Thought leadership is a widespread and often very effective PR strategy. When done well, thought leadership content establishes corporate executives as experts in their industries and as sources of worthy ideas. By establishing reputations for thought leadership, experts build trust, enhance their organization’s reputation, and ultimately boost sales.
A well-conceived and well-written thought leadership article in a leading news publication can shift public opinion and change the viewpoints of public-policy decision makers.
A survey by Edelman and LinkedIn reveals that 88% of decision makers agree that thought leadership is effective at enhancing perceptions of an organization. In addition, 61% of C-suite executives say they’re more willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that has articulated a clear vision.
However, ill-conceived, poor-quality content can backfire and hurt the company’s standing. Only 17% of business decision makers rate the quality of most of the thought leadership content they read as very good or excellent.
Some Lack Communications Skills
Business and not-for-profit leaders and company subject-matter experts may be storehouses of knowledge, but they may lack the time or ability to transform their knowledge into well-written articles. They may also shy away from broadcast interviews for fear of misspeaking or being unable to handle a difficult question. That’s why PR and communications pros often assume responsibility for uncovering their specialized knowledge and strongly held opinions, securing appearances, and crafting the executive’s raw material into talking points, speeches or opinion pieces for publication.
14 Steps to Stellar Thought Leadership Content
Experts recommend these steps to create and promote thought leadership content for business executives.
Win support from top leadership. Get the CEO to support thought leadership initiatives so that company experts cooperate, advises Ken Gaebler, CEO of Walker Sands Communications. Otherwise, calls and meetings may be missed and deadlines ignored.
Strategy and messages first. Establish the PR and marketing strategy and the organization’s key messages first. Then mull how content can support the message, Gaebler urges. A common mistake is to interview thought leaders and write about whatever they talk about, but their favorite topic may not support a company goal.
Select experts carefully. Finding and promoting company experts as media resources can be a challenging PR task. A company expert may be renowned as a genius in his niche, but you might discover the he can barely speak coherently and can’t connect his expertise to company goals or PR messages. To avoid that scenario, interview experts without commitments before selecting and promoting them as thought leaders.
Establish a content creation plan. Define a content creation process that answers questions such as who is doing what and when, who completes the final editing, and who has final say. A content calendar that states deadlines, topics and job assignments can hold people accountable.
Write well. Because executives are incredibly busy, they prefer concise writing. According to the Edelman survey, business leaders also prefer to read thought leadership articles that explore potential challenges or new opportunities they had not considered before, point out what they have overlooked, and includes guidance on how to respond to issues raised.
Don’t sell products. Solve problems. Readers don’t want to see self-promotional sales pitches or self-congratulating praise. Readers and viewers want information that solves their problems, enhances their personal lives, or improves their organization. Compelling thought leadership content can also ask thought-provoking questions or inspire innovative thinking.
Start small. Don’t start with a massive production. Instead, find something that allows you to act fairly quickly, and that’s relevant to your PR goals and your target audience’s challenges. Then produce content that helps your audience overcome those pain points.
Develop a long-term strategy. Ideally, thought leadership content is evergreen. It remains relevant for several years or more and can be adapted to changing times. Starting in the 1970s and for more than 20 years, J.P. Morgan Chase CEO David Rockefeller talked and wrote often about the need for “capital formation” to promote innovation and economic growth. Even after his retirement and death, disciples continued expounding his basic thesis. It took until 2017 for his idea to come to fruition in the form of deep corporate tax cuts.
Ponder the title. A great title entices readers to open and start reading the article, but don’t get carried away with clickbait headlines that don’t accurately reflect the content. That will only discredit your brand and decrease trust. Descriptive, factual headlines are more effective. Posing questions and including numbers, adjectives, superlatives and well-known names are some of the proven formulas.
Include visuals. Images and videos enhance storytelling, attract attention and increase click-through rates. But don’t pick irrelevant stock images. Include a picture that adds to the story or explains the content.
Consider gated content. Gated content, such as whitepapers or webinars that website visitors register for, allows the company to capture contact information of readers or viewers. PR can continue sending contacts content if they opt in, and marketing and sales staff can nurture them through the sales funnel. However, gates bring both pros and cons. Many website visitors abandon the forms before completion or give fake contact information. Gated content also brings less social media and SEO value.
“Search bots view most forms as almost a brick wall — gating the content from humans essentially walls it off to search robots,” writes Janet Driscoll Miller, president and CEO of Marketing Mojo, in Search Engine Land.
Promote the content. Business leaders most often find thought leadership content through web searchers and social media. In addition to using SEO and social media marketing, PR can amply content through paid, owned and earned channels.
Measure results. “To know whether you really are reaching the right people, and to determine which approaches should be prioritized, turn to your data,” recommends Alex Rynne at LinkedIn, suggesting LinkedIn’s reporting and analytics capabilities. Experts also recommend taking advantage of the potent functionality of an integrated media monitoring and measurement service.
Bottom Line: Thought leadership is a proven and powerful tool to promote ideas and viewpoints and to build trust in an organization. Well-written articles by subject matter experts and top executives are more likely to sway opinions. For the strategy to work over the long term, the organization and the thought leader must build trust over time with solid, well-reasoned ideas that move the target audience to action.
This article was first published on March 9, 2018, and updated on Nov. 13, 2020.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.