What Is Thought Leadership? Definition, Examples, and Tips

Writer:
Ellie Diamond
Published: Feb 05, 2024
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Thought leadership is a powerful technique for cutting through the noise of content marketing, and it's a possibility for any business with insights to share.

Who are the top thinkers in your industry? In digital marketing, there's Neil Patel, an influencer and entrepreneur who publishes some of the highest-ranking marketing content online. Personal finance has Dave Ramsey, whose podcast reaches 16 million listeners each week. Search engine optimization (SEO) has Brian Dean, the creator of Backlinko. These professionals have become household names because of their innovative ideas and ability to communicate them to the world.

What Is Thought Leadership?

Thought leadership is a content marketing tactic establishing an organization and/or individual as a valuable industry resource. The leadership strategy often centers around a particular person, such as an executive or subject matter expert. Still, a company can establish itself as an active thought leader by sharing valuable insights from various contributors.

A company's thought leaders share their knowledge and thoughts about current industry developments. They inspire others to think differently about the work they do, and they spark conversations about current and future trends.

Thought leaders usually speak to other experts in a specialized field, but it's possible to create thought leadership for a general audience. The ultimate goal is to establish the thought leader as a valuable source of insight and guidance within an industry.

Why Is Thought Leadership Valuable?

Genuine thought leadership benefits the sponsoring organization and its audiences. It moves an entire industry forward while boosting the authority and reputation of a company or individual.   

Benefits for the Industry

As sales entrepreneur Jake Dunlap told Business News Daily, thought leaders "set the pace for the industry."

Any content creator can have strong opinions on an industry's current trends or interpret popular statistics. A thought leader, however, stands back, looks at what's going on behind the noise, and considers what it might mean for the future. They voice their views or answer the biggest questions relevant to their field of expertise.

Through those insights, a true thought leader highlights two things:

  1. What's most important for an industry today
  2. What's likely to come next

Those ideas spark discussion and reflection among readers. In time, that reflection leads to experimentation and action, generating progress and more ideas. Those ideas track directly back to the original thought leadership content.

Benefits for Audiences

According to a 2021 study by LinkedIn and Edelman, 54% of B2B decision-makers spend more than an hour a week engaging with thought leadership content. More than half say they spend more time with it than before the pandemic.

Survey responders engage with thought leadership content to:

  • Stay current with the latest industry thinking (71%)
  • Find inspiration for original ideas (71%)
  • Learn about trends that impact their business (68%)
  • Understand current trends (65%)

Discovering new products or services also ranks on the list, but much lower at 47%. The message is clear — audiences seek out thought leadership content that helps them stay ahead of their industry.

Quality thought leadership content helps audiences stop reacting to the same patterns that drive their competitors and start thinking proactively. It gives them a professional edge that keeps them coming back for more.

Impacts on Sales and Reputation

According to LinkedIn and Edelman, 64% of buyers find thought leadership content more trustworthy than marketing and sales material in terms of evaluating a company's capabilities.

The content affects purchasing decisions, as evidenced by survey responders:

  • 42% invited the thought leader's organization to bid on a project.
  • 48% chose to do business with the organization.
  • 54% bought a product or service that they hadn't considered before.

In each of these cases, thought leadership directly contributed to the sponsoring organization's bottom line. Meanwhile, because a thought leader consistently provides these high-value takeaways, audiences come to associate the thought leader with expertise and insight. This kind of reputation can lead buyers toward the thought leader long after the decision-maker engages with their content.

Content Formats To Establish an Authoritative Voice

Many people associate thought leadership content with in-depth articles and white papers, but those are only a few of the options available. Let's ditch the stodgy B2B marketing trends stereotype, shall we? Today's thought leaders are serving up knowledge and original insights in a smorgasbord of formats fit for even the busiest minds. 

The way people choose to consume this information boils down to personal preference. Among Edelman and LinkedIn survey respondents, 56% favor thought leadership content they can read, while 44% prefer something they can listen to or watch. Producing content in multiple formats allows thought leaders to reach more people and convey their expertise in different ways.

