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Brand & thought leadership strategy

Enabling best in-class digital experiences

You never get a second chance to make a great first impression. And in marketing, that means creating digital experiences that make your brand look and feel awesome and your thought leadership material compelling and informative. A recent joint study by LinkedIn and Edelman highlights why.

According to the 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, 89% of decision-makers say good thought leadership enhances their perceptions of an organization, 59% say it’s useful for vetting organizations, and 49% say good thought leadership material influences purchasing decisions.

But, as marketers, we spend the majority of our time filling channels with content experiences without considering who we’re trying to connect with and why. In fact, according to Content Marketing Institute, only 48% of B2B marketers say they create content based on specific stages of the customer journey and a separate Content Marketing Institute/MarketingProfs study found that only 42% of B2B content marketers actually talk to customers when researching audiences and developing content for them.

It’s easy to forget that proving value and enhancing your brand still matters, but it does. A good brand presence can put your organization on a prospect’s shortlist of possible vendors, maintain customer loyalty and help sales close deals.

Let’s look at the webinar as an example. Leading analysts agree that webinars are the single most effective channel to generate leads. This means the first time a prospect experiences your brand is through your webinar. But what if that webinar is dull and lifeless? Or, worse, what if the content within the webinar doesn’t address any specific pain point attendees may have?

If a prospect sees and hears a boring, unprofessional and irrelevant event, then that will be the impression they have of that company, its products and its ability to be a trusted resource in the future. That’s why when you create engaging digital experiences, it’s important to remember that engagement starts with the right mix of brand and thought leadership.

Thought leadership is a content marketing method centered on providing audiences with educational, demonstrative and, in some cases, provocative messages and ideas that engage customers, buyers and prospects at the strategic level. As a marketing function, thought leadership’s main purpose is to build a brand’s authority and prove a level of expertise in either your industry, your product or within your organization.

For marketers, thought leadership is a term referring to materials and activities that boost an organization’s unique viewpoint and emphasizes the company’s authority and expertise on a given issue, topic or field. The goal of thought leadership marketing is to position a brand as a trusted resource and an advisor to practitioners while supporting a brand’s value proposition and competitive difference.

While thought leadership is ultimately a form of content marketing, it stands apart from other initiatives as it’s always running, is highly interactive and often reinforces a brand’s unique perspective on an issue or topic through a personal voice, whether that voice is a subject matter expert or a company personality.

Audiences seek out thought leadership content to find solutions to everyday problems, build cases for a particular strategy or tactic or to find answers. These questions and topics can range in complexity from very simple and rudimentary to intricate and theoretical. But by providing such content, brands not only position themselves as a resource for knowledge, but they also create an opportunity to provide services and solutions to would-be customers should the need ever arise.

In fact, according to the 2020 Edelman-LinkedIn Thought Leadership Study, thought leadership has a heavy hand in influencing purchase decisions, with 52% saying the content brings a brand into the consideration stage; 48% saying it influenced a purchase; 53% saying it led to up an upset opportunity and 54% saying it led to the purchase of a new product or service.

Fortunately for marketers, thought leadership lends itself to a variety of marketing channels and mediums. Webinars, blogs, social media, podcasts, videos and more are all powerful ways to reach audiences both known and unknown. These channels also provide an opportunity for thought leaders to interact with one another, test theories and identify content that resonates with target audiences.

Thought leadership content should be created and used when a brand wants to prove its authority and expertise on a topic, prove its value to a specific audience or build general trust and in its brand. In particular, thought leadership marketing is a powerful means of differentiating your brand from competitors as it provides ongoing value and proves your business is invested in the success of its customers.

There are several ways a brand can use thought leadership content to its advantage. The first is the most obvious: when a brand has in-depth research — such as benchmarks, surveys, studies and reports — on a particular aspect of its industry that no one else has.

Brands can also use thought leadership to establish baseline positioning with audiences. For example, a blog post on audience interactivity in webinars can be an opportunity for thought leaders to weave in positioning on the importance of creating a comprehensive content journey. Likewise, a guide on how to create an ideal webinar recording studio can be used to highlight the importance of including the human touch in digital experiences.

While nearly every piece of content is an opportunity to prove thought leadership, brands need to ensure they both prove and provide value to specific audiences as well. Often, this means developing content for specific personas at every stage of the buying cycle.

