thought leadership illustrated as a lit match in a row of unlit matches

Thought Leader or Thought Provoker?

As more companies embrace content marketing — aka sharing stories with current and potential customers to create a link between your services and their interests — efforts to bolster thought leadership have also swelled.

The good

Thought leadership is simply a way to strengthen the customer bond by displaying a company’s expertise in its field.

  • A white paper that offers valuable information about a key industry challenge
  • An infographic that contains useful facts that put an issue in perspective or 
  • A Slideshare presentation that explains a difficult subject

All help present a company as a trusted resource. When a CEO or top executive writes about a topic or appears in a video, the audience gets a better idea of the management and mission of a company.

The bad

But too often, thought leadership pieces turn out to be nothing more than ponderous regurgitations of conventional wisdom or, even worse, barely disguised sales pitches. A corporate fear of controversy can lead to overly cautious copy. Concerns about giving too much information away “for free” might backfire into offering nothing of interest. Executives who rely on jargon and cheerleading business-speak become blind to the way it makes eyes glaze over outside their professional circles.

What to do now

The best thought leadership pieces say something meaningful. They make the reader want to respond. They get shared as well as liked. Others use them as reference points or jumping off points for their own essays. Readers offer their own insights and reactions, to each other as well as to the original post.

In other words, thought leaders at their best are really thought provokers.

So how do you do that?

Start with the topic

Write about something that the people you want to reach love to talk about.

  • Is there a new government regulation that will affect your industry?
  • A concern about how technology might disrupt the workplace?
  • An ongoing debate about the right solution to a specific business issue?

If you and your co-workers are talking about it, then your customers are probably interested too.

Be a person

Richard Branson is his company, Virgin Group, and vice versa. His airline, his record company, his hotels — every Virgin product carries with it his joyful and optimistic personality. When the wildly successful entrepreneur writes a blog post, he talks about his own experiences, from being sued to nearly getting scammed out of $2 million. These stories have his voice, always positive, always learning.

A big personality is not a requirement for thought leadership, but having some kind of personality helps. Don Ake of FTR Transportation Intelligence delivers his “take” on the trucking industry economic outlook in a rat-a-tat, no frills style that tells readers to expect a tell-it-like-it-is approach from the consulting company.

State an opinion (if you have one)

You know why people like to talk to experts? They trust their advice.

Having an encyclopedic knowledge of a topic has value, sure, but offering a definite opinion on an issue along with the reasoning behind it shows what you stand for.

Yes, that might rile up some readers who disagree. So what? Get a productive discussion started. Defend your position in comments or in a follow-up article.

Start small

The classic content marketing success story goes back to 2009, when the owner of a pool company decided to use his website to answer people’s questions about installing a pool. He didn’t pontificate about the larger meaning of having a pool in your backyard; he simply addressed the questions he was hearing from potential customers: How much does a pool cost? What are the problems and benefits of fiberglass pools vs. concrete?

The goal was to teach people about his business so they could make an informed choice. That’s all you want to do.

Pay attention

The responses to your thought leadership piece can tell you a lot about your market. Maybe they need more detailed information about pricing. Maybe they worry that a move to new technology threatens their livelihood.

You’ve started the process of engaging customers by offering your thoughts, and the next step is listening to what they have to say.

Answer their questions. Allay their fears. You may find the topic for your next piece in their comments.