How to Get Started with a Thought Leadership Program

Thought leader

With AI content cluttering the blogosphere, every B2B knows they need to put out ‘thought leadership’ content. 

But what really is thought leadership content? 

It’s not your subject matter expert (SME) who writes blog posts. It’s not your CEO who posts company and financial updates on LinkedIn. It’s not a researcher who periodically presents at industry conferences. So what is it? It’s a subset of your overall content marketing strategy and it: 



  • Focuses on establishing someone within your organization as an authority in the field by providing new ideas, unique insights, and fresh perspectives on a topic related to your business or industry 
  • Establishes authority and expertise in your industry, which build trust and confidence in your solution or service 
  • Educates and informs, but it also challenges the status quo

Let’s take a deeper look at how you can build a thought leadership program. 



Anatomy of thought leadership content

First, it helps to understand the pillars of good thought leadership content.  It differs from general marketing content in the following ways: 

  1. It has specific goals.  It builds credibility and trust versus driving awareness and brand recognition.
  2. It has a specific focus.  The primary focus of thought leadership content is to establish one of your experts as an authority in the industry, and build trust and credibility with your audience. 
  3. It has detail. Thought leadership content needs to be in-depth and provide unique, new insights and perspectives on a topic or industry. In other words, these are probably not TOFU pieces.  
  4. It has a specific target audience.  Thought leadership content can be aimed at a more specialized audience than a general buyer, such as industry professionals or experts. (Though I will talk later about how it needs to appeal broadly). 
  5. It enables longer-form content. Though thought leaders do write blog posts, the content is often more research-based and may also take the form of whitepapers, case studies, and research reports. 
  6. It makes excellent Botton of Funnel content. The buyers are probably solution aware and may even be aware of you. Once your leaders are established in the market, they are following your experts and coming to you specifically for your expertise. 
  7. It drives a different type of conversions. Because it is BOFU, you can drive conversions like ‘talk with an expert’, ‘schedule a demo’, and so on.  
  8. It facilitates different content types. While blog posts, videos, and social are important formats for thought leadership content, thought leadership content also manifests in webinars, podcasts, and expert guides. 



Must-have qualities of thought leaders

Not every ever expert in your organization is a thought leader.  You have to choose the right people–it’s the key to the credibility and effectiveness of the content. Look for people with the right:

  1. Expertise. Thought leadership content should feature people that have a keen understanding of an industry or topic and have unique perspectives or insights. Thought leaders can be industry experts, C-level people, researchers, and other pros in your company who have long expertise and/or deep knowledge in your industry. I suggest they be director-level, or higher.  
  2. Reputation. They should have a strong reputation and be recognized as experts within their industry—if not yet, then they will after you position them as thought leaders and start publishing content in their name. They should have–or will grow–a track record of providing valuable insights, strong opinions, and new perspectives on industry issues.
  3. Dynamic personality. Let’s be honest: your thought leader needs to be engaging, a good speaker, opinionated, and charismatic. If you want to put forward someone as a thought leader who does not have these traits, then use a ghostwriter and publish only written content. Ideally, you can use a thought leader for live events, video (interviews, presentations), and audio (podcast) content also, but written content is a great start and is powerful in its own right. 
  4. Ability to articulate ideas clearly. In addition to having subject matter expertise, thought leaders should have excellent communication skills and the ability to convey complex ideas in a clear and compelling way. Thought leadership content shouldn’t be ‘dumbed down’, but it shouldn’t be too technical either. Your thought leader—and the content they produce—must be accessible.  
  5. Understanding of audience in order to customize content. They should also have a strong understanding of their target audience and be able to create content that resonates with their needs and interests. Arguably, this is the responsibility of the marketing team NOT of the thought leader. 

And keep in mind: you really only need 1-2 thought leaders.  Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to find an army of them.  



How do you train a thought leader? 

It’s a mistake to think that some can automatically be a thought leader.  A SME can possibly be trained in thought leadership, but not always. The truth is that most thought leaders need to be groomed. If expert, dynamic, opinionated thought leaders don’t rise to the top of your organization–some people are obvious candidates–then you may need to find and groom one in order to build this type of content to achieve your marketing goals. You may find smart, expert people with strong opinions but realize they have no idea how to be a thought leader or don’t want to be (some are deeply extroverted and don’t want their name out there). 


Ask around for who has an opinion, is working on innovative things and/or has industry-leading expertise, talk to that person to see if they are interested, and then discuss how you could help them grow in order to put them forward as your thought leader. 


Keep in mind that whoever you choose does not have to create all their own content or even most of it–the marketing team needs to own that.  All of these people have day jobs and other important work that tops their list of priorities.  Many of them do not like to write.  So, for example, a copywriter would interview the SME for an hour, record the interview, and then create the blog post, industry magazine article, social content, and so on.  Of course, they always need to review, mark up, and approve the content. 



Moving forward with thought leadership programs

There is huge value in engaging thought leaders to put themselves–and therefore your brand–forward as an authority in the industry. It’s a great way to gain credibility and build trust.  It’s a differentiator.  Start small with one thought leader and one type of content and go from there. 


And if you need help creating a thought leadership program and content plan, you can connect with me here

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