What Business Leaders Must Know About Thought Leadership Content

29 September 2021

Blog Business Communications Service Thought leadership content

Panchalee Thakur

Until recently, the sharing of knowledge was the domain of educators, and it took place in institutions of learning. Beyond that there were columnists and commentators in the media who formed an informal circle of knowledge sharing.

Today, knowledge creation and knowledge sharing have become more egalitarian. Business leaders, policy-makers and entrepreneurs are taking to different forums to share their ideas, insights and perspectives based on their deep knowledge of a subject or an area of interest.

We know this as thought leadership content.

Thought leadership content serves a number of objectives. It adds depth to our understanding of a subject, promotes diversity of thought and helps connect the dots.

But what is in it for a leader or an organisation?

Thought leadership content is a great way for leaders to create a personal brand, and engage with and influence their audience – whether they are customers, partners or social media followers.

For marketing leaders, promoting their executives as thought leaders is a powerful strategy to gain brand credibility in the market, create an impression in the minds of the target audience and influence sales.

However, to reach that point, it takes more than just great ideas. To create quality content, leaders need to collaborate with communication experts to sharpen their thoughts, create the right narrative and stay focused on the business goals behind this exercise.

Quality Matters in Thought Leadership Content

LinkedIn and Edelman, a global communications agency, have been conducting an annual survey on the need, challenges and impact of thought leadership content. In its latest survey, 54 percent of decision-makers and 48 percent of the C-Suite reported spending more than an hour per week reading and reviewing thought leadership.

Thought leadership content must hence be an important part of an organisation’s marketing strategy. It allows the use of persuasion through awareness building or knowledge creation, and deftly steers opinions, conversations, and finally, decision-making in an organisation’s favour. Businesses that are using thought leadership content to ideate, educate and engage with their audience stand to gain mindshare and a competitive edge.

However, consistent delivery of high-quality thought leadership content is critical to engage the audience and help build brand trust and authority. The above report indicated that most B2B thought leadership lands in the middle when it comes to quality. Only 15 percent of decision-makers rated thought leadership as very good or excellent, and 30 percent felt thought leadership as mediocre, poor, or very poor. Evidently, businesses are losing a huge opportunity with poorly produced content.

Thought leadership content creation needs to be backed by a well-thought-through plan.

Who in the organisation must we position as our thought leaders?

Do we use external communications support to get the quality and the publishing frequency right?

What themes must we cover? In this earlier blog, I wrote about the five big ideas that will drive thought leadership content in 2021.

The Making of a Thought Leader

In my experience of working with companies who want to create thought leadership content, I’ve come across three types of leaders:

  1. The leader has some great ‘thoughts’ to share but is unable to articulate them. She has the ideas or perspectives needed for thought leadership creation but not the writing skills.
  2. The leader is too occupied in running a business. Therefore, he is unable to find the mental space needed to form the ‘thoughts’. He may have both the ideation and the writing skills, but time is a constraint.
  3. The leader is thrust into the ‘thought leadership’ space by the marketing team. However, she is either not inclined towards it or is not sure of the way to go about it. Such leaders may have neither of the required skills, but today it has become a part of their business mandate.

Thought leadership creation is not an easy task. What does it take to develop thought leadership content?

Communicating ideas: A subject matter expert is considered a thought leader if she can use her wealth of experience and knowledge to provide a perspective or a deeper understanding of a problem or a situation that is not evident to most people. Thought leaders have the ability to decipher patterns from seemingly unrelated events, extrapolate these further for analysis and forecast trends. However, to convince someone of a new line of thinking needs superb communication skills.

Hence, thought leadership creation is only partly about formulating new ideas and mostly about clarity of thought. It is about breaking concepts down for ease of comprehension and articulating those in a lucid and persuasive manner.

Picking relevant topics: Thought leaders must have the ability to inspire the audience to take action. But for that, there must be a strong connection with the audience. Leaders need to ascertain the problems that the target audience is trying to solve, and its needs and aspirations. These audience insights must form the basis for the topics leaders pick and the content they create.

Drawing out relevant topics for discussion – whether in an authored article in the media or at a speaking engagement – needs careful consideration from various points of view. For instance, it needs marketing inputs on the kind of audience expected at an event and what insights would be useful to them. It needs communication inputs on how to tie the company’s messaging into an article or speech, or picking the right examples or use cases to illustrate a point effectively.

Getting the tone right: What differentiates a thought leader from any other business leader is her ability to rise above the business interests of the company she represents. She is an industry champion or a technology advocate; she is not overtly marketing her company’s services.

Therefore, thought leadership content must not be promotional such as a blog post that reads like a product pitch. This is where the nuances and tone come in. In a brochure you would talk about the features or benefits of a product. However, in a thought leadership article, you may talk about the benefits of adopting a technology or a new approach behind a product, without naming the product. The thought leader may consider adding recommendations and insights from his own experience on what to look for or how to avoid making mistakes. You do not tell readers to buy a solution; you prepare the ground for them to think favourably of your product or solution category.

Being authentic and empathetic: Thought leaders do not have all the answers. It is perfectly alright to present a problem and say that you are still looking for a solution. You can talk about how you have failed in a business endeavour and the lessons you learnt from that experience. Authentic leaders will admit that their approaches or solutions may be flawed, and that they are willing to correct course. Show empathy in the way you communicate – choose words well and tailor the messages depending on the target audience. This way the readers or listeners are going to relate to the ideas you put forth better.

How Communication Experts Can Help

Thought leadership content aims to influence human behavior, provide a new direction to an organisation, change government policies and improve marketing outcomes. Thought leaders play an important role in society in not only educating people but also in guiding and inspiring them. They encourage people to act and think differently. This means thought leaders can get to the core and make a lasting impression in the minds of their audiences.

But to generate the desired impact, thought leaders need the help of communication experts. How can they help?

  • Understanding what’s in a leader’s mind and getting his points across in an effective manner to the target audience.
  • Connecting the leader’s ideas to the business or social context, so the audience can relate to the content better.
  • Ensuring that the company’s thought leadership content aligns with its corporate messaging and business objectives.
  • Keeping an eye on what’s trending in the media to identify potential topics of conversation.
  • Conducting research to validate the ideas to make them more convincing.
  • Tailoring the material to fit different audience groups or channels.

Thought leadership content can add not just credibility to a brand or create influencers out of business leaders, but it can also have an impact on sales. However, it needs to adopt a strategic approach where thought leadership content drives marketing goals. Partnerships with communications agencies who have experience in this field can help companies make the most of this powerful medium.

(This blog post first appeared in www.business2community.com.)

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