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What Is Thought Leadership?


As one of the original purveyors of the phrase “thought leadership,” First Page Sage has been practicing the strategy for years. This page is meant to explain to businesses what thought leadership is and its marketing benefits to your company.

Let’s start with the definition of thought leadership marketing:

Thought Leadership marketing is the art of positioning your company as a leader in its field through best-in-class content. By publishing articles, videos, research, or any other form of original content regularly, potential clients and members of your industry may begin associating your brand with insight and authority. When the time comes to hire a company, yours will be at the top of their mind.

Think of names like Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, or Seth Godin. You know these people’s names not because of their business accomplishments, but because of their published ideas. They have gained authority in their respective business niches, causing people to trust their recommendations. Your company can be viewed in the same way by creating content that resonates with your customers and members of your industry.

Thought leadership can have a remarkable ROI – potentially higher than any other online marketing activity – because it changes your company’s brand perception, giving your customers the impression that your company is the best in its industry. Businesses with a strong thought leadership presence get more sales leads and their customers are willing to pay higher prices.

While growing revenues is the primary benefit of thought leadership marketing, there are several other major advantages. In addition to attracting leads, here are the benefits of thought leadership marketing:

Attracting-new-talentAttracting new talent. Talented people gravitate to organizations whose ideas are well-known and respected. And when potential employees perceive a company to be the best in its field, they are far more interested in working there.

Getting-more-press-exposureGetting more press exposure. When your website’s content is truly interesting, people – journalists included – tend to perceive the author of that content as an expert. Websites replete with thought leadership get more press attention due to their perceived authority.

Being-asked-to-do-speaking-engagementsReceiving business development opportunities. With a strong reputation comes interest from potential partners who can help grow your company. The best biz dev is the type you don’t have to go searching for, but which comes to you based on your authoritative presence.

Receiving-business-development-opportunitiesBeing asked to do speaking engagements. Thought leadership can also take the form of public speaking at conferences and private events. Companies and individuals that are known for their ideas tend to get these coveted keynote invitations.


While advertising wins far and away more dollars from marketing budgets than thought leadership does, it is often a mistake to invest in advertising over thought leadership. To illustrate, imagine that you own a test prep company and want to reach more customers. One option is to advertise in a magazine with an ad like this:

seo-image-1Now compare that with what the Princeton Review has done, which is essentially to publish books, write authoritative guides, and appear on news shows as the expert in test prep.

While it may seem like Princeton review can only do these things because they are a leader, in fact, it’s the opposite: publishing books, guides, and lists is what made them into a leader.

While advertising can be a strong complement to thought leadership when well-managed, thought leadership has the potential to build your brand in a much more substantial way because audiences perceive it as organic and have a desire to engage with it, as opposed to advertising which audiences tend to avoid. In addition, thought leadership is typically less expensive than advertising. The trade-off is that advertising offers an immediate benefit, whereas thought leadership can take a year or so to start paying off.


In an age where the primary way people find new products and services is through Google, it pays to understand the way people search. New research from Google reports that our browsing habits have changed in the last 5-10 years. Here are the three highlights from the report:

  • Short, simple searches are less common. Only 30% of Google searches are keywords like “cpa firms”
  • Long keywords are the norm. 54% of Google searches are more than 3 words long, e.g. “best cpa firms SF 2021”
  • People are becoming less “keyword-oriented” and more “natural language oriented.” 1 out of every 5 searches is completely unique, meaning that that keyword phrase hasn’t been searched by anyone else in the last 6 months.

The main takeaway from this research is that people aren’t looking for Google to tell them who to buy from anymore – at least not directly. Instead, they are using Google to do research on which company to buy from so that they can reach their own conclusion. This means that, more than ever before, websites that offer objective information to people are the ones that influence purchasing decisions the most. In addition, Google has responded to the new way people are searching and has propelled news and resource-based websites to the top of the search results.

To illustrate this point, here is the way a search for “cpa firms SF” looked back in 2011:

seo-image-3Notice that the results page is just a list of firms.