Thought leadership can take the same forms as any other type of content. To keep up with the latest industry trends and spice up your B2B storytelling strategy in 2024, some of the most prevalent thought leadership formats include:

  • Video content: Webinars, interviews, and explainer videos help business leaders convey complex concepts with data visualizations, showcasing their brand personality and fostering human connection. A recent study by Wyzowl found that up to 96% of marketers consider video a valuable marketing tool. 
  • In-depth content: This concept refers to white papers, research reports, and ebooks that help disseminate data-driven insights, intellectual leadership, and industry expertise. A 2023 Content Marketing Institute report shows that 59% of B2B marketers favored this type of original content in the past 12 months. 
  • Snackable content: Bite-sized, high-quality content has become essential in any well-respected thought leadership strategy, with 60% of B2B marketers in the U.S. naming it their top choice in 2023. Thought leader articles, blog posts, infographics, and social media posts empower you to amplify your brand voice, boosting audience engagement.
  • Interactive Content: Quizzes, assessments, and calculators are perfect tools for business leaders to provide their target audiences with personalized value and actionable insights. These examples of B2B interactive content also help with data collection, enabling B2B strategists to gather valuable information about customer preferences, behaviors, and needs. Interactive content offers a unique blend of engagement and lead generation. Data reveals that an impressive 91% of B2B buyers prefer this type of format over the rest.
  • Podcasts and audio content: The growing listenership for this content type presents a valuable opportunity for business leaders to stay relevant. Podcasts are one of those sustainable leadership marketing trends that enable you to engage in in-depth conversations, share hot takes, and provide on-the-go learning experiences, nurturing trust and rapport with your audience.

While thought leadership content must be supported by research or expert observations to carry weight, it doesn't always have to read like a scholarly paper. The tone of a piece should be on-brand and suitable for the audience reading it.

Not sure which camp your readers and viewers fall into? Experiment a bit with new thought leadership material. Find out if more detail means more engagement or if your readers prefer more concise summaries. 

Every audience will be different, so you'll want to tailor content based on what resonates and who you want to attract. When in doubt, leverage subject matter expert reviews to gauge the effectiveness of your approach.

Expert Knowledge Pieces as Part of a Content Marketing Strategy

Thought leadership doesn't stand on its own — it functions as an integral part of your content marketing plan. Crafting expert knowledge pieces establishes your brand as an authoritative voice, attracting and engaging key decision-makers and influencers who elevate your ideas beyond mere content marketing trends.

Some of the content creation tactics you can follow as a thought leader to strengthen your position are: 

  • Going beyond expertise: Thought leadership requires pushing further. It's about challenging industry assumptions, proposing new frameworks, and sparking constructive debate. Don't just tell your audience what you know; show them how your knowledge can shape innovative solutions, drive meaningful change, and inspire fresh perspectives within your industry.
  • Building a community of thinkers: Thought leadership flourishes in dialogue. Create platforms, like exclusive webinars or invite-only forums, where you can exchange ideas with and learn from other key decision-makers and influencers. Collective learning fosters deeper engagement and amplifies the reach of your insights.
  • Innovating in the way you tell stories: As mentioned earlier, dry lectures and dense reports are unlikely to grab anyone's attention these days. Use compelling content narratives, relatable case studies, and vivid examples to make your thought leadership captivating and memorable.
  • Experimenting with diverse formats: Thought leadership should always cater to different learning styles and preferences. Luckily, you can explore blog posts, white papers, infographics, video explainers, and even interactive quizzes until you find what clicks with your audience the most. According to Edelman and LinkedIn respondents, 41% of thought leadership audiences prefer denser, more information-rich content created for industry experts. The remaining 59% prefer "primer-style" content with concise takeaways and fewer details.
  • Collaborating and co-creating: Cross-pollination of knowledge enriches your content and expands your reach. That's why it's always a good idea to partner with other experts in your field in conducting joint interviews, co-writing articles, or co-hosting webinars.

The goals of thought leadership in content marketing are to highlight credibility and establish the brand as a leader. Helpful content that achieves these goals will be noticeably higher-level and focus on ideas rather than marketing a brand and its products/services. Remember, the key to creating impactful knowledge pieces is to offer genuine value.

While it's possible to add this kind of insightful content to an existing blog, podcast, or social media platform, it's best to showcase it in new materials tailored to audiences that engage with thought leadership. This lets you market your insights specifically to an audience of experts and establish your thought-provoking content hubs as a go-to location for innovative thinkers. 

