Building an Effective Thought Leadership StrategyMay 15, 2023
Image credit: DALL-E, prompt "a 1960s realistic art deco painting depicting the concept of a brilliant leader using primary colors FF5832 and DBFE31"
In the early days of my last company, we identified an opportunity to leverage a thought leadership strategy to drive our visibility and growth. The strategy, which became known as “The Next CMO”, was one of the most successful thought leadership strategies that I have seen. But it didn’t start out that way. It took us some time to find our voice and refine the strategy.
I’ve assembled this guide based on my experience building successful thought leadership programs, and learning from some mistakes along the way.
What is a thought leadership strategy anyway?
A thought leadership strategy is a marketing approach that is designed to establish your company (or certain key “thought leaders” within your organization) as an authority on topics that are relevant to your target audience. The strategy can be used to achieve many different objectives, including to create a positive brand image in the market that you serve, drive awareness for your brand (directly or indirectly), engage your audience, and create demand for your product or service.
While a thought leadership strategy typically leverages content marketing, it should not be confused with a content marketing strategy. The central focus of a thought leadership strategy is establishing the brand or individuals associated with the brand as authorities on certain topic domains. As a result, quality of content vs. quantity of content is very important. And even though content creation is central to a thought leadership strategy, there are other marketing approaches that are involved, including paid media (to amplify the visibility and authority), influencer relations (to establish your thought leaders as key influencers in the domain), digital marketing, event marketing, or any other type of marketing approach that you be used to further the goals of your thought leadership program.
The elements of an effective thought leadership strategy
Like any strategy that is central to your plan, a thought leadership strategy deserves a comprehensive assessment of what it will take to be successful for your organization. Before you dive in, make sure you consider the following elements in your plan.
A well-defined target audience
The crisper the target audience, the more likely you are to engage them with relevant content. If you market to multiple audiences (which is common for B2B marketers), start by targeting a single audience. For example, if you sell financial planning software, you might market to the CFO, the head of FP&A, and the IT department (as influencers and approvers).
In this case, you would want to choose to target either the CFO or the head of FP&A. So which one should you choose? If the ultimate decision maker is the CFO, it may seem like that is the right decision. But CFOs can be quite difficult to target, and the head of FP&A may be the person who is easier to reach, and also can play an outsized relationship in the decision process.
Another approach is what I call “aspirational targeting,” or targeting the people who are aspiring to achieve the next level in their career. When using aspirational targeting, you would craft the message for the CFO audience in this case, but you would target the message to the head of FP&A. The theory is that ambitious FP&A leaders are interested in content that is designed for the CFO.
We used this approach quite a bit for The Next CMO campaign. We had CMO decision makers, but we also targeted heads of demand generation, digital marketing, and marketing operations. In some cases, we specifically called out “current and aspiring CMOs” as the target audience, especially in our podcast series.
Real expertise (owned, not rented)
This may be a controversial take, but I don’t believe in outsourcing thought leadership. If it is fundamental to your strategy, you need to have that expertise inside the company. For my last company, Plannuh, it was pretty simple because we had deep expertise in marketing leadership inside the company. I wrote a large amount of the content myself, along with my co-founder and CMO, Scott Todaro, who has been a CMO 7 times and even taught marketing at the University of Massachusetts.
But you don’t always have the luxury of working in a company where you are the domain expert. For example, when I was the CMO at Nuance Communications, a leading provider of voice recognition and AI, we had two major thought leadership programs. One was a program promoting our technical and scientific leadership in AI technologies. For that program, we tapped into our research team, and leaned heavily on our CTO, Vlad Sejnoha, who was (and still is) a leading voice in AI.
We ran another thought leadership campaign in our healthcare division, and to support that campaign, the division hired several full time doctors who typically used the “other CMO title,” Chief Medical Officer. These physicians wrote content, supported sales engagements, demonstrated our products (which came in especially handy when demonstrating healthcare voice recognition and you needed to rapidly speak technical medical jargon that actually made sense to other doctors), provided product feedback, and spoke at conferences.
