Thought leadership is a type of content that's hard to define, but every company wants more of it—from the small seed-stage startup to the large enterprise company. When done right, a thought leadership strategy gives your target audience valuable takeaways and tells them your company is the one to solve their problems.
Many people think of thought leadership content as long-form blog posts, but it can also look like LinkedIn updates, tweets, YouTube videos, or even TikToks. Every thought leadership article starts with a strong idea, which can be repurposed into these other formats for wider distribution.
Let's dive into ideation methods that will help you create thought leadership content, writing tips, and great examples.
In Ryan Law's course “How to Write Thought Leadership Content,” he defines thought leadership as “the sharing of learned secrets.” He explains that these novel and interesting ideas can come from:
If you think about some classic examples of thought leadership content, like the "building in public" trend in tech, you'll notice many of these buckets overlap.
A thought leader sharing how he scaled his company to $10k MRR will have many processes for solving hard problems and the personal experiences that led to those solutions. These buckets are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
First, thought leadership content should always be helpful. The reader should come away having learned something or feeling inspired. This will keep them coming back to your content and (hopefully) becoming paying customers.
Remember, thought leadership is not a humblebrag about results or a contrarian thought simply for the sake of being different. It's an opportunity to give someone a new career hack or even change their trajectory.
Another tip Ryan Law gives for writing thought leadership is to be nice. You can be empathetic even while challenging someone's ideas or writing about a tough personal experience.
Being offensive isn't likely going to lead to good, long-lasting results. Thought leadership that stands the test of time is persuasive, believable, and personal.
Amanda Natividad is one of the upcoming thought leaders in content marketing with over 100,000 followers on Twitter. Her piece “Zero-Click Content: The Counterintuitive Way to Succeed in a Platform-Native World” is a great example of a thought leader explaining their unique process for solving a problem.
It's also personal—her style of marketing is zero-click content, and she's making a case for it and explaining how to do it in this piece. She starts with an observation—it's getting harder and harder to get people to click. Social platforms penalize you for linking out, Google is answering questions in the SERP, and people are just inundated with content.
The tweetstorm version of Amanda's Zero-Click content article.
She then does several other things that make her piece more persuasive and credible.
She uses real-life examples to drive home the point that zero-click content works. She shares how a SparkToro webinar promotion email was frontloaded with an infographic about how buyer personas are unhelpful, but still resulted in 906 webinar participants. Or how Twitch streamers stream for hours but show a short highlight reel on YouTube.
She gives frameworks to create zero-click content. This shows she knows what she's talking about. For example, she says you can “give away the punchline” or tease your long-form content into bullet points on social media.
Thought leadership pieces are also highly quotable. They're packed with so much value and interesting opinions (as opposed to an SEO article that looks similar to the others on the SERP) that every few sentences packs a punch.
This type of thought leadership is much more theoretical and opinionated than tactical. It was published in October 2020, so it starts with an industry observation about the great resignation.
“It's not just that people are quitting their jobs during a pandemic. It's that they're quitting their jobs during a pandemic because of values. That's a hell of a thing,” they say.
Then, they do a deep dive into quitting on the basis of values, using the example of Hootsuite doing a campaign for ICE. If employees are not comfortable with their labor supporting an often violent border patrol agency, it's up to C-suites to communicate that message.
Essentially, they're helping C-suite leaders understand they need to stand up for employees' values if they want to quell the mass resignations.
This piece likely doesn't appeal to the masses. Instead, Raw Signal has ‘planted its flag' on the idea that CEOs and senior leaders need to have the same moral integrity as their employees (or at least empathize with them). The disconnect is part of the reason for people quitting, so something has to change.
This approach is great if you have a strong but defensible opinion that you can back up with real-world examples.
This article is a great example of sharing "learned secrets" from a personal experience. Wistia does a really great job of forming a story arch, too, starting with slowly building momentum with angel investors, peaking to the dramatic moment of focusing too much on growth and starting to crash, and ending with going back to their creative roots, deciding not to sell and raising debt instead.
It's also very quotable because what they're sharing feels so personal and unique. They explain that in the beginning, they focused on creative long-term marketing plays:
“This content didn't immediately bring us more business, but we did have lots of qualitative evidence that it was working. For one, our team loved the videos and shared them with their friends and family. We also started getting effusive feedback from customers and our audience asking us to cover more topics.”
The reader feels like they're going on a journey with Wistia as they rise, fall, and get back up again. It's excellently narrated “founder content” and inspirational—the way thought leadership should strive to be.
You may know Velocity Partners from their viral Slideshare, “Crap: the single biggest threat to B2B content marketing.” After publishing this piece about how superfluous, filler content is inundating the web and explaining how to do better than that, they did a follow-up piece about it going viral.
They're great at combining witty, opinionated ideas with designs that make those ideas pop, and this more recent post is no exception. They assert the problem that “stakeholders are ruining your marketing” with dynamic slides that move as you scroll. It doesn't look like your typical blog post, but the easy-to-read design makes the solution for those old-school stakeholders easier to understand.
It's also very quotable. They explain, “Senior executives are over-ruling the people who do think about the new kinds of marketing. A lot. Every day. And have done for years.”
They explain the disconnect between old-school marketing and new and that it's your job as a marketer to get stakeholders aligned—then they give some frameworks and solutions to do that, such as a structure for a strategy statement.
They're not necessarily saying anything out of the ordinary by stressing the importance of building professional relationships based on trust. Still, the way they explain how to do that provides valuable takeaways.
There isn't a way to create a repeatable brief for thought leadership content as you would with SEO content briefs, but you can use the following questions as a way to brainstorm content ideas.