29 June 2022 |

Thought leadership isn’t a content type. It’s a content goal.

By Tracey Wallace

It must happen at every organization. 

Someone, somewhere, says the words, “thought leadership,” and looks in your direction. 

As the content lead, the implication is that you––or if you’re lucky, your team––will create a “thought leadership” piece of content on whatever the topic is at hand. 

A knot immediately begins to grow in your stomach. 

“Thought leadership” could mean anything. It’s one of those B2B phrases people use to sound smart or offer direction, but that has no real definition. 

Depending on your company, your boss, your CEO, or simply the day of the week, “thought leadership” could mean:

  1. A ghostwritten piece of content (by you!) under your CEO’s name in Forbes or Entrepreneur. 
  2. A white paper that needs to be produced by next week, though there is no clear distribution plan in place, so it will likely just sit there for months until another team wants to make use of it. But, you’re being told that it is URGENT.
  3. A piece of research conducted on an audience whose data will magically confirm the suspicions of the top executives at your organization. 
  4. A long-form blog post that ensures your company ranks #1 on whatever the key term is at hand (though, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s probably a new word the company wants to “own” and so there is no real SEO value in it at this point in time). 
  5. A short-form blog post you also ghostwrite for an executive, likely because the company doesn’t yet have access to Forbes or Entrepreneur, or your company wants to send traffic back to your site and not a media company’s, so, here you are. 
  6. All of the above! 

I’ve been here. Gosh, I have been here so many times. 

I have been that person sitting in the room staring back at the eyes staring at me, expecting me to come up with a genius piece of content right now that can support the untested theory the company wants to solidify in the minds of its audience. 

In my experience, what folks usually mean when they request a “thought leadership” piece of content is that there is only one point-of-view presented. 

And, that it is presented in such a way that the audience immediately grasps it, understands it, believes it, and now thinks of its author––and even its publisher!––as an expert. 

Quite the task! 

This piece of content, they say, will be: 

  • Shared by the sales team with all their leads. 
  • Distributed across social media on the company’s owned channels. 
  • Sent in an email to the company’s customers.
  • Used to drive to a downloadable asset somewhere, and then again included in that asset’s nurture stream. 

This “thought leadership” piece of content is the crux of the integrated campaign. And all eyes are on you to make it successful. 

But here’s the problem: 

Never has one single piece of content made anyone think of any organization as a thought leader in their space. 

That’s because content marketing––and publishing in general––is about trust. And, you cannot build trust with only 1 piece of content. 

Done well, content marketing results in thought leadership. 

You cannot create thought leadership in a single piece in the same way you cannot earn someone’s trust in a single conversation. 

What earns someone your trust is a pattern of deserving it, which means that over time, you come to learn––subconsciously or otherwise––who that person is, what they believe in, and why they care about the things they do. 

You learn this through their behavior overtime, and come to trust them based on their consistency.

This can be manipulated, of course. And, each of us can be misled about a person or an organization. As a result, trust can be easily lost. 

So, too, is it with content. 

It is why each piece you publish is so important. Not because an individual article will make a huge difference at the start, but because each of them add up to your content’s reputation and expected behavior over time. 

Subconsciously or otherwise, your audience notices a pattern. That pattern tells them: 

  • Who your company is
  • What the people who work there believe in
  • Why the company hired a team to publish content at all

While each of us can be misled about someone’s true intentions, no one person or organization can maintain such behavior for too long before the audience calls you out, disregards you, and no hope of thought leadership can be attained. 

You’ve seen this before… 

…with news organizations, for instance.

It was never one piece of content that made folks question the intentions of various news organizations.

The fake news or renewed yellow journalism perception on the part of readers happened overtime, as our expectations on who those organizations were, why they published, and what they believed in changed. 

Content marketing teams and the organizations that hire them have a lot to learn from what has happened to the media industry––and they better learn fast. 

Online readers are savvier than ever, and fluent in digital literacy, including digital pattern perception. In fact, consumer trust is at an all-time low:

  • 71% of consumers aren’t convinced brands will deliver on their promises. 
  • Only 34% think they’re transparent about their commitments and promises.
  • 75% of brands could disappear overnight and most people wouldn’t care.
  • Less than half of brands, 47% to be exact, are seen as trustworthy.

Content can light a brand’s path to industry trust and loyalty, but only if that content consistently and accurately explains, educates and adds to the larger conversation. 

Thought leadership is advocacy for your reader, and a long-term commitment to educating. It is leadership––through the lens of content. It cannot be built overnight, though it can be destroyed in that time. 

If thought leadership is a goal for your company, you’ll need a clear set of content guidelines to help you get there. You’ll get a template for those next week. 

A note on this advice:

You do you! 

One content marketer’s best practices aren’t always right for another one, though I do try to distill out the main concepts and core practices I believe everyone can benefit from. That said, you must use good judgment when deciding whether to take advice given from folks on the internet. I am an expert, and this advice comes from my direct experience, but I am not smarter than you, and I have nothing to gain or lose because of what you do.