We’ve noticed a trend on Twitter and in some of our lead forms that a lot of companies are wanting to produce “thought leadership content.”
What is that? Everyone throws that term around but what does it actually mean?
We think what most people mean is simply: content that stands out and sets them apart from their competition.
Producing content like that is a reasonable desire. But in order to create content that actually stands out and sets you apart, you have to have unique or interesting ideas to share. That’s what thought leadership is—and that’s what defines thought leadership content.
So, if your company wants to “produce thought leadership content”, as we hear so often, you need to look in the mirror and face the truth about this question:
Do you actually have unique or compelling ideas to share?
This may come across as harsh, but in our experience, for most companies, the answer is no. Most companies are sort of just selling products and executing services that are largely similar to everyone else. To be fair, there is nothing wrong with that. Many successful businesses have been made selling products with minimal differentiation. But it’s hard to demand “we must produce thought leadership content!” when there isn’t much innovation happening in the organization in the first place.
But think carefully before you decide your answer to the above question is no. Many companies have one key thing that their product or service has innovated on or done differently than others in their industry. It may only be one thing – one detail that their product improves – but it’s something, and if done right, it can be turned into thought leadership content.
For others, their founders or leadership have a lot of disruptive ideas, compelling analyses, or provocative opinions, but these thoughts just haven’t been written down anywhere. They haven’t been formalized or worked on. Having a process to extract that and put it into clear, compelling content can produce a steady stream of actual “thought leadership content”.
Below we’ll outline in detail where we’ve had success finding these unique ideas in an organization and show examples of sharing them in content. Read through them and you’ll have a much better idea of how to brainstorm and discover these types of ideas in your own company.
But for those ideas to make sense we need to first outline the cardinal sin in trying to produce thought leadership content: outsourcing it.
Asking Marketers to Come Up with “Thought Leadership Content” Makes No Sense (And Produces The Opposite: Me-Too Content)
If you buy our argument above that thought leadership content is, by definition, based on rare and unique ideas in your field, then, the natural consequence is that trying to outsource it to content marketers or writers is not going to work.
Your marketing agency, freelance writers, or heck, even your in-house marketing team, are almost never the real subject matter experts (i.e. thought leaders) in your niche. Sure they can produce the ebook, or write the piece of content, or publish the blog post. But if you’re asking them to “produce thought leadership content,” why do you think they’re the source of disruptive ideas in your space? Did they found the company? No. Are they setting the company strategy? No. Did they design the product? No.
So why do we keep asking marketers to come up with the “thought leadership”? What about the people that did do those things? Why wouldn’t you go to them and get their ideas?
It makes no sense.
Instead tasking marketers with producing thought leadership produces content that is anything but thought leadership. In fact, it produces the opposite: me-too content. You know what I mean. You’ve seen it all over:
- The B2B SaaS company in the sales space with the same old basic “ultimate guide” on sales processes with the most basic, introductory level ideas in it.
- The company that says their target customer is CMOs that then produces a “whitepaper” that re-hashes obvious marketing tropes that are old news to every CMO.
- Every company with their “Top 10 industry trends in 2022” blog post for a business customer that has way too many things to do to wonder what the trends are in their own field.
It’s hard to blame the marketers making this. They’re told to make some thought leadership content. They’re given no unique thoughts or points of view to work with. They look around. They see what everyone else in their space is doing, and they try their best to create some educational content. The window dressing of this type of content is often high-quality: the ebook is super well designed, the blog page looks beautiful. But the ideas aren’t “leading” anything. So prospects aren’t impressed. No one cares. No one shares. It doesn’t work.
If you want to produce actual thought leadership content, you need a process for your marketers to tap into the unique ideas of the people in your company who actually have them. We’ve written at length about our process for doing this at our agency, so we’re not going to cover it here. Check out this article to learn how we approach it.
Now, let’s look at some of the ways you can find these ideas within your company.
Ways to Get Unique Ideas That Actually Count As “Thought Leadership”
Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that all thought leadership content needs to be based on the most innovative, ground breaking, earth shattering ideas ever. Nor does thought leadership content only have to come from the CEO.
Thought leadership content is actually way more accessible than that. The unique ideas they’re based on can often come from “the weeds” – the details that the daily executors in the company are mired in (e.g. designers in a product company or strategists in a service company).
