How to Write True Thought Leadership Content

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When I give speeches about thought leadership, I am often struck by how few people in the room understand what I’m referring to. Everyone seems to have heard the term – it’s become somewhat of a buzzword – but most people just assume it means “a really good article.” Allow me to shed some light.

Thought leadership content is content in any form – articles, videos, photo essays – that demonstrates that the writer is a leader in his or her field. It is used by big companies, mid market businesses, and small businesses alike. And it works especially well for SEO.  But its effects are much further-reaching. I have seen our clients get key business partnerships, valuable new employees, speaking engagements, and even awards because of thought leadership. It’s kind of magical in that anybody that interacts with your company for any reason can appreciate it. But first, it has to be good.

So what defines true thought leadership content? Here are the puzzle pieces:

A strong, trustworthy editorial voice. Probably the thing that most defines thought leadership is a voice that says “I know what I’m talking about.” It may seem obvious, but using the active voices instead of the passive, discussing the big picture topics in your industry, and generally opining on a subject in a confident manner can make all the difference in whether your audience is engaged.

Original research and sources. Nowadays, you don’t have to hire a research firm and spend a quarter of a million dollars to get original research. You can seek already-published research that hasn’t yet been applied to your topic (a great example is the long tail, which is now an SEO concept but was a retail concept first); you can commission informal research through crowdsourcing; or you can conduct the research yourself over a period of time. If that sounds like a lot of work, then bringing original sources into your article may be an easier alternative. All that means is e-mailing a number of experts on the topic you’re writing about and seeing who would be willing to do an interview. If you ask good questions, you may wind up with some enlightening information that your audience will love. Rolling Stone Magazine has written some of the best thought leadership pieces I’ve ever read over the years and they’ve chiefly used interviews to make the articles come alive.

Actually interesting insight. This is key: the point you make in your article has to make someone go “Hm!” You know the exclamation that I’m talking about – the one that is involuntarily emitted when a person is struck by a unique way of thinking they haven’t encountered before. It’s a tall order, I know. That’s why thought leadership is not the kind of thing to pass off to the interns; it’s meant to be written by someone with a deep knowledge of the subject matter. (You can read some of my key insights about life here or an entire article about insight here.)

Emotion. If you read my articles regularly, you know that I consider emotion to be a part of every business transaction. People need to feel something about your company if they are going to take an action, whether it be purchasing something, applying to work for you, or proposing a biz dev partnership. Your article doesn’t have to be superlative or sensationalist to convey emotion. It can be mostly objective, but at its heart, it has to advocate for something. I find that you don’t even have to think about this element if you simply make it a rule to only write about things that you feel passionate about.

If you have all these puzzle pieces, you have thought leadership. It doesn’t matter if your article is 150 words or 2,000 words; thought leadership content is one of those things that you know when you see. And now that you understand it a bit better, it’s time to go create it.

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