What is a “thought leadership” program and how do you create one?

4 handing lights, blue background, one light shinning Thought Leadership Program

What is a “thought leadership” program and how do you create one?

I want to be a thought leader.

When people say this, what they usually mean is: I want to be recognized. I want to be respected. I want people to value my opinion.

These are all good things but they rarely happen overnight, no matter how smart, agile and innovative someone may be. Thought leadership is not like one viral video moment. It’s the cumulative power of your industry expertise and a carefully planned series of moments.

Think of thought leadership as building your brand as an individual. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that brand is what you do instead of who you are. The content you create in this instance needs to be broader. So, your first step is having a clear understanding of just what constitutes thought leadership.

What thought leadership is NOT

What thought leadership IS

Article focused on your company and its products or services

Article focusing on overarching industry issues, innovations or your predictions for the future

Blog focused on your company and its products or services

Blog providing your tips and insights on common industry issues or trends

Brochure focused on your company and its products or services

Book detailing your view on your industry, general thoughts on leadership or lessons learned based on your own experiences

Podcast focused on your company and its products or services

Podcast focused on how you would tackle a pressing industry issue or giving general leadership advice

Presentation focused on your company and its products or services

Speaking engagement on your industry experiences and recommendations for best practices

Sell sheet or other sales collateral

Essay on a trend or socially relevant topic and how it affects or is affected by your industry

White paper focused on your company and its products or services

White paper providing your high-level view of an industry challenge and the array of potential (objective) solutionsText

You get the idea. Thought leadership is not so much about the category of content you produce as the story you’re telling with that content. It’s big-picture and forward-thinking. It’s not sales–it’s marketing.

What’s next, then? How do you “show what you know?” Just like with any other campaign or program, you need to start with a strategy:

1. Assess your USP. What is your skill set? What are your passion topics? What’s going on in the world right now where there’s a need? Where’s the intersection of all of these? Are you ready to provide relevant, helpful and/or inspiring commentary that moves beyond a specific situation or timeframe? What do you want your personal brand legacy to be.

Although thought leadership takes the top-down view of things, it’s a bottom-up indicator of how well you know your industry and your own strengths. And it’s not just for “grizzled industry vets”–young professionals and entrepreneurs have plenty to offer. Once you decide what you can bring to the table, remember that your target audience for thought leadership content is probably not the same as your other content personas, so adjust your approach accordingly.

2. Set a goal. What are you trying to accomplish? Is this a short-term campaign for a tangible asset (award, membership, etc.,) or an ongoing effort? Think about your measures of success. Make those anticipated accomplishments your milestones. 

Also think about your existing content marketing strategy and dedicate some percentage of that to thought leadership content. You can set KPIs to keep you motivated and on track, but don’t just focus on hard numbers–be sure to give a lot of thought to how to measure what matters (see #4).

3. Define your timeframe. If there’s a tangible goal, you probably have a deadline. You can work back from that to determine what kinds of activities meet the eligibility or assessment requirements and how you can incorporate those into your schedule in the interim.

For a long-term program, break your milestones down into smaller chunks. If you already have a content calendar, weave your thought leadership activities into it. If you don’t have a content calendar, set up a production plan (product = thought leadership content) with weekly, monthly or quarterly milestones.  

4. Build a reputation. Be authentic, be gracious, be confident without being overbearing. Speak at events; publish blog posts, articles or books; participate in interviews for print, podcast or broadcast media; be engaging on social media. In short: get your name and message out there, but focus on quality over quantity. In a 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, 30% of respondents found the thought leadership content they encountered to be of poor quality while 60% said it did not provide valuable insight. 

And while it is vitally important to think about what you’re saying, it’s also important to think about where you’re being heard. Do your homework to find the channels that will have the most impact on the people you’re trying to influence. Think in terms of partnerships and audience reach. Vet your opportunities like you’re conducting due diligence for a merger, because how you share your message reflects on your brand as well.

5. Stay on target. Thought leadership is like any other professional endeavor–you invest the time to reap the reward. It’s not just being diligent about doing the work, however, it’s also about staying focused. 

There’s a lot going on in the world these days and it’s tempting to ride the slipstream of the next big topic of conversation. If it fits the brand you’re building, join the conversation with something new to say. If there’s not an easy angle for you, don’t force it–it comes off as false and distracting and will mean more work for you to get back on point.

One last tip: Remember that a little help goes a long way. For example, corporate brands may start with one person’s idea, but at some point it takes a team for something to really take off. This is the time to leverage your contacts and consider recruiting some marketing and PR expertise. Not only can your team help you define your niche, they can serve as sounding boards for your messaging and help broaden your reach.

Ultimately, perspective, patience and persistence are what you need to create and maintain a healthy thought leadership program. Your consistent vision, voice and strategic efforts to further the conversations happening in your field are the key to earning the esteem of your peers.

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Categories:Content Strategy, Strategy


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