9 Great Thought Leaders and Leadership Content Examples

Great thought leadership stands out. It has an air of authority and focuses on innovation, and it draws people who appreciate that kind of thinking. Ready to be inspired? Below, we've got some great examples to show you — not just top-notch thought leadership content but also some seriously impressive thought leaders who have made history in their fields:

1. Ann Handley: The World's First Chief Content Officer

A pioneer in the digital age, Ann Handley has shattered the mold of the traditional CMO, becoming the world's first Chief Content Officer (CCO). She's rewritten the marketing rulebook, and her groundbreaking strategies basically ignited the content creation firestorm that continues to blaze across industries.

Forbes recognizes Ann Handley as a top thought leader, a reputation that aligns with her tangible influence. Through MarketingProfs, where she's head of marketing, she's helped train a generation of content creators, turning marketing into a movement and not just another corporate department.

Ann's books have been translated into 19 languages, showcasing her global impact on the marketing industry. "Everybody Writes" and "Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More)" are gospel for anyone who wants to craft original content that clicks, converts, and captivates.

Handley has built a vibrant community online as a LinkedIn influencer with a large following on social media platforms like Twitter. She's also a keynote speaker — the kind that leaves audiences empowered and ready to make magic happen. By sharing her knowledge across formats and channels, Ann has positioned herself as an authority that continues to inspire and motivate marketers who seek to make it as thought leaders in their own right.

2. ZenDesk: A Blog Full of Cutting-Edge Thinking and Research

ZenDesk is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) customer relationship management company. Its blog page includes a high concentration of quality thought leadership exploring topics like digital trust and AI chatbots. Readers of these articles instantly see relevant statistics, case studies, and takeaways relevant to building cutting-edge customer experiences.

The ZenDesk blog features articles as well as downloadable white papers reporting on internal research. One recent paper on CX maturity sums up thought leadership in this area beautifully: To help CX leaders at small- and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) identify where they stand and build a roadmap for the future, Zendesk partnered with ESG Research to build a framework around CX maturity and CX success.

This paper has a target audience, authoritative data, and an actionable takeaway — everything a reader would want from thought leadership content.

3. Deloitte Insights: Using Multiple Voices To Create Authority

Deloitte's Insights blog is an outstanding example of a company using multiple voices to establish itself as a successful thought leader. Deloitte provides professional services to a broad range of industries, from financial services to renewable resources. It's not easy to establish authority in so many sectors, but the Insights blog shows it's possible.

The Insights page features thought leadership in multiple formats, including articles, multimedia research reports, videos, and podcasts. Its in-depth explorations touch on some of today's most cutting-edge and trending topics, including:

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) outcomes
  • Consumer trust and vaccine hesitancy
  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing
  • Quantum computing
  • Climate commitments for corporate entities

Audiences can also download the quarterly Insights Magazine, which features thought leadership on a particular theme. Recent themes have been human-centric business and "leading beyond the disruption" (insights on post-pandemic business leadership).

4. GE's Txchnologist: Tech Leadership and Scientific Progress

GE is more than just lightbulbs and appliances, and its Txchnologist blog aims to prove that to the world. It covers topics across all three of GE's business areas — aviation, healthcare, and renewable energy, power, and digital.

Txchnologist is part of GE's quest to position itself as a leader in tech and scientific progress. It includes pieces from GE creators that cover a wide variety of innovations, including:

  • Growing food-producing plants in space
  • Precision medication delivery through "smart" capsules
  • Machine learning and credit card fraud
  • Advanced ultrasound imaging to visualize blood flow

Articles like these show how thought leadership can appeal to a public audience. They cover highly technical topics but are accessible to non-experts, thanks to high-quality writing and intriguing topics. The approach aligns perfectly with GE's desired public image.

5. Brooklin Nash: B2B Content That Doesn't Have To Be Boring 

As a thought leader, Brooklin Nash has left a mark in the marketing world for his "ahead of its time" B2B content creation perspective. He is a seasoned content strategist and the co-founder of Beam, a content creation agency that specializes in developing expert-driven content for B2B SaaS companies. His dedication to creating high-impact marketing materials and his undeniable ability to push the boundaries of traditional B2B strategies have positioned him as a forward-thinking and influential thought leader in the field.

