The Magic Element of Thought Leadership Content: Perceived Value

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Thought leadership is, quite frankly, the best marketing solution I’ve ever seen. It generates sales leads, builds a company’s reputation, provides content for social media and newsletters, attracts new employees, and garners press inquiries. But the most powerful thing it does over the long term is build perceived value.

Perceived value is exactly what it sounds like. It is not the same as actual value, and in many ways is more important. To explain the concept, let’s take one of my favorite examples of a brand that has extremely high perceived value: U.S. News & World Report. One day, someone at U.S. News had the brilliant idea to rank all the colleges in the United States. Whether that person realized it or not, their idea would rescue a somewhat-unremarkable brand, turning it into one of the most politically powerful publications in the country.

We’ve all heard of the U.S. News college rankings, and millions of people implicitly trust it. Yet, the actual value the rankings provide is dubious. If the college rankings helped people to find the right school for them, which in turn added to their personal satisfaction in life, it would have a ton of actual value. Instead, the rankings essentially serve the purpose of working people into a frenzy about their chances of getting into a highly-ranked school. In a perfect world, brands with a low actual value like the U.S. News college rankings would flounder, and brands that deliver the highest actual value to their customers would succeed. But that is not the world we live in.

Instead, a brand like U.S. News maintains its influence and continues to have a far-reaching impact on our country. Why? Because it has an extremely high perceived value.

Although it may sound like I’m dissing U.S. News, in truth, I respect them. They used a simple construct – something not that different from David Letterman’s famous Top 10 Lists – to make an entertaining piece of content, which they then published and distributed. As a result, they created their own authority.

Companies that create their own authority are known as thought leaders. And anyone can become one. Over time, if you consistently publish engaging, valuable content on your website, people will see it and spread the word and your opinions will become important.  Nobody appointed U.S. News the expert on all things college. Yet they published one really good list and now everybody regards them as such. The lesson is simple: start your own list!

Of course, when I say “list,” I mean any form of thought leadership: an annual report, ultimate guide, rankings list, dictionary or encyclopedia, and so on. And when you’re publishing your thought leadership content, if you really want your perceived value to soar, keep the following things in mind.

Does it look authoritative? Don’t forget the lesson Apple taught businesses over the last 15 years: design matters. If the thought leadership content your company publishes looks uber-professional, like something published by Goldman Sachs or Chase or another big company, people will regard it that way. Be careful who you model the design of your compendiums, lists, or reports after though, as sites like The Huffington Post and Forbes have fallen down the click-bait rabbit hole and as a result have a poor user interface.

Does it sound authoritative? How you write about your given subject, and the tone and voice of your writing, are make-or-break. Quality is king. If you polish a piece of cow dung, it’s still a piece of cow dung. Instead, polish a gem. The interestingness of the piece will determine how many people link to it, share it, and tell people about it, which will, in turn, determine your Google ranking.

Does it tell me what I want to hear? Understanding what your customers are interested in is essential to creating good thought leadership content. Your customers may want to hear how to solve their problems, what the future of the industry looks like, the bad news that lies ahead (people are intrigued by negativity if it’s delivered as news), and the latest trends in your field. Give people what they want and they’ll spread your content far and wide.

Have I heard of it? The reason I always recommending publishing thought leadership content weekly is because when people consistently see your content coming up in their Google searches, they’ll become familiar with your brand. After the sixth or seventh time a person sees your brand in the search results, suddenly your company gains “I’ve heard of those guys” status. That means all your content now has a higher perceived value.

Has anyone else I know heard of it? By following the same best practices I write about all the time – consistent publication of thought leadership content, well-written title tags, and a conversion-optimized website – lots of people will gain the brand awareness I described in the last section. When Person A shares your awesome piece of content with Person B and Person B responds with something like “Yeah, I love that company’s articles,” Person A instantly gains a greater respect for your brand. It’s been validated. And when your brand is regularly validated in conversation, your sales will be rising.

What excites me the most about the concept of perceived value is seeing it rise in my clients’ companies. Every day, I’m in creative meetings trying to come up with the next fascinating guide or compendium so that a client’s brand will reach hundreds or thousands more potential customers. And when smaller businesses thrive, or a company doubles or triples its revenues so it can employ more people and do greater good – well, to me, that’s magic.

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