You may be tempted to “rent” expertise because it is less expensive than hiring a deep expert in your field full time, but then you have to ask yourself why you don’t have this expertise inside the company. If it doesn’t make sense to hire a deep expert, then you should consider an alternative marketing strategy, because it is required for a real thought leadership program.
A clear point of view
Keep in mind that your thought leadership program operates a bit like a branding campaign. The most effective way to establish a leading point of view is to be clear and consistent with the message. In most domains, it is difficult to establish a leading voice if you try to cover the subject too broadly.
In the case of our thought leadership at Plannuh, the content that we developed wasn’t attempting to cover every part of marketing. Our focus was on the areas of marketing we called “operational marketing leadership,” including planning, financial management, ROI optimization, and communication of marketing results to an executive audience. The central point of view we established was that “marketing leaders need to be more operationally (and financially) rigorous to be successful.”
If you don’t believe the message, don’t publish it. That may seem obvious, but many companies have failed by promoting a message that they don’t fundamentally believe. When identifying the right spokesperson for your thought leadership program, it is critically important to make sure that they are aligned with - and deeply believe in - the point of view that you are taking as a company.
When Scott and I were starting Plannuh, we spent a lot of time making sure that we actually believed in the same things. We further refined those beliefs when we worked together to draft the first version of our book, “The Next CMO: A Guide to Operational Marketing Excellence.” The exercise of writing down - and aligning to - a detailed outline of your beliefs was incredibly valuable in our process.
What happens if the message is inauthentic? First of all, your audience will see right through you. As your program grows, you will have the opportunity to deeply engage with your audience, and some of them will challenge your message. The other issue with authenticity is stamina. Your key spokesperson (or people) need to consistently create, communicate, adapt, and extend the message. If they don’t have a passion for the topic, the pace will crush their will.
The “leadership” part of your thought leadership doesn’t just mean “first,” it means “best.” In other words, your content should contain original new thought, and it should adhere to strong quality standards. You won’t establish your leadership if you simply curate content from others, and you will quickly erode your reputation if you deliver content that just isn’t good enough.
Maintaining high quality standards sometimes means that you need to pace the delivery of new content and wait until it is ready.
Alignment with your value proposition (without being too salesy)
Remember that the business purpose of this type of marketing strategy is to sell more of your products and services. Your program should strike the right balance between being aligned with your core value proposition, without being too promotional. If your content comes off as a sales pitch, your audience will abandon you quickly. And if your content is too far afield from your value proposition, it won’t help you achieve your business goals.
When we wrote “The Next CMO,” we made a conscious decision not to mention our company, Plannuh, outside the biographies of the authors. We thought of the book as a core element of the product roadmap process, it defined the problems we wanted to solve as a company, in their generic form. When we first released the book in the fall of 2020, we had a bit of a problem because our products weren’t mature enough to solve some of the broader problems we addressed in the book, including ROI optimization. We caught up with the product by the end of 2021, but we created some expectations that were difficult to deliver on for a while based on that gap.
Because the book did not directly address the product capabilities, we had to make the connection with our other marketing efforts. For example, our sales team would use the message: “If you resonated with the content in the book, I’d love to show you the product built by the authors to put those principles into practice.”
Thoughtful communication channel selection
As a marketer, you have access to an amazing number of communication channels. That doesn’t mean that all of them are appropriate for your thought leadership strategy. You need to consider the target audience and their preferred channels, but you also need to find the appropriate medium for your message. As an example, if you are communicating a very technical message, short form video might not be the best, even if your audience likes it. Speaking engagements can be effective for some programs, but your key spokespeople need to be comfortable with that format, and you need to factor in other variables like reach and cost.
When we launched The Next CMO, we were in the middle of a global pandemic, so in-person speaking engagements were out of the picture. And our budgets were quite limited as an early stage company, so we had to rule out channels with higher production costs.
In the end, we decided to focus on the book as the core channel because we believed that it would quickly establish our bona fides, assuming that it was reasonably successful. We knew that once we had the book in the market, we could merchandise the content across other channels, like our podcast, webinar series, and community.
Keep in mind that a book isn’t the right answer for everyone. In the last couple of years, there have been many successful marketers and entrepreneurs who have established their leadership using short form video on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube shorts, and other channels.