That’s right: a good thought leadership program runs the content gamut of top-, mid- and bottom-of-funnel to reach specific audiences. The reason why thought leadership content needs to cover such a breadth of content is because thought leadership connects best when it’s relevant to the specific needs of an audience. In fact, according to a 2015 Forrester Report, 62% of B2B buyers say much of the material vendors provide them with is useless.

But what do these B2B buyers want? According to the same Forrester report, 68% of B2B buyers say they want vendors to understand their business and problems and offer possible solutions. Half of the survey’s respondents also said they want vendor insights that they, as buyers, haven’t considered before. So it’s up to your brand to provide those insights.

By now we have a pretty good idea of what thought leadership is and when it ought to be deployed. However, before an organization can reap the benefits of thought leadership, it needs to develop its own thought leadership content marketing plan.

But what is thought leadership content marketing to begin with? For our purposes, we define thought leadership content marketing as disparate materials that, together, unify your company’s brand, market position, unique selling points and authority over your industry under a defined strategy with set goals. For marketers, thought leadership content marketing is the strategic aspect of the overall thought leadership program — the virtual centrifuge out of which valuable, relevant content is spun.

Any thought leadership content marketing strategy ought to focus on one question and one question only: how can your brand address audience needs? While this is a simple question to ask, it’s a very, very difficult question to answer. At any one point in time, your audience can include vice presidents, CEOs, managers, consultants and specialists who range in expertise from incredibly knowledgeable to unfamiliar with industry basics. Thought leadership content marketing, then, seeks to identify these audiences, address their needs and build a content library that can guide each audience through its own content journey.

By identifying these audiences and their needs, brands can move on to the most important phase in any program: developing substantive content. Substantive content should provide audiences with actionable advice or unique insights they can use within their own organization. Thought leadership content fails when it doesn’t resonate, and content resonates least when it’s a thinly disguised hard sales pitch masquerading as thought leadership. Audiences come to thought leaders to learn, not to be sold to.

Finally, thought leadership content marketing, much like content marketing in general, is constant across brand, message, voice and production. Consistent branding helps audiences to separate the useful thought leadership content from the material they may not be ready for yet. A consistent message and voice helps to make your points resonate and memorable while consistent production provides your audience with the understanding that they can depend on your brand for the latest insights and perspective.

With every content program comes the need for a content strategy. When it comes to thought leadership strategy, brands need to take the time and outline its content strategy for educating audiences and establishing itself as an industry thought leader.

In general, thought leadership strategy closely follows the principles of content marketing. Any strategy needs to produce consistent, valuable content relevant to specific audiences across a variety of mediums and channels where those audiences reside.

Here are a few things to consider as you develop your strategy:

Audience – The center of any thought leadership program focuses on one question and one question only: how can your brand address audience needs? To answer that question, however, you’ll need to know what your target audience is.

Develop personas for buyers, prospects and customers to chart who your audience is and what pain points they experience on a day-to-day basis. And don’t be afraid to pick up the phone: interviewing customers and colleagues is a great way to get a better understanding of who you want to reach.

Create consistent content – Content is the fuel of your thought leadership program and needs to be produced on a consistent basis with a consistent voice, tone and style — often, your brand’s voice. This style and cadence will also need to be consistent across all channels and mediums. This means you’ll need to craft a production strategy that incorporates banners, social and blog images, video scripts and more to reach audiences where they reside.

Network – No brand is an island unto itself. Partnerships, co-marketing opportunities and guest blogging programs all offer great opportunities to reach new audiences and expand a brand’s network of followers. While developing your thought leadership strategy, think about how you can nurture your audience and authority by networking with companies that share your values and could mutually benefit from sharing content. As an aside: don’t forget to promote your content (e.g., blogs, webinars, e-books, etc.) on social networks or in your own email newsletter.

Measure and Reassess – Finally, a brand will need to constantly measure and reassess how content is performing in its thought leadership program. This means tracking traffic to blogs, webinars, guides and e-books and adjusting your content based on what works. It also means revisiting your prior assumptions and reassessing them based on the data you’ve gathered and the trends you’ve seen. Again: don’t be afraid to call customers and peers for perspectives and insights.

