Chapter 15: Sharing Knowledge— Thought Leadership

Image of Scott Baradell
Scott Baradell
Published: Feb 20, 2023

(Following is Chapter 15 of  Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “thought leader” dates back to an 1887 biography of the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, who the authors called “one of the great thought-leaders in America” (Pratt 2018).

The concept of thought leadership was popularized in the 1990s by economist Joel Kurtzman, co-founder of the magazine Strategy+Business.

Kurtzman defined the term this way:

A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights. (Hall 2019)

This description has held up pretty well for nearly three decades. Unfortunately, the mantle of thought leadership has become so sought-after that it has led to a content glut.

Most B2B marketing executives today list positioning their company as a thought leader as one of their top objectives. The web now claims 600 million blogs, with 32 million active bloggers in the United States alone, according to Statista. And marketers that publish more frequently are rewarded; blogs that post four times a week get 3.5 times the traffic of those that publish only once per week (Connell 2022).

That doesn’t mean you should get caught up on the content hamster wheel, however. And you shouldn’t get discouraged, either. Because the worst-kept secret in marketing is that most thought leadership content is crap.

WHY BAD THOUGHT LEADERSHIP IS WORSE THAN NONE AT ALL

Done well, thought-leadership marketing can be highly effective in building your brand and growing your business. Here are some numbers from a 2020 Edelman survey to prove the point (“2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study”):

  • Nearly 50 percent of B2B decision-makers spend an hour or more each week consuming thought leadership content. They are looking for insights.
  • Eighty-nine percent say that thought leadership affects their perception of an organization.
  • Nearly 50 percent say that thought leadership impacts their buying decisions.

However, there is another number from that survey that should give every marketer pause:

  • Only 15 percent consider the thought leadership they are consuming to be of high quality.

Content has always been about a transaction. The person consuming the content agrees to give you their time, and, in exchange, you agree to give them something worthy of that time. Too many marketers have forgotten the second half of that equation.

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP STRATEGIES TO EARN TRUST

In this chapter we’ll be covering thought leadership in the Grow With TRUST model, focusing on the following elements:

  1. Thought leadership platform. Thought leadership starts with having valuable ideas, knowledge, and advice to share that tie back to your brand and set you apart from competitors.
  2. Contributed content strategy. Bylined articles and other forms of contributed content are a chance to share your expertise in the publications your audiences read and respect.
  3. Executive visibility strategy. There are no shortcuts to establishing yourself on social media—but if you’ve targeted your channels well, the rewards are worth the effort.

Let’s get started.

Strategy #1: Thought Leadership Platform

I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve counseled about thought leadership platforms who’ve responded, “But I don’t have anything to say.

I’ve found they almost always do—if they give themselves the time to think about it. Finding a niche, purpose, and point of view is within almost every brand’s grasp.

That’s where your thought leadership strategy should start.

You may have heard that every snowflake is different, and it’s true—no matter how many billions of them fall from the sky, no two are ever the same. No one has the same work and life experiences as your brand’s executives. Once they get the hang of it, they’ll realize they have a lot more to say than they thought.

What’s Your Second Sentence?

There’s a question that newspaper editorial writers often ask each other during the ideation process: “What’s your second sentence?

This typically is asked when a writer is tasked with opining about something where the takeaway is rather obvious. Something horrible or tragic happened? We are sad.

Something wonderful happened? We are happy!

Well, of course you are. But what’s the second sentence? People expect more than the obvious from those editorial writers. They expect a personal, unique perspective.

The same question needs to be asked before your brand establishes a thought leadership platform.

Your brand’s audience expects more than the obvious, too. They expect more than a sales piece. They expect a point of view.

And this point of view—while non-branded—should align strategically with your brand story. Unfortunately, many branding firms don’t include thought leadership messaging in their engagements. That leads to brand guidelines that don’t extend to thought leadership marketing.

