illustration of a lightbulb in a thought bubble above other thought bubblesAs my colleague, Carol Williams, said recently in a WriterGirl Word of the Week video, “There are a lot of thoughts about what thought leadership is.”

It’s true. Google “thought leadership” and you get over 19 million search results. It seems everyone is considering how they can use thought leadership to set themselves apart.

And positioning people within your organization as thought leaders can pay off in terms of high-profile recognition. Modern Healthcare, for example, publishes an annual list of healthcare’s top 100 influencers.

So, what is thought leadership and what makes a good thought leadership strategy?

Defining thought leadership

It may be easier to understand what thought leadership is by knowing what it isn’t. Thought leadership is not self-serving, salesy content. And it’s not a proclamation of your expertise on a specific topic.

Instead, thought leadership is about positioning yourself as an authority on topics relevant to the audience you’re trying to reach. This is done through content creation that introduces innovative ideas and new thinking. It’s done by answering the biggest questions on the minds of those to whom you’re speaking.

Thought leadership vs. content marketing

You might be asking how thought leadership differs from content marketing? MarketingProfs contributor Daniel Rosehill says the two can work together, but that they are not the same.

Whereas content marketing provides helpful information or solutions — often with the end goal of selling something or generating business — thought leadership offers insights and original ideas to nurture relationships or create new ones. It builds your reputation as an innovator and can influence the direction of your specific industry.

I think of thought leadership as more of a long game.

Rosehill says another significant difference between thought leadership and content marketing is the setting in which one or the other is used. While content marketing is used in both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) settings, thought leadership is typically reserved for B2B.

>>Learn the difference between content marketing, marketing strategy and other key marketing terms in this marketing glossary.

3 organizational requirements for a successful thought leadership strategy

Before you spend time building a thought leadership strategy, you’ll want to be sure you have several things in place to support your work.

1. Unique ideas to share

What is your organization doing that truly sets it apart? Look to awards you’ve received (U.S. News or Healthgrades may be places to start) or benchmark your organization against others to find out where you have an edge.

You could also identify people within your organization conducting research or developing new products and learn more about their thinking and what they are willing to share that can be included in your thought leadership strategy.

2. Willing participants

Authentic relationships are built around people. You’ll want to be sure to identify someone or several people who can represent the expertise within your organization across a range of thought leadership content types. Your organization’s public face may be its CEO, but that’s not necessarily a requirement for a good thought leadership strategy. Regardless, the person or people you identify should have credibility and the ability to interact with others in a way that builds trust.

3. Staff to support content creation and distribution

Once you have ideas to share, you’ll need to create the right kind of content and plan for its distribution. But high-level leaders within your organization don’t often have the time to create their own articles, blog posts or other thought leadership content. It’s important you identify someone (or a team of people, depending on your organization’s size) to create approved content and handle its distribution.

>>Never written for your CEO? Learn some ghostwriting tips and tricks

Elements of a successful thought leadership strategy

It’s tempting to think of thought leadership simply as content on your website, but a successful thought leadership strategy goes beyond a web article. The search engine optimization (SEO) company First Page Sage outlines several must-haves in its thought leadership strategy guide. These include:

  • An optimized and content-filled blog or landing page. While labor-intensive, a page filled with thought leadership content can signal your authority to targeted audiences. And by building in the right keywords — and thinking through what your audience might be asking about and searching for — you can be sure your content shows up high in web searches.
  • Public speaking. Don’t stop at blog posts and articles. Find other places for your thought leaders to share their ideas. If this is something new to your organization and its thought leaders, start small. Consider applying to speak at small trade organizations, for example. As your thought leaders gain experience and hone their presentation, consider larger groups or conferences. Or, reach for the ultimate thought leadership opportunity: a TED talk.
  • Original research. Thought leadership is about advancing conversations. To do this, you’ll want to build on original thinking. Work to develop case studies or surveys that back up claims you make or add interesting elements to your thought leadership. Emory Healthcare, for example, publishes case studies highlighting unique patient stories and treatment techniques.
  • Social media. Social media is a key dissemination tool for your thought leadership content, but be careful about how you use it. Whether you’re sharing content on your organization’s channels or your thought leader is sharing it on their personal profiles, understand how your audience uses and engages with you on your social channels. Then consider how you can target your messages to small groups with specific interests.
  • Media relations. If you’ve done the legwork to build meaningful thought leadership content, the right media relations strategy can help you generate third-party endorsements of your authority on specific topics. Your organization’s thought leader could be the go-to resource for reporters who want an expert to weigh in on a news story.
  • Old-fashioned networking. Networking, like public speaking, offers you the in-person opportunity to build trust and share ideas.

Don’t forget your internal audience

Reaching your target audience is critical to thought leadership success, but don’t forget that your own employees can support your overall strategy. Sharing thought leadership content internally can support your brand and advance your messaging. This was a key takeaway shared by Johnny Smith Jr., former senior director of marketing and communications at Ascension Health, during a Q&A with Healthcare Success CEO Stewart Gandolf.

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What you can expect

When thoughtfully created, a thought leadership strategy can position your organization as a trusted authority, support your broader marketing efforts and create goodwill. While the payoff of thought leadership work might not be as instant and measurable as traditional content marketing, the gains you can make over the long term will be worth the up-front effort.

Thinking of creating or updating your thought leadership strategy? WriterGirl can help. Reach out any time to learn more.