Before you launch your strategy, there are a few key implementation choices that need to be made.
To make your program memorable, you need to establish some core branding standards. That doesn’t mean that you need to have a unique identity for your program, but you need to establish the way you will communicate. For instance, is the content directly branded with your corporate identity or is it more of a sponsorship brand.
When we first started our thought leadership program at Plannuh, we took a very different approach with the branding. We launched something called the “Marketing NerdsLetter” that leaned into our somewhat wonky approach to the marketing function.
While the NerdsLetter was aligned with our own personalities, it wasn’t communicating the professional image that we wanted to communicate to our audience. We decided to lean into The Next CMO branding because the book was getting quite popular and it had a more acceptable look for a broad audience, as you can see in the branding from one of our podcast episodes below.
If you decide to create a unique brand for your campaign, keep in mind that you need to have a plan to transfer that brand equity over to your company brand at some point. A side benefit of this approach is that you can change the parent brand over time. For The Next CMO, Plannuh was the sponsor for that brand until our company was acquired, and now Planful is the sponsor for the brand.
The other benefit we saw from shifting away from the NerdsLetter branding was that it didn’t rely on individuals as much. There are some great examples of companies who have established a thought leadership brand based on an individual, but you have to evaluate the risk of that person not being available anymore.
The benefits of leveraging a personality, especially a founder, are well documented in Dave Gerhardt’s book, “Founder Brand.” But what happens if the founder leaves? The good news is that founders tend to stick around longer than your average employee, but if you aren’t using a founder for your thought leadership, you should consider an alternative approach.
For The Next CMO, we had the advantage of three authors of the book to use for all of our content. Dan, Scott, and I all contributed meaningfully to the content in the book, and all of us played a role in the development and delivery of derivative content. When Dan left in 2021, we didn’t skip a beat because Scott and I could continue the program. And when I left Planful after the sale of Plannuh, Scott can continue to deliver. And because the program was never built around one person, we can easily add new people to the program over time.
How much does it cost?
How much do you have? One of the most attractive parts of this kind of strategy is that you can implement it with a very limited budget.
When we started The Next CMO, we had a newsletter that we sent out to our HubSpot list. We wrote and produced everything internally, so there was no incremental cost to the program. When we saw the early success and decided to write the book, we made a bigger investment (for us at the time) of about $30,000 to get the book edited, published, and several thousand copies printed. Once we had the core content in place, the ongoing costs were quite limited for our program. We integrated a webinar series, a podcast, and a community, all of which required very limited investment.
Before you get too excited about how inexpensive this can be, you need to consider the effort that went into the production of the content. Our team spent thousands of hours developing the content behind The Next CMO over the years. So if you consider the cost of that time, or the opportunity cost of the time spent by those people, you will see that it is a large, strategic investment of resources.
How long does it take?
Thought leadership is about establishing reputation and brand over time. That means that the value does not immediately get delivered. This is a strategic investment that will take quarters or years of effort to realize. But these programs follow the physics of inertia. With a large mass, it takes time for the program to get moving. But once it is moving, it will stay in motion for a long time and accrue benefits well after you stop investing in the program.
The role of generative AI
It is clear that generative AI will have a massive impact on marketing - and the world - and we are at the very early stages of its acceptance as a business tool. Like all powerful tools, you should understand when to use them and which specific tools are appropriate for the task.
In their current form, generative AI tools can be used for brainstorming, research, summarization, digital imagery creation (note: the banner image for this blog post was created in DALL-E), and more. But they should not be used to create the central ideas you are trying to communicate.
I believe you will be able to make your thought leaders more productive by leveraging these tools, but if you try to create a synthetic thought leader, you will quickly find out that it is difficult to create differentiated ideas when everyone else has access to the same systems.
A thought leadership strategy is a powerful tool that can be used to help you achieve your business goals, but it needs to be targeted, generated by you, real and authentic, high quality, and targeted at the right media for your audience and the content.
It will take time to accrue the real benefits of your investments, but they will pay dividends over time if you thoughtfully create your thought leadership program.