A thought leadership platform identifies narratives and themes that fit neatly within a set of three considerations:

  1. The brand’s overall messaging and identity
  2. Business or industry trends and themes that align with the brand’s differentiation and vision
  3. Executive or subject-matter expert (SME) spokesperson(s) with expertise and passion for these topics

Remember, there are two types of buyers: now buyers and future buyers—and the latter group is much larger than the former. A thought leadership marketing strategy builds trust with future buyers, so when they are ready to buy, they’ll think of you first.

Beyond connecting with buyers, thought leadership also shows you have ideas to share and value to provide freely to others, which helps to establish a positive reputation online.

Invest Your Brain and Your Time—or Don’t Bother

While most companies like the idea of thought leadership marketing, many simply aren’t willing to follow through with the time and effort necessary to be successful. Company thought leaders are typically company leaders—CEOs, CMOs, CIOs. Their time is valuable and usually already accounted for.

For this reason, in-house marketers often try to find ways to produce thought leadership content without taking up their executives’ time. This is almost always a mistake. Yes, a brand’s PR firm or marketing team can ghostwrite the article. But the executive’s unique insights are what make it authentic thought leadership.

Unfortunately, I’ve had the following conversation (or variations of it) too many times:

Client: “Our CEO doesn’t have time to talk with you right now for the thought leadership piece.”

Me: “Oh, really? Because we can’t write it without interviewing her.”

Client: “Well . . . uh . . . can’t you just take these pieces of collateral, those blog posts, and this internal document and create something— and then put her name on it?”

Me: “Can we? Yes. But should we? No.”

Client: “Why not?”

Me: “Because that’s aggregation and regurgitation—not thought leadership.”

In other words, we may be able to come up with a very compelling first sentence—but we still won’t have a second.

Creating a thought leadership platform begins at the second sentence. It begins when you break away from the chorus of voices in your industry all saying the same things. It begins when you move past the obvious and start offering value and perspective that align with your brand’s story and purpose.

The design-software company Autodesk, for example, started out as the company behind AutoCAD, the popular computer-aided design software. Over time, it has steadily expanded its vision and product offerings—and now proclaims that its bold mission is to “change how the world is designed and made.”

Autodesk’s thought leadership platform aligns neatly with this brand narrative. Its online magazine, Redshift, states that its charter is “to explore the future of how products, buildings, and cities will be built tomorrow—and even 100 years from now.” Redshift is packed with helpful resources for B2B buyers of all sizes and skill levels.

That’s how to provide value, instill a brand message—and build trust with both your now and future buyers.

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SIDEBAR: THE TAO OF THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

Two decades ago, sisters Jenniphr and Greer Goodman created a wonderful indie film called The Tao of Steve about a slovenly, underachieving kindergarten teacher named Dex (played by Donal Logue), who, despite his imperfections, had developed a surefire strategy for wooing women who most assumed were out of his league.

As he explained to one of his astonished friends, the strategy —inspired by Dex’s idol, ’70s movie star Steve McQueen—was simple. It included three steps:

  1. Be desireless—focus on getting to know the person; don’t make it about romance right away.
  2. Be excellent—prove your worthiness by showing off something you’re really good at—juggling, card tricks, art history, whatever.
  3. Be gone—because, as Dex puts it, “We pursue that which retreats from us.”

When I watched the movie again recently, it occurred to me that Dex’s Tao (or method) applies not only to dating, but also to businesses seeking to woo customers with thought leadership.

Here’s how:

  • Be desireless. Thought leadership is not about selling; it’s about helping. If you can’t separate the two in your mind when creating your content, you shouldn’t bother creating it. Sharing interesting and useful information with those who come across your brand online is one of the best ways to establish rapport and build trust. It shows that you have more to offer the world than a product to sell. For top-of-the-funnel audiences, talking about your ideas more and your products less (or not at all) is the way to impress.
  • Be excellent. How do you stand out with thought leadership? Not by posting more content than everyone else, but by seeming smarter than everyone else. Your content will be deemed excellent only when it is highly attuned to the needs, desires, interests, and predispositions of your target audience. The more you’ve researched your audience, the better you will know them and the smarter your content will seem to them.
  • Be gone. Because thought leadership marketing is mostly a top-of-the-funnel activity, your buyers usually aren’t ready to buy when they come across your content. It may be a year or more before they are ready to replace that enterprise software or can get out of their current service contract. So you will likely turn them off if you are too aggressive in your follow-up. Sign them up for your blog, retarget them with advertising, as long as you’re not too annoying about it, and then count on them to remember your desirelessness and excellence when the time comes.