Now, look at the top 4 results from a search performed in early 2021:

Notice how the first 4 results are not firms but resources – Yelp, Indeed, and a Top 50 list. The sites that rise to the top are the ones that are educating people, leading them closer to their purchasing decision but not directly advertising to them. The art of publishing content on your website that educates people while influencing their buying decisions is thought leadership.


Once you understand the value of thought leadership, the next step is getting thought leadership content published on your website so that you can begin to experience the benefits. Here’s how to do that:

  • Identify what keywords your customers would search. For example, let’s imagine you’re a supplier of color management devices, including spectrophotometers. What situations would your customers find themselves in that would cause them to turn to Google, and once there, what would they type into the search box? Suppose that you know that laboratory managers are sometimes unfamiliar with how to use new spectrophotometers and tend to google how to calibrate them so they are ready for use. Thus, you might conclude that a keyword you’d like your company to rank for is “how to calibrate spectrophotometer.”
    seo-image-4While this keyword isn’t as transactional as something like “spectrophotometer for sale”, there are myriad reasons why becoming a resource, or thought leader, to this person is a good idea. Perhaps they’re open to finding a different one, perhaps they need peripheral components, or perhaps they need more for other offices. By proving your company’s valuable through supplying excellent, objective information, you are positively branding your company.
  • Come up with a piece of thought leadership content to respond to that keyword. If we could get into the mind of that potential customer searching the keyword we chose, what would they love to see at the top of Google? Your job is to figure out what that would be and then create it—in other words, to satisfy their search intent.
    seo-image-5In this case, you might choose to create an “Ultimate Guide” type of thought leadership, a comprehensive, insightful description of how to calibrate spectrophotometers. It could include charts, graphs, diagrams, and any other type of graphic that aids in understanding the subject.
If you put in the work to create a true piece of thought leadership, not only will your potential customer be thrilled and ascribe authority to your company, Google will also notice and reward your site with high rankings for the keyword you’re targeting. Understanding search intent and creating the best possible content for each keyword is the marriage between thought leadership and SEO.
There are endless options for creating thought leadership content, ranging from the ultimate guide we used in this example to Top 100 lists, white papers, studies, and exceptionally thorough articles. You’ll want to create thought leadership frequently in order to have multiple touch points with potential customers searching on Google – preferably twice a week so you can get the News Website Bonus.


Since the ultimate goal of thought leadership marketing is growing your business, it is not enough to create really interesting content and assume it’s working. You’ll want to track the number of new visitors landing on your content, track how much time they’re spending with your content, and follow their path after they leave the content page to see if they end up converting.

By “converting,” I mean taking some action that gets them closer to becoming a customer. It could mean filling out a contact form, calling your company, or just downloading a white paper or joining your e-mail list.

To make sure visitors are converting, it is best to map out the typical paths visitors take on your website and see where they end up. Are they reading your thought leadership content and then promptly leaving, never to return? That would mean something needs to be adjusted. Or, are they going on to read case studies and your site’s About page, ultimately filling out your Contact form as a potential new customer? That’s what you’re looking for. These visitor paths I’m describing are sometimes called funnels. The visitor enters the site at the top of the funnel.

seo-image-6The point of funnels is try to “push” visitors from one page to the next until they come out the bottom as sales leads (or new employee applications, or whatever your goal is). When you get good enough at analytics and tracking, you can predict with high accuracy the path visitors will take to become sales leads, and you can craft the funnel to do the best possible job moving visitors from one page to the next, thus maximizing your conversion rates, and by extension, new sales leads.

Of course, the funnel always starts with “sticky” content to draw visitors in and cause Google to direct potential customers to your site in the first place. That “sticky” content is thought leadership.


There are two ways to start reaping the benefits of thought leadership: building or buying. Building thought leadership means hiring a content producer, editor, graphic designer, outreach person (to share the content with media), and analytics person. This can be done slowly over time. Buying thought leadership doesn’t mean purchasing already-produced content – Google actually penalizes sites that publish content that has appeared elsewhere on the Internet. It means outsourcing your thought leadership production, including the writing, editing, design, outreach, and analytics, to a professional firm.

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