Thought leadership articles are one of the hardest forms of content marketing to get right. You need in-depth research, remarkable writing and impeccable style. But what even is a thought leader?
In short, a thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognised as an authority in a specialised field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.
So, with that out of the way, here's how to write excellent thought leadership content.
What is thought leadership?
Thought leadership, as it refers to content, is a piece or collection of content that demonstrates true, deep and expert knowledge on a topic. Conceptually, thought leadership is knowledge, on the cutting edge.
If you want to know how to start a blog as a thought leader, read on.
1. All thought leadership articles begin with research
Thought leadership articles have to be based on solid industry knowledge, a good grasp of current trends and events and deep insight into a marketing persona’s potential problem or challenge. They need to be backed up by solid, objective data. They need skilful writing in order to weave in your company’s position and expertise without compromising credibility.
Here are a few research tips that will help you anchor your copy:
- Start at the source. Scour your company intranet for documents, brochures or videos that could help. Devour and break down whatever you can find.
- Ask an expert. Whether it’s a product expert or business executives from inside your company, a third party specialist or a happy customer, there is always someone out there who knows more than you. Interviews should be guided and informative conversations. Your role is to listen.
- The site you can never cite. Wikipedia is fantastic for getting an overview of a person, a term or anything else. Of course, you should never rely on it absolutely as a source, but it's okay to start there for any content marketing projects.
- Google News and Blog searches. Looking at what comes up in the headlines, and where in the world that topic is buzzing is a brilliant way to tap in to the heart of the current conversation. Start with Google News, then drill down into industry or interest-specific publications.
2. Use your sources wisely
Sourcing means getting information, writing with it and keeping track of where it came from. Attribution, at least in this context, is how you report where it came from in your writing. Sourcing is always a good thing. Attribution is more subtle.
- Any direct quotes, or unique ideas that people have built a reputation or brand around should, of course be cited.
- Any idea that has entered the general consciousness and is being talked about as part of a public discussion can be treated as such.
- A thought leadership article doesn’t want to be littered with footnotes so try to use examples, metaphors or synecdoche to explain an idea, rather than resorting to someone else’s words.
- Consider if the attribution adds value for the reader or not and if you’re really stuck, cite as you would be cited.
- Do not steal other people’s work.
3. Write with style and heart
Consider which publications you want to emulate. Many clients refer to The Economist or the Financial Times as examples to follow. The Economist Style Guide is actually a pretty comprehensive guide to good business writing, and worth a read.
Bear in mind, however, that the reason these publications do so well is that they’re not all business. They inject some fizz and ginger and are playful with language sometimes. This excerpt from The Economist, for example, uses ‘schmoozing’ and ‘kyboshing’, but it doesn’t make it seem any less credible.
Along with his recent schmoozing of Algeria and Quatar, this threatens to exacerbate Europe’s energy insecurity, kyboshing the hope of importing large quantities of Central Asian gas without Russian involvement.
Be sure to keep your company tone of voice in mind, but be willing to bend it to the topic and audience at hand.
4. Put pen to paper
There are so many ways to write persuasive, authoritative, confident and convincing articles, but they all take practice. Writing long-form, editorial content is a hard-learned skill, but here are a few basic pointers to get you going in the right direction:
- Read Donald Murray’s ‘Writing to Deadline’. It’s a brilliant resource to get you thinking about the reader, interrogating your topic and crafting great headlines, ledes and kickers.
- Speaking of which. Headlines have to attract. They need to make an enticing promise (that you can deliver on). Actionable, punchy and sometimes surprising are all good things to aim for.
- Review the A-Z of better writing. This includes nuggets such as Grammar, Proofread, Story and Visualise. All are essential.
Thought leadership in the content marketing industry
From riveting research, to citing the correct sources and writing confidently, there are plenty of skills content marketers require when acting as 'thought leaders'.
But not everyone is a content marketer.
The truth is, thought leadership articles are more than a bold statement on the internet. They encapsulate your business and your voice. They're a reflection of who you are and the impact you have on the world.
As such, excellent thought leaderships articles should be... well... excellent.
So, whether you decide to write them yourself, or you choose to enlist the help of professional content marketers, make sure your words are wondrous.
[Editor's note: This blog was originally written in 2017 and has since been updated in 2022.]