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‘The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.’
— Linus Pauling, chemist and Nobel Prize winner
Today, we offer our best tips for generating content ideas that demonstrate genuine thought leadership.
But first, what is thought leadership, and why should you care about it?
This article is based on one of our popular webinars. View the video and download the slides.
What is thought leadership?
Thought leadership combines your expertise and experience in relation to your audience’s needs. Your audience could be potential customers, but also influencers and press, and so on.
Thus, the intersection between what you know about and what people might be interested in — that's the space where thought leadership lives.
What it is not, in the context of marketing your business, is the kind of thought leadership you might develop at university, like a PhD thesis. That is also thought leadership, of course, but it is for something other than marketing. This is about communication. It's about transmitting information and engaging with potential customers.
Google is always trying to give people the best answer on the internet; as a company, it values thought leadership and will drive searchers to that content. It’s interested in real expertise, authority, and trust (EAT). The ‘Helpful Content’ update last year started to penalise content that looked ‘thought leadershippy’ but wasn't. These verbatim guidelines published by Google are, therefore, an excellent way to discern if something is thought leadership or not:
- Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?
- Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?
- Does your site have a primary purpose or focus? After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they've learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
- Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they've had a satisfying experience?
Top tip: Take five or ten pieces of content and see if they meet those criteria. If not, you should re-write them so both Google and your audience will view them as authentic thought leadership.
Why is thought leadership necessary?
Back in the early 2000s when the Articulate blog was called the ‘Bad Language’ blog and was written exclusively by myself, Matthew Stibbe (see my other blog, GeekBoss, here), a few blogs were kicking about. I published every day. Guy Kawasaki followed me. Some publisher in New York rang me up and offered me a book contract. I got 60,000 visitors a month. Suddenly, within about a year, it was a real success. I just took that for granted. I assumed anyone who did a blog got that. Now, the world of blogging looks totally different. That story doesn’t happen anymore because there’s too much noise.
Unfortunately, a tidal wave of BS content written by AIs and people working for pennies per word is creating a crisis of trust. On top of that, there is an epic crisis of confidence in authority figures, expertise, and science. Establishing credibility has never been more challenging or more important.
So, reason number one, beating the BS. In fact, there are plenty of reasons why you should care about thought leadership from a marketing perspective:
- Establishes your authority as a trusted advisor — You provide a de-commoditised high-value relationship. Therefore, this allows you to defend your margins against people competing on price.
- Supports differentiation and brand positioning — You can say, ‘We do it better than these other people because we're really experts’ and have marketing collateral that validates that claim.
- Provides value before commitment in the sales cycle — Throughout the sales cycle, the ability to share thought leadership content at each stage builds confidence in your know-how and accelerates the whole process.
That’s why you should care. Let’s now get into how to get those creative juices flowing.
How to think up great thought leadership content ideas
1. Inventory existing processes and documents
You probably have a lot of material that doesn't look like thought leadership content but is. Or could be, if packaged correctly.
For example, we recently launched a Digital Customer Journey template. This was born from the journey mapping work we do with clients. The idea existed already; we refined it and marketed it. In four months, it’s generated nearly 600 contacts.
2. Talk to subject matter experts in your business
You've probably also got people in your organisation who know a lot of stuff. Now, they might not be natural content creators, but if they’re enthusiastic about their field, you can get them on a camera. You can get them to do a presentation. You can get them to talk about something they care about in a recorded Q&A. Write it up, transcribe it, edit the video, reformat that interaction, and position it as ‘An expert’s take on [super interesting topic]’. Of course, you can interview people outside your business as well!
3. Leverage the questions your clients ask
Clients are your audience, right? So if they ask you a question, other people also want to know that answer.
Here’s something that happened recently. A client wanted to know how to reduce the number of spam-filtered emails. So, we took a few hours, researched, looked at their recent emails, gathered benchmarking data, and put together a recommendation list. Anonymise that content and boom, you’ve got a fabulous piece of thought leadership right there.
4. Share who you are, not just what you do
Our Chief Happiness Officer blogs about company culture from time to time. That’s a kind of expertise that you wouldn't necessarily think to share with your audience. But, when we analysed what content on our site influenced clients, many potential customers looked at our ‘About Us’ pages. They want to get an idea of who we are and how we work. So, turning your company culture into a source of thought leadership is a viable strategy.