In our work producing thought leadership content for ourselves and our clients, we’ve noticed that most can be put into the following categories:
- Ideas based on your company’s “disruption story”
- Ideas based on your company’s positioning
- Ideas around the details of what you work on
- Ideas based on unique opinions about your industry
- Data that is unique and interesting in your field
- Case studies that share unique details and insights
Let’s look at each.
1. Thought Leadership Ideas Based on Your Company’s “Disruption Story”
Almost every company is built to solve a specific problem that the founders had experienced themselves in their lives or their industry. They wanted to create something new to fill a gap in the market or make something better.
For example, how many software companies have been founded because the founders wanted to take an inefficient process of disconnected tools and spreadsheets and build a system to automate it? That’s their disruption story.
So one way to produce thought leadership content is to interview your founders and tell that story. Specifically, to lay out the problems and pain points that led them to start their company, and explain the unique solution they developed to solve those problems. This type of thought leadership content typically produces one piece for you. But it can be a powerful one. We’ve had success sending paid traffic (specifically paid Twitter) to disruption story articles for ourselves and our clients and seeing a steady drip of conversions from them. Specifically this disruption story article has generated consistent leads for us, and we share a client example of this below.
2. Thought Leadership Ideas Based on Your Company’s Positioning
Another place to look for thought leadership is in how your product or service does something differently or better than your competitors—i.e. your company’s positioning.
So if your company makes a CRM that’s designed to meet specific and unique needs of a certain industry, and your competitors are generic CRMs made for any industry or many verticals, that distinction could be leveraged as a form of thought leadership.
For example, you might create a piece that makes the case: “Most CRMs don’t solve XYZ problems for HVAC businesses. So we built a product that does. Here’s how.” Within the HVAC industry, that type of story—simply based on your company’s positioning—could be perceived as thought leadership.
3. Thought Leadership Ideas Based on the Details of What You Work On
Many companies don’t have a really interesting disruption story or unique positioning to rely on, but they do have smart people within their company that have unique insights related to the work they do.
For example, a lot of product managers will tell you about these really specific nuances of their product that work differently and are unique to other solutions. Or, for service businesses, strategists and account managers often have unique ideas related to the details of implementation and how they approach certain things.
These details from within the weeds can be another place to look for thought leadership.
For example, we once had a client who sold paid ad services. One of their account managers had a really specific Facebook ad strategy built on showing layers of ads for the same company that progressed from loose brand awareness to very specific conversion-focused, buy-now ads. This applied specifically to ecommerce companies. It was very specific but worked well as thought leadership.
4. Thought Leadership Based on Unique Opinions About Your Industry
Very often higher ups in a company (e.g. CEO, Head of Product, Head of Growth, etc.) have a lot of opinions about their industry that are outside the main focus of their company.
Bernard Huang at Clearscope is a great example of this. His product is built to evaluate Google’s existing rankings to see which keywords the algorithm wants to rank SEO content for a given query. However, if you talk to Bernard he has all sorts of other opinions peripherally about SEO that could be turned into thought leadership content.
The same goes for our agency. Our core business is conversion-focused content marketing, but Devesh and I also have a lot to say about peripheral topics like hiring marketers, promotion, analytics, etc.
Talking to the people in your company who have interesting opinions is another way to find unique ideas for thought leadership.
5. Thought Leadership Based on Unique or Interesting Data In Your Field
In many industries people are starving for data to reference in their content. They don’t have the data themselves, or don’t have someone to do the research and actually get insights from the data, so they look to others who have published data and link to that.
Doing the work to collect, analyze and share unique insights from data is a highly effective way of demonstrating thought leadership. Below we’ll share some examples (with data) that support this.
6. Thought Leadership Based on Case Studies That Share Unique Details and Insights
Case studies are another place to look for thought leadership ideas, especially for service businesses who’ve gained unique insights through working with a particular client.
If you’ve ever made an adjustment in your strategy or approach based on an experience working on a particular account, these types of learnings can make interesting stories that demonstrate thought leadership.
For case studies to work though, they need to be thorough. It can’t be the type of brief downloadable case study that many SaaS companies, for example, share on their marketing site: “This customer came to us. Accounting used to take them a lot of time. Now they use our accounting software and it saves them a lot of time.”
