you're still in the running to produce this kind of thought leadership, but the content marketing strategy may change (focusing on other networks, like partners or aspirational customers). If you can identify and elevate insight in others, whether you know them already or not, you can produce network-based thought leadership content.

4. Industry Analysis

Great thought leadership content should always be recognizably yours, but that doesn't mean it should be isolated from the rest of the world. In fact, most of the best thought leadership is done in conversation with industry trends and developments taking place in the space around you.

If you can pay attention to what's happening around you and recognize what's working and what's not working, you can do analysis-based thought leadership content.

Let's talk about Hiten Shah.

Hiten Shah is one of the sharpest minds out there when it comes to talking about product development strategy. And you better believe that he takes all of that product expertise and turns it into thought leadership content. 

Take this article from the Nira blog:

This is Hiten in full product management thought leadership mode: He's got a read on what sank the prospects of a hugely promising product, and he's sharing that read in the hopes of helping product managers avoid some of the same mistakes that Evernote made.

And that perspective resonates with people. Specifically, it resonates with other product managers.

Expertise-driven thought leadership content like this has one of the purest conversion mechanisms of any thought leadership out there:

  • “Wow, this person is really smart and good at what I do!”
  • “Hey, this really smart and good person has a product!”
  • “I want to use the smart and good person's product so I can be smart and good like them!”
  • [Signs up for product.]

This is also why this kind of thought leadership should always live on your website: so that the conversion process can go forth unimpeded. 

Likes on LinkedIn are great and all, but they do not pay the bills. Backlinks to your infographic, on the other hand, do.

If you find yourself struggling to identify a “way in” to generating this type of thought leadership, put your analysis on rails. For instance, in Hiten's case, the formula is:

  • Choose framework (Why [Brand] Failed/Succeeded at X)
  • Apply framework to recognizable SaaS company
  • Evaluate performance of [Brand] through [Framework]

Just by applying that simple framework — and filling it with thoughtful, supported insights — Hiten Shah is able to “do thought leadership content” pretty much whenever he feels like it. And, maybe, so could you.

5. Data Storytelling

Data is an extremely potent engine for generating top-tier thought leadership content. In particular, proprietary data: data that your product has generated or that you have collected yourself.

Take CB Insights. Their proprietary data gives them a unique perspective on entire industries, regions, and technological trends, as well as individual companies. They have developed a reputation for turning that perspective into must-read thought leadership content.

They are regularly cited by the likes of TechCrunch and the New York Times, as well as by influencers and blogs in the spaces they cover. Why? Because they're serving up reliable, authoritative insights that offer visibility into these topics at a resolution that nobody else is delivering.

But it's not the data itself that creates thought leadership content. It's the analysis and insights that data enables you to produce.

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If you gather data about your audience and your industry and the way people engage with your product, you have the potential to turn that data into thought leadership content.

Start small. Free yourself from feeling like data storytelling has to be backed by a massive store of data and just surface some small insights from a survey or recent product test. And if you're really and truly stumped, lean on third-party data. Proprietary is great, but it's not essential. You can do sophisticated, high-level analysis with whatever data is at hand.

Wondering if thought leadership is right for your brand? A thought leadership strategy session with our team can provide clarity and direction. Book a meeting today.

Who Should Do Thought Leadership Content (And Who Shouldn’t)

Before you and your brand launch into pursuing thought leadership, here are a few conditions to fulfill:

Question #1: Are You Credible? (And Are You Willing to Focus?)

Credibility is important for all types of content marketing, but it's doubly important when producing thought leadership content. Contrary to popular belief, credibility doesn't come solely from experience; it comes from knowing what you can speak to authentically and what you can't.

For example, if you and your cofounders were junior project managers at Google 12 months ago, is anyone really going to listen to your analysis of the dynamics of the fintech market? Similarly, if you don't have an established public profile, it can be challenging for even a compelling contrarian take to break through and get attention.

Question #2: Are You Willing to Do the Work? (Be Honest.)

The point of thought leadership is that it is intimately tied to your brand, who you are, and what you stand for. It has to come from your opinion, experience, data, expertise, or network, and you need to be constantly involved in communicating your message.

If you can't actively participate in the process, thought leadership isn't the right approach. Full stop.

That's not to say outside vendors can't help with thought leadership content. In fact, an agency (like Animalz 😇) can be hugely valuable in adding clarity, structure, and strategy to your thought leadership process, from ideation to production to distribution.

But you can't order thought leadership off a menu and expect compelling content to arrive that perfectly represents your perspective and brand. The ideal division of labor for outsourced thought leadership content creation looks something like this:

Client develops an earned secret by:Partner turns earned secret into thought leadership by:
Sharing a strong opinionRefining the opinions
Telling a personal storyShaping the story
Conducting industry analysisMining insight from the analysis
Providing proprietary dataAnalyzing and packaging the data
Developing network connectionsConveying the network insights

Question #3: Are You Willing to Potentially Upset People (and Repel Bad-Fit Clients?)

We often hear clients say they want to do thought leadership content but not upset anyone. That impulse is understandable; nobody wants to put their brand at risk.

Good thought leadership content sometimes involves what I like to call purposeful provocation. If you have something worth saying about your industry, it will probably be offensive to someone out there who is invested in the status quo. You have to be okay with that.

The key to getting comfortable with provocation is remembering you’re doing it to serve your target audience and move your whole industry in the direction it needs to go.

In fact, plenty of people will thank you for it. The right decision-makers will come knocking on your door, while the prospects opting out aren’t a fit for your business anyway.

Remember, Thought Leadership Is Earned, Not Claimed

Thought leadership is not a label you claim for yourself; it’s a reputation you earn by consistently providing clarity, refreshing perspectives, and actionable advice that helps others in your industry succeed.

Your audience is the ultimate judge. They’ll know whether your ideas are armchair theories or earned secrets grounded in your authentic experience.

So, take the first step in your thought leadership journey today. Start sharing your unique perspective and expertise with the world, and begin earning the trust and respect of your audience. By putting in the work and your heart, you can reach that rare and powerful position of being a recognized thought leader in your field.

This article was originally published by Katie Parrott in July 2020 (read the original here). In April 2024, Ryan Baum updated and expanded it to reflect the evolving landscape of thought leadership content and provide more actionable advice for brands looking to establish themselves as industry leaders. We thank Katie for her groundbreaking work on this topic and Ryan for his thoughtful contributions to this essential guide. Katie has also shared her thoughts on this update and the evolution of thought leadership in an insightful LinkedIn article, which we encourage you to read for additional perspective.

Accelerate Your Thought Leadership Marketing With Us

At Animalz, we’ve crafted successful thought leadership programs for executives at SaaS startups, established brands, post-IPO software giants, and every stage of growth in between. As a content marketing agency with a specialty in thought leadership, we've seen it all and built our own business on these principles. We can help you navigate the challenges and opportunities of this powerful approach.

Our clients consistently share how our collaboration adds clarity, structure, and strategy to the entire thought leadership process, from ideation to production to distribution. More importantly, we help them move forward with confidence, ensuring that "do thought leadership" doesn't get pushed back — again — to next quarter's planning.

If you're ready to accelerate your thought leadership journey, reduce your risk, and create content that truly sets you apart, let's talk. We'll help you tap into your unique perspective and build a thought leadership strategy that delivers results.