Content Strategy

Taking a Thought Leadership Approach to SEO Content

Camden Gaspar
October 6, 2022

In the age of newsletters, niche communities, and social influencers, thought leadership is ascendent. Having a distinct point of view, legitimate “I’ve-done-the-thing-I’m-talking-about” expertise, and a drive to publish high-quality content is the name of the game. 

So where does that leave good old fashioned “SEO content”?

It’s still there, but its reputation is battered. It’s pejoratively known today as something that mostly gets written by outsourced writers who Google a topic and combine a bunch of articles together, pad it with a few original thoughts, add a dash of product info, and hit publish. 

Yet, the lure of predictable, ongoing traffic from the world’s biggest search engine is too strong. Even in B2B spaces, SEO is an attractive way to reach potential buyers while lowering customer acquisition costs.

That’s why, as content managers/writers/editors/etc., we can sometimes feel caught in between two choices:

  • Write traffic-chasing SEO content that largely mimics what others have written and offers little in the way of a unique POV, information gain, or valuable insight for the reader. It might get lots of traffic, but you wouldn’t necessarily be proud to show it off to a client or prospect.
  • Write thought leadership content that offers those things but doesn’t drive the rankings or repeatable organic traffic you need to hit a number. It speaks to the audience, but only if they can ever find it.

So we ask ourselves…

Is There Something Better?

There is!

During my time as a Content Marketing Manager at both Particle and MarketMuse, I’ve looked for ways out of this dilemma. I’ve tried to elevate our SEO content by infusing it with the things that make good thought leadership shine and engage audiences without sacrificing our ability to drive repeatable organic traffic, and ultimately, results. 

Today, I want to share how I take a thought leadership approach to SEO content. We’ll start by examining the argument against doing so, what tradeoffs are involved in incorporating elements of thought leadership into our SEO content, and some examples of this idea in action.

Mixing Thought Leadership and SEO Content - The Case Against It, The Tradeoffs, and Finding a Way Forward

Before we ask ourselves if we can combine SEO and thought leadership, let’s figure out if we should. Before you try a new approach, it’s worth asking what the case against it might be.

I’ve seen some smart people in the industry argue against mixing thought leadership and SEO content. The argument, as best as I can summarize, goes something along the lines of: 

  • Search content is a medium that seeks to answer questions, provide quick value, and capture demand. Thought leadership is generally more "think piece" style of content where company or industry leaders/experts share their points of view on a topic, challenge assumptions, make predictions, provide frameworks, and so on. 
  • B2B content that’s intended for SEO purposes isn’t the place to challenge assumptions or offer divergent points of view. People are searching to answer questions, learn how to do something quickly, or research solutions. Search should serve, not provoke.
  • While thought leadership content can be relevant by offering viewpoints that speak to key topics in the industry, those topics can't necessarily be associated with a defined "keyword" with trackable search volume. That makes it difficult to predictably generate enough traffic to hit your numbers (demo signups, gated asset downloads, whatever number you’re tied to). Thus, thought leadership is better distributed via email, social, or video rather than search, which will provide low yield.

While I agree that individual pieces of content shouldn't try to be everything to everyone all at once, I don't think the two types here are as mutually exclusive as some make it out to be. 

There’s enough leeway in the framework of SEO content to allow for major opportunities for adding a point of view, unique insights, and even interesting angles without sacrificing optimization. 

Let’s look at some of the defining features of each type of content.

SEO Content vs. Thought Leadership - What Are the Hallmarks of Each?

At Particle, I've overseen the production of "thought leadership" content alongside more typical SEO content. Here’s my take on what makes each of these forms distinct.

SEO Content

SEO content is content that is optimized based on known on-page factors that Google (and intrepid SEO practitioners) have revealed to influence search rankings positively. 

  • Includes clear H1s and H2s that reflect what people are searching for, in the ways they’re searching for it (yes, keywords).
  • Uses lots of subheads within longer sections that make the content easy for users to skim and find value quickly.
  • Reflects the user’s intent. Informational, comparison, purchase - you know the drill.
  • Written with short paragraphs with bolded text to make finding key points easy.
  • Contains internal linking to and from the content that provides search engines signals that show where they can find topically related content on your domain.
  • Optional: A high content score/grade that measures comprehensiveness and topical coverage from your optimization tool of choice.

Yes, there’s more, but these are the staples. SEO content takes the context of the user into consideration. They’re searching for things on Google. They want answers, quick insights, and useful information, and they don’t want to work hard to find it. 

As John-Henry Scherck, owner of leading B2B SEO and content consultancy Growth Plays, has said, the key test of SEO content is “time to value.” Don’t make people hunt. Don’t make them think too hard. Just give them the good stuff. 

Thought Leadership

"Thought leadership” is one of those concepts where everyone knows what it is when they see it, but struggle to define it in a way that's also mutually exclusive with other types of content. 

Here are some of the staples of true thought leadership content. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I think it covers the most important elements.

  • Quotes from industry experts who have points of view and deep insights on your topics/industries and want to articulate them. These people have actually done the thing you’re writing about and can speak to specific examples and knowledge that can’t just be Googled.
  • Questions and topics that people are asking/talking about but don't necessarily map to a specific keyword
  • Data from original research - surveys, product data, etc.
  • Helpful frameworks/ideas that help people go beyond the 101 level of your topics (most SEO content lives on the 101 level).
  • A more journalistic/narrative style that incorporates direct quotes

When I think of taking a thought leadership approach to SEO content, I consider how the above elements can fit into the content in as natural a way as possible. 