In the battle for attention amid a growing glut of mediocre content, it might be tempting to be more salesy and aggressive to stand out from your competitors. But as Dex can tell you, the better path is to be desireless, be excellent, and be gone.

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Strategy #2: Contributed Content

Once you have your thought leadership platform in place, the next step is to figure out how to find an audience for your content.

A natural place to start is with your owned media, such as your blog, podcast, or social media channels. But it’s also important to extend your thought leadership to outside audiences—those who have not yet discovered your brand or website. One of the best ways to do this is by earning bylined article placements in the publications your buyers respect and consume.

The journalism term “byline” first appeared in print with the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in 1926. Hemingway spelled it “by-line,” which makes sense; it denotes the line atop a newspaper or magazine article stating who the piece is “by”—the author. Originally used to ensure accountability for mistakes in reporting, the byline, over time, has become one of the most sought-after status symbols among journalists—turning columnists into celebrities and investigative reporters into trusted community watchdogs.

Bylined articles, in other words, have a storied history. That’s why when brands treat contributed content as just another PR or SEO tactic, they are doing themselves a disservice.

Done well, bylined articles can be your single most effective inbound marketing strategy. In fact, they can achieve a Grow With TRUST trifecta, not only advancing your thought leadership efforts, but also contributing to your third-party validation and search presence. Here’s how:

  • Bylines bring visibility to your company’s thought leadership, and thought leadership builds trust.
  • Placing a byline in a well-known publication delivers the benefit of third-party validation, because that outlet confers trust on your brand by choosing to publish your content.
  • Bylined articles—especially those with links to your brand’s website—yield important benefits for search presence; and high visibility in Google also builds trust.

Maximizing and balancing each of these benefits is the three-legged stool of a contributed-content strategy.

The Guest-Post Trap

In the SEO world, bylined articles are more popularly known by another name: guest posts.
Unfortunately, guest posting has taken a reputation hit in recent years—mostly because of marketers publishing poor-quality content, often in paid linking schemes, in order to accumulate backlinks. In 2014, Google raised a red flag about guest posting, when its search-quality spokesman, Matt Cutts (2014), wrote a post titled, “The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO.”
Cutts stated at the time:

Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book...(but) if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice...

Google later clarified that not all guest posting is bad—but to this day, the search giant says it frowns on it as a link-building strategy and devalues guest-post links it considers “unnatural.”

This means that you should focus on creating great thought leadership content first—and then securing publication of that content in high-authority media outlets that Google trusts.

If you do, the SEO benefits will come...naturally.

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SIDEBAR: BYLINED ARTICLE PROGRAM CHECKLIST

Contributed content can require a significant amount of time to plan, write, and pitch to the media. Below is a ten-point checklist to follow when creating a bylined article for a brand executive or SME:

  1. Start by referencing the brand’s thought leadership platform to guide the content development process. 
  2. Brainstorm on topics, trends, and story ideas to share with the exec or SME to whom the article will be attributed. 
  3. Interview the exec or SME to learn their perspective on the topic; then, transcribe the interview to be able to include their insights directly in the piece.
  4. Identify publications and blogs your audience trusts that accept contributed articles.
  5. Use editorial calendars to determine when publications will be most receptive to specific story ideas.
  6. Consider timing to align publication dates with company initiatives or announcements.
  7. Explore sponsored content opportunities offered by Forbes, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and others.
  8. Create a brief article abstract and pitch to the media before writing the full piece.
  9. Once the abstract is accepted, draft the full article and get approval from the exec or SME to submit. 
  10. Promote your article on social media, on your website, and through paid advertising once it has been published.

Establishing your brand and its executives as thought leaders through a bylined article program takes brainpower, patience, and commitment—but it’s an effective strategy for earning brand trust.

