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Thought leadership marketing: A guide for small businesses

6 minute read

Rachel Ramsay

There’s more to marketing than pushing your products at unsuspecting people. Beyond the traditional marketing worlds of advertising, email campaigns, Pay-Per-Click and direct mail, there’s a more sophisticated strategy growing in popularity: thought leadership marketing.

And, with one survey finding that 89% of decision-makers say that “thought leadership can be effective in enhancing their perceptions of an organisation”, it’s a strategy worth knowing about. In today’s post I’ll look at what it is, how it can help grow your business and how you can get in on the act.

What is a thought leader?

A thought leader is someone who’s not just an expert in their field, but a passionate advocate for it. They’re a recognisable figure within their industry: the sort of person who might speak at conferences or be asked by journalists to comment on a relevant news piece. They’ll typically be the ones offering insights into their market and its future, perhaps using what they’ve learned from their own business to help others gain a better understanding of their niche.

A great example of a thought leader is search engine optimisation (SEO) expert Neil Patel, who promotes his SEO tools and consultancy services by positioning himself as a thought leader for the digital marketing industry. As his Twitter bio summarises – to over 355,000 followers – Neil is a “New York Times bestselling author, top 100 entrepreneur under 30 by Obama, and top 10 marketer by Forbes.”

Luckily, you don’t have to get to Neil Patel levels of thought leadership success to start feeling the business benefits of this strategy. Let’s take a look at the various ways you can give your business a boost by tapping into the power of thought leadership.

How can thought leadership help your business?

Thought leader marketing takes the concept of thought leadership and uses it to promote a business. The idea behind it is that rather than creating content that’s overtly designed to drive sales, you create content that positions you as an expert in your field.

By making a name for yourself with insightful, authoritative content in your niche, the idea is that sales naturally follow for your business. You’re the knowledgeable face of your company, and that not only inspires the trust people need to be confident enough to become customers but gives you the opportunity to be front of mind when someone finds themselves needing the products or services you sell.

Whether you’re a brand new start-up or you’ve been trading for years, there are several specific benefits of adopting a thought leadership approach to your marketing, including:

  • Exposure and brand awareness – one of the biggest benefits of thought leadership is the exposure that comes from it. It gets your name out there, building brand awareness in the process
  • Demonstrate expertise – by sharing your thought processes and industry insights, you’re showing potential customers that you know what you’re talking about. With 88% of consumers and 68% of B2B customers conducting research online before purchase, thought leadership ensures there’s plenty of information out there to show potential customers that you know your stuff
  • Generate leads – a natural follow-on from demonstrating your expertise is that you’ll generate new sales leads
  • Build credibility and influence – thought leadership helps establish your business as a credible source of information, meaning others will take notice of what you say
  • PR opportunities – as a thought leader, you’re more likely to be approached for comment for news stories and other kinds of journalism, giving you the potential for some great PR coverage
  • Networking opportunities – thought leaders get asked to speak at events, which is a great way to get noticed. Whether it’s a business breakfast or a full-blown online conference, being a thought leader brings unrivalled networking opportunities. That means the chance to mingle with potential new customers as well as building existing client relationships
  • Attract the best talent – talented individuals are always on the lookout for the latest insights into their industry, as well as the best places to work; as a thought leader, you’ll get noticed by the brightest minds, who might even want to come and work for you

The thought leadership approach works particularly well in a B2B environment, and is perhaps better suited to some industries than others. Industries that change rapidly, such as digital marketing, are particularly ripe ground for aspiring thought leaders, as people within these industries look to informed individuals to offer insights into – and therefore preparation for – the way the industry is heading (hence the success of people like Neil Patel, who we saw earlier).

That’s not to say that you can’t be a thought leader in a traditional industry or in a B2C company. If you focus on addressing your customers’ needs – answering questions or solving problems related to what your business does – you have the basis of a thought leadership strategy, like Colgate on oral health.

Thought leadership strategy: the basics

Thought leadership is a form of inbound marketing, which means, essentially, that customers come to you. To attract them, you put out great content that keeps people sharing and coming back for more, and makes them want to become customers.

Although you might assume that thought leadership is something only established companies with lots of experience can pursue, it’s actually a fantastic strategy for start-ups, too.

In the absence of years of trading to demonstrate your longevity, thought leadership can be a value proposition in itself, catapulting you into the limelight by virtue of your knowledge and powers of analysis (which you may have picked up in any number of ways – from previous jobs in the industry, for example).

It’s also worth noting that even if it’s your own company, it might not necessarily be you who takes on the thought leadership role. If your business is more than just you, it makes sense to think about who’s best equipped to take on a thought leadership role and become a figurehead for your business.

It might be that you’re a partnership and one of you is better at this kind of thing than the other. Or you might have a star employee who loves nothing more than talking about your industry.

If you’re a slightly bigger business, you could have more than one thought leader covering different aspects, such as technology or advocacy. Tapping into the enthusiasm of employees is a great strategy, as you help them build their own profiles and careers at the same time as using their knowledge and passion to raise the profile of your business.

Top tips for effective thought leadership content

For thought leadership marketing to work for your business, you need to start by defining what you want to achieve by positioning yourself as a thought leader. Is it to woo investors, for example, or to develop credibility in an industry you’re only just venturing into?

Getting this down on paper will then help you define who your target audience is. This may not always be the same; you might create one piece of thought leadership content aimed at companies’ HR departments, for example, and another designed to get the attention of potential investors.

Once you have a clear idea of the group(s) of people you want to reach with your thought leadership, you can set about planning your output and any work you’ll need to carry out in order to create it (such as commissioning research for infographics or hiring a writer to help you put together an e-book).

This could be a mixture of different formats, such as written pieces – advice-based blog posts, articles in industry magazines, e-books and so on – or videos, podcasts, or any other format you think will add value for your audience.

A good indication of what your audience might find appealing is the formats other thought leaders are using in your industry, so take a look at what they’re up to as well.

It’s also worth taking a look at any content you’ve already created for your business, such as blog posts, and seeing whether there’s scope to improve or repurpose them.

This is a good opportunity to audit your existing content to make sure your legacy content aligns with the position you’re taking today, as it may come under scrutiny when you start to raise your profile.

Where to publish your thought leadership content

It’s important to ensure that your content looks professional before you publish it. For example, if you’ve written a white paper then it might be worth hiring a designer to make it look nice, rather than just uploading a plain PDF. Make sure it’s meticulously proofread, as typos and grammatical errors undermine your credibility.

When it comes to publication, there are plenty of platforms to choose from, such as:

  • Your own blog or website
  • Medium
  • LinkedIn Articles
  • Guest posting on industry blogs
  • Industry magazines and other offline publications
  • Platforms that offer video sharing, such as YouTube, Vimeo, LinkedIn and Facebook

You may want to cross-publish across several platforms for maximum exposure, linking back to the original content on your own website.

Finally, the content you create is just the start. Don’t forget that a strong social media presence is vital for a thought leader. Make the effort to build up your social media following, get involved in industry discussions and be sure to use relevant hashtags when promoting your own content.

If you speak at an event, be sure to jump on its hashtag with links to your content so that people can follow up on what they’ve heard you talking about. And don’t forget to reply to comments: to be a successful thought leader, you want to be likeable and accessible as well as knowledgeable.

Rachel Ramsay is a freelance copywriter with a background in digital marketing. She's written copy for clients ranging from the United Nations World Food Programme to The North Face, and particularly enjoys working with lifestyle and travel brands. In her spare time, she volunteers for Guide Dogs and flies light aircraft and helicopters.

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