This is not thought leadership. For case studies to count as thought leadership, there needs to actually be unique details or insights included in the piece.
Below we’re going to show examples of some of these categories of thought leadership content. But before we do, we need to clarify how we think about expressing thought leadership in content.
Thought Leadership Can Be Expressed In a Variety of Ways
Many companies think thought leadership content is just “the white paper,” or just the provocative opinion piece. They think it’s content with the sole focus of expressing a unique idea and laying out the arguments behind it (like this).
But thought leadership can also be expressed in smaller ways throughout otherwise unsexy or utilitarian content. For example, the unique ideas that might be featured in a provocative opinion piece can also be leveraged as supporting arguments or originality nuggets inside an SEO piece targeting a boring keyword like “best accounting tools”. The same goes with including some small but unique “in the weeds” details from your daily executors. In fact, this is what makes your everyday content stand out and be compelling to readers.
This is a key component of our content strategy. We interview our clients for each article we create in order to find bits of originality that we can include and use to differentiate our pieces from what others are writing on the topic.
This is good news because for many companies as we discussed above, their unique ideas may not warrant entire articles to be written about them. However, they can still be used to turn everyday content into content that’s actually unique, and therefore trends toward being perceived by some as thought leadership content—or at least possessing the quality of having thought leadership.
Thought Leadership Content Examples
So let’s look at examples of some of the different categories of thought leadership content we described above.
Disruption Story Example
During his time in the Stanford Research Design program, one of our clients had experienced first hand the pain of working with video content. He and his team would spend hours and hours sifting through raw footage to find the great stories and moments that would help convey the message of their findings to broader audiences.
The video content was a powerful tool—essential in their work. But the process of creating it was extremely time-consuming and painful. And in fact, he realized his team and industry weren’t the only ones with this problem. Filmmakers and marketers and others also dealt with this challenge, and many would shy away from using video content for this very reason.
His opinion and the impetus behind starting his company was that editing video should be as easy as editing text. And he went on to create a product to do exactly that.
This notion that video editing should be as easy as text editing was itself a unique idea, so we created a disruption piece to tell that story, beginning with describing the problem he set out to solve:
Then, we presented the unique idea:
And walked step by step through how their solution solved the problems described in the introduction:
When describing each feature, we harkened back to contrast the solution with the pain points of traditional video editing (e.g. “No hunting for timestamps, no manual cutting and pasting. Just highlighting text:”). This allowed us to continue emphasizing the differentiation and uniqueness of their solution, and strengthen the core assertion and thought leadership in the piece.
Industry Opinion Example
One example of an opinion article is from a client in the assistant hiring space. Throughout their careers, the two founders had experienced a problem of inconsistent outcomes when hiring for generalist assistant roles. So they set out to apply their backgrounds in behavioral science to create a better hiring methodology for assistant roles, and along the way they found many flaws in the traditional hiring process.
Early on in our engagement we learned that one of their core competitors are recruiting agencies, and that recruiters tend to use the same ineffective hiring processes that most companies use when hiring for assistant roles. This struck us as a unique idea because you’d expect recruiters—people whose sole job it is to hire great talent—to be a reliable place to go for hiring an assistant. So we created an opinion piece titled “Why You Shouldn’t Use a Recruiter for Your Executive Assistant ” to lay out their position and the arguments behind it.
In the introduction we stated the two reasons why they’ve found recruiting services aren’t great for hiring assistants:
Then we created dedicated sections to expand on each of those problems. For the first point, we explained why executive assistant recruiters are typically the least experienced recruiters:
And walked through examples of how the traditional hiring process they use is flawed and ineffective:
Finally, we explained in detail how their hiring methodology is a more effective approach. First, we described the three key areas that they found through research predict on the job performance in executive assistants (the core areas they built their process to evaluate):
Then we described the highly customized series of tools and steps they use to more concretely evaluate job candidates on these key qualities:
Details of Implementation Example
When we started Grow and Convert, we knew that our success would depend on our ability to show ROI to clients. To do this, we needed the ability to attribute leads (or sales, or “conversions”) to content marketing—a concept called content attribution.
This is an important part of our process, but it’s an “in the weeds” topic. It’s a nuanced piece of a larger content marketing process that involves content ideation, interviewing clients, writing and editing pieces, and content promotion (among other things).