You don’t have to shoehorn all of the above into every piece of content, but if you have at least 1-2 of those elements, you can start to weave the hallmarks of thought leadership into your SEO content to elevate it beyond the basic level we’ve come to expect from search content.

Bringing It All Together - Can We Take a Thought Leadership Approach to SEO Content?

We can!

SEO considerations dictate form considerably, and content to a lesser extent. 

You need to speak to the intent of the keyword (and secondary keywords) by answering specific questions or covering specific material. You need to organize it with clear structure. You need to deliver on the promise of your title and subsection titles. 

Side note: The people saying “don’t write SEO content, just write content for people” are taking it too far - these are real considerations that you shouldn’t just throw out if you’re investing in the channel. 

But that’s all about form. And yes, form dictates content, but we can be much more creative and in-depth with that content than what “SEO best practices” allow.

We don’t need to just copy what other articles have done. We don’t need to combine the other top-ranking search results into one frankenstein of an article. We can provide value, have a distinct voice and point of view, and bend the knee to Google only as much as we need to to get results. 

It’s About Tradeoffs

Taking a thought leadership approach to SEO content is really about tradeoffs between high time-to-value and delivering deeper insights/a point of view. That means making compromises for the skimmers and scrollers (and let’s face it, for Google) while still adding enough heft for the engaged readers.

Ultimately, the goal of search-focused content is to serve hurried readers quickly and completely. Give the important value upfront knowing that some people will just want a quick answer. Provide deeper value and support those answers with more substance for the hooked reader. You want to be the piece of content that ends their search.

Thus, I don’t believe that the SEO part of SEO content is something that makes it a distinct type of content, but a set of creative constraints that my content has to honor to drive the results I want. 

How I’ve Taken a Thought Leadership Approach to SEO Content

In this section, I’ll show a few examples of where I’ve tried to strike a balance between both worlds. These are articles I either personally wrote myself or structured and worked with a writer on. I published both with the idea that my content can rank well and educate buyers. 

Example 1: Particle - Cellular vs. WiFi for IoT

Our first example is “Cellular vs. WiFi for IoT: How to Choose the Right One.”

The goal of this piece is to compare these two connectivity technologies and explain how to choose the right one for your IoT product. 

You’ll notice that the article starts with the value frontloaded. We provide a quick comparison of both connectivity technologies on the dimensions that a product leader would be considering. That leads right into a section where we consider the benefits and drawbacks of each technology.

If we stopped there, we’d likely satisfy the user intent and probably rank pretty well for this keyword. But we wanted to go deeper and share use cases to show the technology in action. This gave us an opportunity to draw on our customer stories and share case studies to illustrate the principles laid out in the sections above.

We close out the article with a discussion of “heterogeneous fleets” - IoT fleets that include both cellular and WiFi-connected devices. Again, this is a point that few, if any SERP competitors are talking about. Yet, it’s a pretty critical thing to consider on this topic. Because we had an expert who has helped build said fleets assisting in content creation, we were able to lead the reader from the initial value of having their questions answered to a much more thorough discussion.

Why Does This Work?

We satisfied the user intent by simply providing the answers to the query. But we went much further than the typical SEO content writer might have because we had:

  • Real customer stories to weave into the piece
  • A real expert who can provide insight into how our customers and prospects would actually think about this decision. 

This is why we’re outranking some bigger competitors, plus several publishers in the IoT space. When you’re competing with companies with more money and resources, you can only win by being much better. 

screenshot of Particle article ranking #1 on SERP for 'cellular vs wifi IoT' query

Example 2: MarketMuse - What is Answer Engine Optimization and How Can It Influence Your Content Strategy?

The second example is “What is Answer Engine Optimization and How Can It Influence Your Content Strategy?

Just as in the first example, I frontloaded the answer to the query to match the user intent of the target keyword. You could click into this, get your answer, and move on. 

But if you were inclined to go into more depth, I provided more context around the topic of answer engine optimization (AEO). If you scroll through, you’ll notice I covered the history of AEO, how AEO fits into an overall SEO strategy, and how to build and execute on an AEO strategy.

Why Does This Work?

Again, I frontloaded the value for the skimmers and people who just want quick answers while supporting it with tons of relevant, useful information that someone could apply pretty easily.

The thought leadership elements of the article come into play in that we wrote this post to go head-to-head with a direct competitor whose platform was focused on AEO. Our position was that while AEO can be a part of a content/SEO strategy, it’s not, by itself, enough to win in search. We made that position clear in the section titled “Answer Questions, But Cover the Whole Buyer’s Journey” and took a direct shot at said competitor, while showing how our approach to content made more sense. 

We were able to get similar results as the first example:

screenshot of MarketMuse article ranking #1 on SERP for 'answer engine optimization' query

SEO Content Doesn’t Have to Be Bland

I’ll be the first to say that there’s so much that can be done by taking a thought leadership approach to content, and I certainly don’t have all the answers yet. But I refuse to believe that we have to choose between traffic-chasing, bland “SEO content” and thought leadership that doesn’t deliver consistent results. 

If I can leave you with anything, it’s that you should look at SEO content and thought leadership as fundamentally the same in terms of the quality requirements. Leverage your experts, find an angle that represents your point of view, serve your readers AND the channel with the value they expect to get, and surprise them with what they didn’t expect. 

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