When it comes to creating thought leadership, there are a lot of examples to draw inspiration from. Whether that inspiration comes from a well-known content creator or a massive company is largely up to you. 

What’s important, however, is knowing how to identify good thought leadership in action and drawing out lessons from those examples. 

To help you train your eye, here are a few examples we’ve found of good thought leadership in action:

Books, focus and consistency – Some thought leadership programs position themselves as experts on how to accomplish a specific goal, use a specific product or execute a specific strategy. CoSchedule, for example, leans heavily into its expertise in agile marketing, and that shows throughout nearly all of its content. 

For example, CoSchedule has written an in-depth book on the subject of agile marketing, issues an annual report, “The State of Agile Marketing,” and offers a free digital guide to agile marketing that visitors can use to educate themselves on the subject. 

CoSchedule stands out because its focus on its area of expertise — agile marketing — is consistent, crosses channels and provides audiences with specific, actionable advice they can use. 

Lessons, guides and styleLinkedIn Marketing Solutions is a master at creating and disseminating content for a very specific audience that’s always looking for advice and help: content marketers. The Sophisticated Marketer’s Hub is laser-focused on the day-to-day needs of content marketers and provides actionable tips through a variety of content.  

But critical to its approach is its branding. The Sophisticated Marketer carries with it a distinct style across each channel, helping it build brand association and trust. 

Interactivity, content hubs and multimedia – Few companies are as expert at providing excellent digital experiences as Qualtrics. That’s especially true when its use of multimedia channels, like webinars, is considered. 

So what does Qualtrics do? Simple: it curates its massive library of content into organized segments for audiences. Audiences can further refine these segments to find the exact content they need, making it possible for audiences to easily self-select the thought leadership content they want.

Thought leaders have a variety of tools they can use to create, promote and measure content success. Here are some common tools brands can use to kickstart their thought leadership marketing program: 

Content tools 

CoSchedule – CoSchedule is a tool for organizing, executing and scheduling marketing content. As a content marketing tool, it helps marketers set up content projects in advance, organize assets and easily run social media campaigns. It also features advanced analytics, empowering brands to measure content success and identify areas for improvement. 

WordPress – WordPress is the world’s most popular Content Management System. It is the basis for most websites on the internet today, and — in all likelihood — will host your thought leadership content. It’s flexible, powerful and easily integrated into a variety of marketing tools. 

Google Docs – Google Docs is a word processing program within the Google Suite ecosystem. Like Microsoft Word, Google Docs is a blank slate that marketers and thought leaders can use to develop their craft and create content. One of the main benefits of Google Docs over Microsoft Word is that changes are saved to the cloud automatically, alleviating content creators of any worries that their work will be lost, should something happen to their computer or program. 

Social media tools 

Hootsuite – Hootsuite is a social media management platform. As a robust platform, Hootsuite empowers social media marketers to create, promote and schedule social campaigns, but also track social trends and conversations, interact with audiences and analyze message performance.  

Bitly – Bitly is a link management tool that takes lengthy URLs and shortens them into condensed links. Bitly’s  usefulness is in its ability to quickly and securely shorten links, track link performance and integrate with nearly every service out there. As an added bonus, Bitly users can — for a nominal fee — replace shortened links with their brand’s name. 

Google Sheets – Google Sheets, like Google Docs, is a solution in the Google Suite ecosystem. It is a versatile tool that social media managers can use to develop and organize social media campaigns in advance. And, much like Google Docs, its strength derives from being constantly online, saving everything you do. 

Analytics tools 

Google Analytics – Google Analytics is the gold standard when it comes to measuring digital performance. It’s a powerful, versatile tool that enables you to both see the big picture of your digital traffic and dive into the minutiae of your digital marketing efforts. 

Google Trends – Google Trends gives you a quick overview of how specific keywords are trending across the globe and across history. For content marketers, it’s a powerful tool that can help develop keywords for SEO optimization, identify seasonal trends and generate content ideas. 

Yoast – Thought leadership content thrives on traffic, and Yoast helps you to make that traffic happen by analyzing your content and assessing how well optimized it is for SEO. As a few added bonuses, it also helps you to optimize your content based on keywords, empowers you to edit meta-descriptions and more.