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Strategy #3: Executive Visibility

Thought leadership marketing is a partnership between a brand and its executives. Raising the profile of your CEO and other company leaders—the spokespeople for your thought leadership platform—increases the authority and authenticity of your brand for audiences.

A January 2020 study in Qualitative Market Research used focus groups to assess the perception of CEOs as company spokespeople. The study concluded that putting a CEO in front of consumers “sends a positive signal and creates a human-to-human connection.”

As one participant told the researchers:

It’s a human speaking to another human. The presence of the CEO brings life, you can see a face, a style, a way of doing things . . . Putting a face on a brand name is somehow a way of saying “I want to connect with you.” (Zeitoun, Michel, and Fleck-Dousteyssier 2020)

This conclusion is backed by the findings of Edelman’s Trust Barometer surveys, which consistently show that corporate CEOs rank among the most trusted figures in American public life.

That’s why an executive visibility strategy is an excellent investment for brands—and today, that starts with social media.

Unfortunately, many executive visibility programs never get o the ground because CEOs and other executives are so busy in their jobs that feeding the beast of social media seems like an impossible task.

That’s where PR and marketing practitioners can help. These programs work best when they are a joint effort of the executive and the brand’s marketing team or PR agency. With a clear thought leadership platform to work from, marketers can help their executives with setting up channels, posting content, building relationships, and more.

The Executive Thought Leader’s Guide to Social Media

To get you started, here are seven steps to help your CEO build a thought leadership presence on social media:

#1: Choose the Right Channel

While it may sound appealing to spread your thought leadership all over the internet, from Reddit to TikTok, this can lead to a loss of focus and an inability to establish a foothold on any one site. That’s why a land-and-expand strategy is a better approach to your CEO’s social media presence.

Experiment with three channels you’d like to build an audience on—LinkedIn, Twitter, and Quora are great options for B2B CEOs—and see where you begin to gain traction. Based on relationships, algorithms, and other factors, you may find the same content that falls flat on Twitter earns big engagement on LinkedIn. Lean into that strength and build on it to establish your CEO as a thought leader. Focus on that platform until you are successful and then expand your presence elsewhere.

#2: Share the Person Behind the Title

While your CEO may lead a well-known technology company that’s always innovating, it’s the person behind the brand who people typically connect with. This is where your CEO needs to open up and show how their interests, passions, and hobbies intersect with the brand. Your audience will see your CEO as more giving and authentic—and trustworthy.

#3: Don’t Just Broadcast—Show Interest in Others

When someone in the social media world mentions your CEO or brand, share those mentions on your company’s account and the CEO’s personal account as well. To the extent the CEO makes time to answer questions, address concerns, acknowledge mentions, and share the content of others, it burnishes their reputation as an approachable executive. Social media is a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” world, and if you want to attract consistent engagement, you have to consistently engage.

#4: Use Analytics to See What’s Working

You shouldn’t fly blind with your CEO’s social media content— unless you want to leave success to chance. That’s why it’s important to invest in quality analytics tools, like Shield for LinkedIn or TrackMyHashtag for Twitter, to see what’s working and what isn’t. Study the subject matter of the executive’s posts, the time of day they’re sent, different hashtag strategies, and other variables to see what tends to increase visibility. Then, lean into that. Give the people what they want.

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SIDEBAR: THOUGHT LEADERSHIP ON QUORA

It’s not as sexy as TikTok or Twitter, but Quora is one of the top social networks—as well as one of the one hundred most-trafficked websites in the world. After LinkedIn, it is arguably the premier platform for thought leadership, with more than three hundred million monthly active users.

Quora is distinguished by its question-and-answer format, the basis for all engagement on the site. “Quorans,” as members are known, have asked and answered millions of questions on topics ranging from personal to politics to business. An estimated three thousand to five thousand new questions are added to Quora daily. The most popular writers on Quora receive millions of views, upvotes, and shares of their content.

Interactions on Quora are demand-driven: people ask directly for your expertise and guidance. This includes many buyers— both B2C and B2B—who turn to the platform to self-educate.

