06 July 2022 |

A strategic content compass to fight thought leadership woes

By Tracey Wallace


The foundations of my content compass

In last week’s newsletter, I wrote in a near stream-of-consciousness about thought leadership, which is the ultimate goal of content marketing, in my opinion. 

The term, however, is used far too often to mean a type of content, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of content marketing and consumer psychology. 

  • “Thought leadership” as a content type seeks to earn trust through short-term manipulation. 
  • “Thought leadership” as a goal seeks to earn trust through consistency, value-giving and a discernible content philosophy. 

Most organizations don’t have a content philosophy. In fact, it wasn’t until several years into my content marketing career that I built one up to begin with. 

I created it out of necessity. 

My team was growing, the list of people who wanted to contribute to the blog at BigCommerce was growing. I needed to put on paper the morals by which I worked, and convince others of them. 

“To be an advocate for the reader” is the bottom line. To scale that, you need an agreed upon, and practiced, content philosophy. That philosophy is built by three content components:

  • Who the content team is (Our who)
  • Content tenets (Our how) 
  • Content triggers (Our when)

Together, the above create a clear “why” for content. The “what” and the “where” come after this phase, and next week’s newsletter will dive deep on those.

Let’s take a look at this compass:

Who the content team is. 

Content marketing organizations are challenging places to work. 

Your goals come from your marketing leadership, but you won’t hit any of those goals if you impress only that leadership. 

It is your readers who are technically your boss. 

As a result, while content marketing teams work within marketing organizations, they work for readers. 

This nuance needs to be documented, and established as a founding principle for anyone on your content team. Here are the “Who we are” guidelines I lay out for my teams to do this––edited a bit because these differ slightly based on the company:

  • We are our readers’ researchers-for-hire. We have access to #TKTKTK customers and their anonymized data, experts within the organization, and influencers in our industry. If a reader has a question, we should be able to find the data to answer it concretely, faster, and better than anyone else in our industry. 
  • But it’s not just about the data. Within the #TKTKTK customers are some of the most aspirational brands in the industry. It is our job to connect with those brands, to understand what it is they are doing that is working, what isn’t, what advice they have, and to share that with our audience (with permission!). We are our audience’s access to folks who would otherwise not be approachable. 
  • It’s not just about brands, either. This is about people––and experts. Whether that is creators, influencers, or industry experts, it’s our job to talk to these folks and distill their ideas for our audience, who otherwise wouldn’t have time—or would have to spend a ton of money—to gather those insights. 
  • Finally, how we present is just as important as what we present. Our content has two seconds to convince someone to continue reading, watching, or listening. The way we present our findings communicates to our audience our level of investment and seriousness about our goal. Our content must inspire and educate without overwhelming—in both the design and the copy. 

Content tenets. 

Content tenets are those core beliefs held by the writers, strategists, editors, etc. within a content marketing organization. 

This is what we produce every single time, no exceptions. It doesn’t matter if it is a piece by our CEO, something we are trying to get to rank on page 1 of Google, or a product news announcement. 

Everything must pass this sniff test––or we’ve failed, and let go of our audiences’ interests in favor of our own. 

Here are my time-tested content tenets. 

  1. Well-researched, highly actionable content. We produce content that adds value and makes it worth our readers’ time. The way we see it, there’s way too much mediocrity in the world. There’s a lot of noise out there. No one needs more of it. Everything we put out aims to be best-in-the-world content on whatever topic it’s addressing.
  2. Growth tips from our industry (not the folks marketing to them). Our audience has business challenges and they need answers. When we produce content, the goal is to make it so good that our audience doesn’t need much else on the subject. Our content includes lots of research, talking points and tips from smart, relevant, and aspirational people, with clear steps on what to do next. In particular, we work with businesses to offer growth advice to similar businesses—not just folks looking to market their ideas or products (i.e. typically partner organizations). 
  3. Honesty, always. We write for smart people. We don’t want to waste their time. No cheesy stuff. No “Make a $1M overnight” or “How to launch a BIG business this week” type of content. That kind of content is written to trick customers into a story that 99.9999% of the time will not happen for them. Besides, there’s not a lot of actionable advice that applies to the general public at large. Instead, we are honest about how hard it is to build a business, and the nuances that exist for various verticals and stages of company growth. 

Content triggers.

Content triggers signal to the content team, and the larger team in general, that a piece of content should be created. 

More importantly, if something doesn’t trip one of the content triggers, it does not get created. The more content triggers a piece trips, the higher its priority. 

This is your framework for saying no, and prioritizing without emotion. 

Use a tool like Airtable or whatever project management solution your team uses, to put values to these triggers. As requests come in, the higher the value, the higher the priority. And, everyone in the organization will know and understand what makes something come to life faster than something else. 

Pro tip: This helps your larger team better integrate their work, since they get more content points if it can be used in multiple channels. Win-win for us all!

  1. Product / partner roadmap: Anything that falls on the product or partner roadmap needs audience education if you do not have it already. In addition, these types of pieces have distribution built in with emails to your customer base or additional promotion through a partner. These are business critical, and should be considered high priority.
  2. Brand campaign roadmap: Brand campaigns include integrated campaigns, PR, etc. It’s important that a content marketing team build internal trust (we’ll talk about this more in future newsletters), and one of the best ways to do that is by being a good partner to other internal organizations. These are the second highest priority, and in an ideal world, they are mapped back to product or partner roadmap activities. 
  3. SEO gaps & opportunities: SEO is a distribution channel. It is not a type of content. SEO can offer some of the best distribution for your pieces, and therefore, it is an important trigger for updating or creating new pieces of content. Ideally SEO gaps and opportunities align or are mapped back to product, partner or brand roadmap activities. 
  4. Aspirational customer highlights: These are profiles of customers, who therefore have businesses that use your tool. These stories are meant to be aspirational and emotional for your readers. Ideally you have a case study you can link back to, or create this piece of content in coordination with the launch of a case study. It is important to note that this is *not* a case study. 
  5. Industry highlights: Whatever your industry is, your company should create content to educate folks on it with your company’s unique point of view. These are critical to becoming a thought leader in your space, and for always-on content campaigns in nurture streams. Once you build a solid foundation of these pieces, priorities 1-4 will nearly always inter-link back to these core topics. In fact, a lot of these pieces should be the SEO gaps or opportunities you look to fill, but they are not always the same. If you can’t create these, hire a freelancer who can. 
  6. Trending topics: This is the least priority piece of content to create, and if your team is already strapped, ignore it. You don’t need to create content on a piece of news in your industry just for the sake of it. But, if you have a large enough team or budget that you can build commentary on trending topics or news in your industry, then by all means, don’t let me stop you. 

All right––that’s it. That’s my content compass. It looks like this:

Only things that fit through the center––or can stand up to scrutiny against our overarching content philosophy and prioritization––will be produced. 

Next week, we’ll talk about the what and where for the topics that pass through this content compass. 

A note of this advice you’ve solicited by signing up:

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.