5. Know your sales prospects’ ‘jobs to be done’
What are the questions that people ask during the sales process? What problems are they facing? What pain points have they got that bring them to you? What objections do they have?
Consider this from the angle of ‘jobs to be done’. That’s a term based on an article in the Harvard Business Review by Clayton Christensen. His fundamental point is nobody wakes up in the morning going, ‘I need an integrated marketing automation system.’ No. They want to get better insights into their customers, or save time on marketing activities, or see ROI. So speak to that perspective rather than directly discussing your products and services.
6. Look at the most challenging thing you do
What is the hardest thing that you do as a business? What's the thing that is right at the heart of the organisation? OK, now give it away… Sort of.
Here’s what we mean:
Take the Igor Brand Naming guide. Igor is a brand naming agency. It’s been publishing this naming guide for at least 15 years. It’s convenient, specific, and detailed. Is that giving away the secret sauce? No, of course not. It’s advertising that Igor has a secret sauce. Ninety-nine percent of the people who downloaded this guide and didn’t hire Igor were never going to in the first place. But there is probably a good percentage of people who did download this guide and who then hired Igor based on having seen this content first. Interrogate what is the most challenging thing you do and then try to explain how you do it, or help people do it themselves. Be generous with your expertise.
7. Ask the internet
Now we're in the realm of business anthropology. Dig the internet for topic ideas. You never know what you’ll uncover. Apps like Ahrefs, Buzzsumo, and Answer the Public are all good for this research. Also, when you go to Google, it comes up with a little box of ‘people also asked.’
Quora is a goldmine for this, too. Look for questions you can answer, then test your level of expertise by giving a better answer than everyone else. As you get feedback, you can calibrate whether that answer is useful to enough people that it’s worth creating content about. We did this with my wine blog, Vincarta. Most of the traffic growth was from taking our Quora answers and elaborating on them.
8. Find the data
You may already have some data to hand, such as research into your industry. Or, you’ve got somebody in-house or a third party who can do customer research. Put a survey out to your existing contact database. If you can bring new, original data to the marketplace of ideas, then that’s powerful thought leadership.
Even if you pick an existing dataset and add your spin, that still showcases your expertise. For an example, see our guide on the best Fintech websites.
9. Follow good examples
You can see thought leadership in action with the Wow Company’s annual BenchPress Report (The Wow Company also happens to be a client of ours, as well as our accountants). This is a benchmarking survey of about 1000 marketing agencies in the UK. All they’re doing is asking questions, packaging the information, and presenting it well. It’s not rocket science, but it makes them look like the world's best accountancy firm for marketing agencies.
Another example of thought leadership content is emails. Scott Galloway writes op-ed articles entitled ‘No Mercy/No Malice’, which he sends out via email subscription. You can read them online as well. They're highly trenchant, well-researched, and well-formatted.
Short-form thought leadership is a thing, too. Seth Godin taught us that. Jason Fried, who runs Basecamp and co-founded 37Signals, simply posts his ideas on LinkedIn. He gets a lot of engagement and attention from this. The massive success of his and David Hansson’s businesses is profoundly and intimately tied to their thought leadership content, whether a simple social media post or their books and podcast.
Articulate’s webinars are another example; a half hour every few weeks, bringing insights based on twenty-plus years of marketing experience.
10. Be bold. Embrace what you know
Don’t get hung up about your ideas. There’s no point in being overly precious about this content. You're writing for people who are potential customers, not people who are potentially going to replace you in running your business. Your day-to-day is probably their need-to-know. What may seem simple to you is not to them. Be confident in that position.
11. Go for minimum viable thought leadership
Similarly, you don't have to have the most comprehensive, exhaustive answers right away. Starting now doesn't mean you can't improve. The Igor Brand Naming Guide has been updated dozens of times in the last decade. It’s better to pick an idea, do something now and see if it works than wait for perfection and never do anything.
The worst that's going to happen is a few people download your slightly less than perfect, somewhat less than complete, guide to X, Y, and Z. They get something out of it, you learn something and the next hundred people get the second version, and so on. The best ideas will come from this iterative process of feedback and improvement. Get stuck in. Do it.
If you’ve got stellar ideas but are struggling with implementation, read this article on how to write thought leadership white papers, or contact us about our copywriting services.