Quora is a forum that can boost aspiring thought leaders in a number of ways:

  1. Quora helps you gain authority and awareness in your industry when you answer questions, join groups, and participate in conversations. It’s one of the best ways to get your ideas in front of a large audience quickly.
  2. Answering Quora questions increases your visibility in Google searches, particularly for long-tail keywords that are specific to your business or industry. Your Quora answers can continue to draw interest over months or years.
  3. Quora allows you to answer questions about your product, explain features, and overcome objections. This provides education for those who might be a little further down the marketing funnel.

After you set up your Quora profile, being personal and authentic is the key to gaining a following, emerging as a thought leader, and growing your business.

Some specific tips when getting started:

  • Actively search for questions that you want to engage with and set them aside so you can work on them.
  • Answer questions in an informative way that is not self-serving or salesy. Be helpful and contribute to conversations.
  • Answer a mix of popular and niche questions to expand your audience while reinforcing your areas of specialization.
  • Upvote, share, and comment on the answers of other Quorans to build a network of members with similar interests.
  • Make your answers stand out by using images, videos, variations in font, and other techniques that Quorans use to make their answers visually appealing.

Quora prides itself on fostering a more civil form of discourse than other social media sites. You can delete comments on your answers if they are rude, irrelevant, or inappropriate.

Whatever your campaign’s specific objectives, Quora offers helpful, intuitive analytics to track your progress. Give it a try. It’s a great way for executives to earn authority and trust with relevant audiences online.

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#5: Only Post Content You Would Click on Yourself

The shelf life of a tweet today is about fifteen minutes. That’s not much time to grab a user’s attention, interest, or loyalty. Before posting on social media, your CEO and internal team should ask themselves, “Would I click on this content?” If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure,” it’s unlikely the post will be appearing at the top of anyone’s feed. You have to believe in your content first, before you can expect others to.

#6: Encourage Employee Ambassadors

Get your team involved in promoting your CEO’s content, especially if your number-one platform is LinkedIn, where virtually all of your employees are likely to have a presence. Did you know LinkedIn claims to provide as many as 80 percent of social media leads for B2B companies? That’s a number no brand can afford to ignore.

So, if you are beginning to find traction with a LinkedIn strategy, be sure to fully engage your team. Encourage them to share your CEO’s posts on their personal LinkedIn pages—and to publish their own content, too. This will make your brand more visible and extend thought leadership to all levels of your organization.

#7: Amplify Your Content with Social Media Advertising

While growing your CEO’s social media presence without advertising support is possible, it can be difficult and slow-going. Social media advertising accelerates the process of getting your content noticed. And it doesn’t require breaking the bank; an effective thought leadership campaign can be run on a reasonable budget.

If you want your CEO or other top executives to stand out as thought leaders, an active social media presence is no longer optional. Give your audience what they want by choosing the right channel, sharing personal stories and interests, engaging followers with relevant content, and taking a genuine interest in others.

SAY SMART THINGS AND LEAVE THE PRAISE TO OTHERS

Thought leadership is key to the Grow With TRUST system because it gives you something to talk about besides your product.

And nowhere is the benefit of that more obvious than on social media.

How often do you come across companies that program their Twitter or Facebook feeds like a TV show, complete with commercial breaks?

Here’s how the formula might go for a B2B tech company on Twitter:

Tweet 1: Company summarizes and links to a trade media story sharing industry news

Tweet 2:  Company summarizes and links to a channel partner’s blog post offering perspective on an industry trend

Tweet 3:  Company summarizes and links to an industry analyst’s latest report

Tweet 4:  Company highlights one of its product features and links to a demo or promotion

The brand publishes content to inform and entertain its audience —then, in the last tweet, makes the audience “pay the tax” of a product promotion.

That’s the traditional advertising model.

And it runs directly counter to Grow With TRUST.

Because what the company in this example is actually doing is posting content from other people saying smart things about their industry—and from the brand promoting itself.

In the Grow With TRUST system, it’s the opposite: you publish your own leaders saying smart things about the industry—and leave the promotion of your product to your customers, influencers, and others. Those are the two Ts in TRUST: third-party validation and thought leadership.

Thought leadership is the final part of the Grow With TRUST system. Now, let’s turn to putting this system into practice.




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