However, Devesh and I have observed that most companies either a) don’t know how to measure content attribution or b) just don’t care to do it. And no one in our industry was really talking about this.
So we created a piece discussing this topic. We explained:
- Why most companies don’t measure content attribution or do so incorrectly
- The Model Comparison Tool we use in Google Analytics that let’s you see conversions from content
- How to set up the Model Comparison Tool to measure your own conversions
- Examples of blog post conversion data from different companies
The uniqueness of stating what most companies get wrong with content attribution, showing how to actually set up attribution for themselves, and showing examples of how it works in practice all contributed to expressing thought leadership in the piece.
Note: This is an example of a thought leadership post that was also optimized for SEO. Currently you can find this post ranking in position 2 for “content attribution”.
Unique Data and Case Study Examples
There’s often overlap between data-based thought leadership pieces and case studies because quality case studies are commonly based on data. So we’ve lumped examples from both of these categories together here.
Growth Rock Examples
Above we mentioned how data-based posts work great as thought leadership content because people love to share and link to articles that present interesting data.
Devesh has some great examples of how well this can work from his previous company Growth Rock. Here’s a look at his best pages by links shown in Ahrefs:
In the top eleven pages by links there are three data-based pieces. The first was a research post presenting an infographic with data that compared social media to email engagement. It has 272 Dofollow links, none of which he built manually.
The interesting thing about that piece is that it wasn’t his data. He just did research and analyzed public data online to create it. This is one of the most accessible forms of thought leadership content because you don’t have to have your own unique ideas or data to create it. You just need someone smart in your company to do the research and analysis.
The other two pieces are A/B testing case studies based on his own client data—one on the navigation menu and the other on what’s called a “sticky add to cart button.” Each of these also have a nontrivial number of external links, a key indicator of having thought leadership.
Grow and Convert Examples
Leadfeeder Case Study: We’ve published a number of posts and case studies based on our own data and analyses. One example of this is our case study on how we scaled Leadfeeder to over 200 signups per month.
This is not the typical agency case study that’s light on data and thin on insight. It’s a 3,000+ word story that discusses:
- The content marketing strategy we were using when we first began working with Leadfeeder
- A question that their founder asked us challenging the long-term viability of our approach (i.e. why weren’t we more focused on SEO?)
- Our hesitations around using a more SEO-focused content strategy
- A discovery we made in our conversion data that led to a complete shift in our content strategy (what we would later call Pain Point SEO)
- Screenshots of metrics from Google Analytics and Google Data Studio to back up our findings and claims and explain the “why” behind our shift in strategy
Most agencies don’t publish case studies with this level of depth, insight, or transparency around data which makes this a unique piece of thought leadership marketing content.
Time to Rank Data Post: Another data-based article example is a post we recently published on our site detailing an analysis we’ve done on 20 active and former clients to see:
- How long did it take to rank articles on Page 1 and in the top 3 spots on Google for their intended keyword?
- How many leads did we generate over the first several months of our engagement?
Throughout the piece we present a number of findings that surprised us, and explained our evolving thinking behind them.
Similar to the Leadfeeder case study, this piece is unique in its transparency, its display of data that most agencies don’t usually publish or share (we haven’t seen anything else like it out there), and the insights that we present in it.
Summary of Our Key Takeaways on Thought Leadership Content
- Thought leadership content is based on presenting one or more unique ideas through content.
- Companies shouldn’t expect marketers to come up with the thought leadership ideas themselves. Instead, they should use a process that sources the unique ideas from the actual decision-makers and experts within the company.
- Thought leadership content creation is accessible to many companies if they understand where to look to find unique ideas.
- To find your own thought leadership ideas, there are a number of places to look within your organization: your company’s disruption story, positioning, details of what you work on, industry opinions, data, and case studies.
Want to Work With Us or Learn More About How We Approach Content Marketing?
- Our Agency: You can learn more about working with us here.
- Our Content Marketing Course: Individuals looking to learn our agency’s content strategy and become better marketers, consultants, or business owners can join our private course, taught via case studies. We include several details and examples not found on this blog. Our course is also built into a community, so people ask questions, start discussions, and share their work in the lesson pages themselves, and we, along with other members, give feedback. Learn more here or see this video walkthrough: