The term “thought leadership” is a fairly new one in the marketing world.
To be perfectly honest, there are a million different names for what this marketing method is called. Some people call it “staying top of mind.” Some people call it “personal branding.” And some people just straight up call it PR. But there’s something unique about the term “thought leadership,” and that’s because it’s not a destination or a title.
It’s an action.
To be “a leader of thoughts” is essentially just a funny way of saying “I actively participate in conversations.” That’s it. And where so many companies, founders, executives, and industry experts go wrong is they think thought leadership is something they can buy. They mistake thought leadership with a press feature, or a high-performing ad, or being on a publication list written by a columnist. But that’s not what thought leadership is, and it’s certainly not what it does for your business.
What actively participating in conversations surrounding your industry does for you and your company is simple: it shows that you’re present. It shows that you’re reachable, that you’re connected, that you’re in tune and you’re paying attention. And while these might seem like small, almost inconsequential things, the long-term impact these efforts can have on the growth of your ventures is, well, immeasurable.
Let me explain how. Here are 6 marketing challenges every single company faces, and how thought leadership not only solves them, but builds your company profile as a result:
1. Every company struggles to be taken seriously.
What is the number one reason people don’t buy a product or service?
Is it price? Is it quality? Is it the 30-day guarantee?
Actually, it’s none of these things. The number one reason people don’t buy a product or service is because of trust. People want to know the thing they’re spending money on is going to deliver on their expectations.
For new companies, especially (although there are plenty 10+ year old companies that struggle with this too), trust is what stands in the way between you and your next customer. And how can you expect them to trust you when a simple Google search makes them feel uneasy? Maybe you, the founder, just got introduced to a potential client through a friend. Well, what do you think that potential client is going to do, before they even hop on the phone with you?
That’s right. They’re going to search your name. They’re going to search your company’s name. And if all they can find is a website covered in vague copywriting—”We tell human stories for people-centric brands” (what…?)—they’re going to walk into that call hesitant. And that’s if they take your call at all.
Compare that to a different scenario: you get introduced to a potential client, and they search your name on Google. What comes up are dozens of dozens of different articles, written by you, published across a wide variety of different publications, each one covering a topic that’s interesting, insightful, and even helpful for that target client. How different do you think that phone conversation is going to go?
I’ll tell you: that prospective client is going to hop on the phone and open with the phrase, “Well, I looked you up, and you seem like the right person to talk to.” I know because this happens to me about once a week, every week, 52 weeks a year, all because of the vast library of written content and thought leadership I’ve built for myself over the past few years. And I’ve proven this method works because my agency, Digital Press, works with 50+ founders and C-level executives, speakers, authors, investors, and industry experts, all over the world, doing the same exact thing.
In its simplest form: if customer relationships are built on trust, then thought leadership allows you to “scale” the trust that comes through a personal, 1 on 1 connection.
2. Every company wants inbound customers.
People know content marketing works. This is a fact.
The problem is, 99.8% of people have absolutely no idea how to do content marketing effectively. They think they need to start a company blog. Or they say, “We should start blogging on Medium.” Or they hire an SEO firm to write dozens of keyword-stuffed articles for their site. Or they hire a PR firm to “give them exposure” (we’ll demystify that one, specifically, here in a moment).
None of those tactics work.
I’ve been writing online since I was 17 years old, back when blogging was considered a weird basement hobby only people with seven cats did. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing content online (in the 10+ years I’ve been at this), it’s that quality is the single most important piece of the puzzle.
Unfortunately, most people aren’t writers. Actually, knowing how and what to write about online is a whole craft in itself. And if you think that marketing manager you just hired has any clue what they’re doing, just ask them how many views they’ve gotten on their own personal content. When they tell you, “Well, I don’t do it for myself, I do it for other people,” then you know you’ve got a fake on your hands. And the reason why is simple: only people who have done it for themselves truly know what goes into writing content that resonates on the Internet.
I have over 50 million organic views on my own writing.
Thought leadership, then, is the art of understanding how to speak on your industry in a way that is engaging, and both timely and timeless. It’s not about chasing what’s trending on Twitter, but it’s also not about spending 8 weeks on a masterpiece of an article. Staying at the forefront of your industry, and positioning yourself accordingly, is about blending quality with long-term consistency.
And when you’re able to do that, you become the go-to voice for your industry as a whole—which leads to a whole lot of people reaching out to you, directly.
3. Every company wants exposure.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard the phrase, “We just need to get an article in <
First of all, for your information, publications don’t drive that kind of exposure for individual articles. In fact, the average article on a major publication receives around ~500-1,000 views. That’s a far cry from instant Internet fame and fortune. (And the reason I know that is because I’ve written 409 columns for Inc Magazine, directly, and have written extensively about my viewership data.)
Second of all, spikes of exposure aren’t the kind you want to build your business around.
I remember a few years ago, I was having coffee with an entrepreneur friend of mine, and he said he’d been invited onto a major TV morning show. Immediately, I said, “Congrats man! When is it going to happen?”
He said, “Happen? I told them no way!”
At the time, I didn’t understand why on earth he would turn an opportunity like that down, and honestly, I still feel like he should have taken it regardless. But his rationale was that this morning show would drive TONS of exposure—too much to handle, actually. He worried that, with his newfound business, if all of a sudden thousands of people wanted what he had to offer, he wouldn’t be able to give each of them the right kind of experience.
I’m sure this is where you say, “Yeah well, I’m different. I would know what to do with all that exposure. I would figure it out and succeed.”
Maybe. But growing too fast is also a way businesses die too.
And second, that’s besides the point. The main reason he turned down that opportunity was because he didn’t want to build a business around one Hail Mary pass. As quickly as a flood of customers or clients can come through the door, they can leave just as quickly (especially if you aren’t prepared to handle them all effectively). So building a thought leadership strategy around “going viral” or landing some huge exposure opportunity perpetuates the wrong mentality—and an unstable business reliant upon home runs.
By consistently participating in your industry, sharing what you know, adding value, and positioning yourself and your leadership team as experts, you are creating a longstanding foundation for your company’s message. You are building real authority. You are earning your spot at the table (or, quite literally, your stage at the conference—as many thought leaders end up speaking on behalf of their industry).
When this happens, viral hits or massive exposure opportunities feed what’s already working—as opposed to setting false expectations that never repeat themselves.
4. Every company wants to rank higher on Google.
Do you want to know the secret to ranking on Google?
It’s not the dark magic of keywords. It’s not the unspoken art of back-linking. All these things are tactics you deploy to help your core strategy:
SHARING SOMETHING WORTH READING.
It astounds me how many companies say they want to rank on the first page of Google, but have absolutely no idea what they want to rank for. Their company name, I guess? Okay, but what good is that when your customer still isn’t going to have their primary question answered: “Why should I trust you?”
No, what you want to rank for are insights, problems and solutions, questions and answers. You want someone (your target customer or client) to turn to Google with a question or concern, and for you to appear as the solution they’ve been searching for.
And when I say “solution,” I don’t mean “the name of your company.”
That’s not a solution.
A solution is, quite literally, a piece of content, an article or video, that answers the reader or viewer’s questions in a way where they walk away feeling smarter, more knowledgable, empowered, and most of all, trusting of you.
Now, imagine if that article (or video) came from you, the company founder, or the Chief Marketing Officer, or someone else from your leadership team. Imagine I had a question about how artificial intelligence works, and the CTO of an AI company was the one saying, “Here’s everything you need to know—and here are a few crazy stories I’ve picked up along my own journey that will show you how all of these works even more.”
You would be amazed! You would be fascinated. You’d probably go on to read another one of their articles, and another one. And then maybe you’d share one with a friend. And then you’d come back a few days later to see if they’d shared anything new—see if they’d told any new stories. Until one day, you find yourself as a tech conference, and you see they’re going to be the 1:00 p.m. speaker, and you absolutely make it a priority to hear them speak.
That, right there, is how thought leadership is built.
Not by paying an SEO firm out of Bulgaria to get you more backlinks on your home page.
5. Every company has a hard time hiring the right people.
Want to know how to hire quality talent?
Think of your company’s mission as a flag you plant in the ground. When people who care about the same things you do, who want to work toward similar goals and solve similar problems in the world, they see that flag and say to themselves, “That’s the team I want to be part of.”
But unless you’re sharing what it is you’re working on, why you’re working on it, and why it matters within the context of your entire industry, on a regular basis, nobody is going to see your flag.
Thought leadership is you, waving your flag in the air, day and night.
Now, this might seem like a tedious task. To which I’d challenge you and say, isn’t that the whole point of being a founder? If you decided to take it upon yourself to start a company, didn’t you do it because you had a mission and something you believed in? Yes? Well then why aren’t you talking about that mission, living and breathing what it is you’re working toward, all the time?
Here’s a brutal truth about thought leadership marketing: it takes work, and it requires a level of dedication most people can’t fathom when it comes to their company messaging.
…But do you want to know what happens when you lead your company this way?
…Do you want to know what the ROI is?
For starters, all the people you want to hire will come to you. Imagine that. Instead of you having to pay a recruiting firm to go out and find you the people you say you want, the developers, the designers, the marketers, the copywriters, the leaders will all come out of the woodwork and gravitate to you and your mission.
Why? Because they read your content all the time.
You are living and breathing the mission that already exists within themselves—they’re just looking for someone to follow.
6. Every company needs help transmuting their company culture into an outward-facing company message.
What is a company’s message?
Well, as a writer, a ghostwriter, and a copywriter, I can tell you that after working with hundreds of extremely successful companies on their messaging, I can tell you that an effective message is all about one thing:
The problem you’re solving.
So many companies and brands think their company message is all about them. They think their messaging strategy needs to be about the new products their launching, how great their services are, how amazing their team is, how long they’ve been in business for, etc. But all of these roads, although somewhat important, are not and should not be the focal point.
In fact, most people honestly don’t care. And the only times they do care is after you’ve earned their trust.
So, how do you build trust?
You focus your entire message (and mission) around solving a problem (or lengthy list of problems).
Let me give you an example:
Let’s say Company A’s message goes something like this: “We are an incredible new software tool. We were named one of the top companies to work with in 2018 by <insert major publication here>. And our team has 20+ years of experience in this industry. Click here to request your free demo!”
That’s all fine and dandy. But now compare with Company B’s message:
“We believe the only thing between you and your next big idea is the next unproductive meeting you have to sit through. In fact, after surveying 1,000 companies and their meeting habits, we realized a huge problem: some of the best ideas in the entire company go unnoticed, solely because of the way meetings are run. We see that as a problem. And you, the creative thinker, deserve a more effective way of sharing your next “ah-hah” moment with the people who can help bring it to life.”
Now, be honest… in Company B’s message, did you find yourself sitting there reading it and saying to yourself, “Blah, blah, you’re selling to me,” like you did with Company A’s? No?
The reason is because Company B isn’t trying to sell you on something. In fact, they’re selling you by not selling anything at all—and that’s what hooks you in. They’re just pointing out all the things you, their target customer, is struggling with. They’re reinforcing that they understand you, that they know the issues you’re experiencing inside and out. And by showing you how well they understand you, you inherently trust them as a result.
Now, take that one step further, and imagine that message came from the founder, or the CTO, CFO, CMO, etc.
Imagine right after you showed how much you understood your customer and the pain points you were experiencing, you went into a story about how you learned those very same things: “When I was 22 years old, I was just like you. I had just graduated from college and had big ideas I wanted to share with the world. That was, until I walked into my first job, and sat through my first grueling 60 minute meeting where absolutely nothing got done. All of a sudden, I saw years of my life (and all my best ideas) go completely down the drain, all because of a lack of productivity.”
Obviously, everyone’s voice is different, so the above example might not “sound” like you—but that’s not the point. Every voice is different (and we work with a LOT of different types of voices at Digital Press), but the intention is always the same: to show your prospective customers and clients that you understand them as people.
When you can do that, you don’t need a catchy tagline.
You don’t need dozens of press releases, or clever marketing campaign.
Your company message becomes a mission people can rally behind—because it’s entirely focused around a problem millions of people are experiencing.
And when people feel like your mission is to solve the problem they’re experiencing, they not only trust you, but they buy from you.