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 information landscape writ large 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.
So, What Is Thought Leadership Content?
The biggest mistake brands make is thinking that thought leadership is a type of content, the same way that how-to posts or ebooks or webinars are a type of content.
Thought leadership isn’t a type of content—it’s an approach to content.
When you say you want to “do thought leadership,” what you’re articulating is the relationship you want your company to have with your space. You’re describing how you want your brand to be seen—by your customers, by your competitors, and by your industry as a whole.
- I want my brand to be seen as a leading authority in my 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 my competitors to read my content and say, “Why didn’t we write that?”
Creating knowledge without sharing it is elitism.— Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) December 28, 2019
Sharing knowledge without creating it is marketing.
Creating knowledge for the purpose of sharing it is thought leadership.#SaturdayThoughts
Researcher, author, and thought leader Adam Grant understands that real thought leadership is made, not borrowed.
The other important thing to understand is that in order for content to rise to the level of thought leadership, it has to be authentic. It has to be deeply rooted in your unique perspective or experience or 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.
You know that you want to establish your brand as a thought leader in your space, and you know that you’re ready to produce the kind of authentic, grounded content necessary to make that happen. Now you have to figure out: what kind of inputs do you have at your disposal that will help you do that?
Five Sources of High-Quality Thought Leadership Content
If you find yourself sitting in front of a blank Google doc, saying, “Okay, time to do some thought leadership content,” and then drawing a complete blank on what that should look like, here’s a hint: look upstream. Most of the important work in producing thought leadership content happens way before you put any words to paper. It starts with asking yourself: What do I have to “thought lead” with in the first place?
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 just see something that no one else in the market is seeing. 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 all about surfacing those earned secrets—the unique perspectives, experiences, and resources you have that inform your product and the philosophy of your brand—and sharing them with your audience for the purpose of building credibility, trust and, ultimately, loyalty.
The question is, what earned secrets do you have that you can pour into thought leadership content?
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 post. 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 arrive at that opinion.
But 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:
- Most meetings are a waste of time.
- Email clients are annoying and intrusive.
- It doesn’t have to be crazy at work.
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 that the Basecamp team builds and the type of talent they’re looking to attract.
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.
I haven’t sent an email for the beta but I am ready to just pay @dhh for hey and will subscribe day 1. Why would I do that? I trust them to get it right and we need more independent email providers!— Zachary Gershman (@zachgersh) April 16, 2020
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 from 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 and with people, places, and things.
Which means that telling a story about you, what you’ve learned, and what brought you to the place that you are today can be an amazing way to do thought leadership content, provided you have a story to tell.
Our go-to example for this type of thought leadership content is Chris Savage, co-founder 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: this post from a few years ago, where 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 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.
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 there are only so many lived experiences that we have. 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. Skilled thought leadership creators are able to go back to the well of their core experiences over and over and find new insights to share.
And if you do truly hit the bottom of your personal story, there’s always your 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: their network. By virtue of investing in all of these extremely promising companies, First Round is able to surface somebody 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 pour them directly into the First Round Review.
- 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, the operators and the 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. 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 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, and why, 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 FYI 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 hope 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. Claps on Medium are great and all, but they do not pay the bills.
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
Whether or not data is the new oil, it is an extremely potent engine for generating top-tier thought leadership content.
In particular, let’s talk about proprietary data: data that your product has generated or that you have gone out and collected yourself.
Take CB Insights, for example. 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 andthe New York Times and 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 produces thought leadership content. It’s the analysis and insights that data enables you to produce.
CB Insights is a bit of a special case, in that data is literally the product, so the “product-marketing fit” of data storytelling is even more aligned for them than it is for most brands.
But don’t let that scare you away from considering data storytelling as a potential thought leadership angle for your content marketing. 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.
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 you have to be able to fulfill if you want to do thought leadership content right.
Proviso #1: Know Where You Stand
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.
Is your contrarian take really compelling enough to break through if you don’t already have the public profile to get someone to listen to you? Is anyone really going to be inclined to listen to your analysis on the dynamics of the fintech market if you and your cofounders were junior project managers at Google 12 months ago?
This is where a trusted strategic partner can come in handy. The right partner can work with you to find your specific points of potential thought leadership traction and help you steer clear of issuing hot takes that it makes zero sense for your brand to produce.
Proviso #2: Be Willing to Do the Work
The point of thought leadership is that it is intimately tied to your brand, who you are and what you stand for. This is your opinion, your experience, your data, your expertise, or your network, and you need to be actively engaged in communicating it.
That’s not to say that outside vendors can’t help you with thought leadership content. In fact, an outside agency 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 just order thought leadership off the menu and expect compelling content that perfectly represents your perspective and brand to magically appear. The ideal division of labor for outsourced thought leadership content looks something like this:
|Client develops an earned secret by:||Partner turns earned secret into thought leadership by:|
|Sharing a strong opinion||Refining the opinions|
|Telling a personal story||Shaping the story|
|Conducting industry analysis||Mining insight from the analysis|
|Providing proprietary data||Analysing and packaging the data|
|Developing network connections||Conveying the network insights|
Proviso #3: Know That You’re Not Going to Be for Everyone—and That’s Okay
We often hear clients say that they want to do thought leadership content, but that they don’t want to upset anyone in the process. That impulse is understandable—nobody wants to put their brand at risk.
Good thought leadership content is about 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 to remember that you are doing it for the right reasons: to serve your audience and to move your whole industry in the direction it needs to go. If you keep those objectives in mind, you have nothing to fear from being honest about what you believe is right. In fact, plenty of people will thank you for it.
But Does Thought Leadership Content Convert?
For any content marketing strategy to be worth pursuing, it has to have the ability to grow the business. While the way thought leadership achieves those goals is a bit less concrete than “win keywords, drive traffic,” that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a force:
- Leading with network will attract people who are looking to learn from smart people and feel like part of a community.
- Leading with data will attract people who value the clarity and credibility of empirical evidence.
- Leading with expertise will attract people who want to be as good as you are at what you do.
- Leading with personal experience will attract people who identify with you and your story.
- Leading with opinion will attract people who see your industry the same way that you do.
If you can get your thought leadership content firing on one or more of those cylinders, you will see results. And those results will come in the form of more than just conversions.
Trust is the ultimate brand asset. People want to feel good about the products they buy and the brands they support. By showing your audience who you are, what you believe, and how you want to work for and with them to make your industry better, you can create a thought leadership brand based on authenticity, credibility, and, above all, trust.
And that is something to be proud of.