Nash has worked with an impressive list of B2B SaaS clients and has been featured in various podcasts and interviews, where he shares his insights on content creation and thought leadership. He emphasizes the importance of thought leadership and encourages companies to invest in creating deeper content that adds value to the conversation with an interesting twist rather than just focusing on demand generation. 

6. Nutanix's The Forecast: Forefront Cloud Computing

Cloud computing companies like Nutanix face two challenges to gaining audiences: It's a niche industry, and competition is high. Nutanix responded by creating the engaging and well-received online magazine The Forecast, which covers the many aspects of cloud computing:

  • Technology: Cybersecurity, data management, Internet of Things (IoT), hybrid environments, etc.
  • Business: Digital transformation, enterprise cloud computing, etc.
  • Industry: Innovative developments from real companies
  • Profiles: Interviews and stories featuring the people who drive transformation

Like Deloitte's Insights, The Forecast includes video and podcast content so audiences can engage with thought leadership in their preferred formats. There's also an Executive Spotlight section that highlights individual Nutanix executives, positioning them as leaders and sharing their insights on industry trends.

7. Emma Stratton: A Punchy Positioning and Messaging Win

Emma Stratton, the brain behind Punchy, a consulting and training firm that helps B2B tech companies find their voice, is a positioning and messaging mastermind. She has perfected the Meaningful Message approach, which simplifies the content creation process. 

Her emphasis on clarity over cleverness has made her a valuable asset for companies looking to connect with their customers on a deeper level. Emma has consulted with over 80 businesses, including:

  • Uber
  • Miro
  • Outreach
  • Loom

In addition, Emma has trained more than 500 product marketers from teams at a diverse array of leading companies, such as Oracle, Akamai, Splunk, and Atlassian. Thanks to her innovative vision, she has been featured in various publications and podcasts, including Compete Network, Uplift Content, and Landbot.

8. Philips' Future Health Index: Professional Data-Based Insights

Philips is best known to the public as a manufacturer of consumer products, from electric toothbrushes to car headlights. But for the healthcare industry, Philips is a powerful partner. Philips drives innovations in healthcare technology, informatics, and care systems.

Philips's Future Health Index focuses on the company's healthcare services, and it's geared primarily toward healthcare leaders. It revolves around the data published in the Future Health Index Report, a downloadable resource that shares statistics from surveyed professionals.

The Index also features research-based content on a variety of topics, including:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) in diagnostics
  • Value-based healthcare
  • Access and equity in care delivery

The Future Health Index is geared toward a professional audience, but it's accessible to an educated lay audience as well. Philips is a great example of a company that's strengthening its reputation in a target industry through smart, data-based content.

9. iResearch Services: Meet Thought Leadership Inception

iResearch Services is a thought leadership company whose CEO, Yogesh Shah, has written thought leadership content about thought leadership itself. Think of the movie Inception, but instead of dreams within dreams, imagine a Matryoshka doll representing the concept of thought leadership — each nested piece revealing a new facet of impactful thinking. 

In a Forbes Magazine article Shah wrote, he suggested that, in the next few years, business leaders will start to use thought leadership as a demand-generation tactic that underlines the need for what a company has to offer without being overly sales-oriented. He points out that by building trust with audiences, companies can use thought leadership to highlight specific pain points. It's a thought-provoking prediction for anyone developing long-term thought leadership strategies.

4 Tips for Creating Engaging Content With Your Innovative Ideas

Not all leadership is top-notch. Too many companies have put out poorly researched or insufficiently thought-out content, and buyers can tell the difference. Here's how to create content that resonates well, based on the responses of LinkedIn and Edelman's surveyed buyers.

1. Relate to Your Audience

Almost half of the surveyed decision-makers say that most thought leadership content doesn't consider their needs. To stand out and keep audiences engaged, do some research and find who and what is at the forefront of your industry.

Dive deeply into those topics, but present them in a way that highlights their relevance. Research can be dry, so make an effort to connect with your audience. Keep in mind that 87% of buyers say thought leadership can be intellectually challenging and enjoyable, and 64% want content with a relatable tone.

2. Rock the Boat

Don't be afraid to produce content that touches on unique, under-reported topics. More than four in five Edelman respondents prefer strong thought leadership content that presents challenging, provocative ideas. Approximately 62% of buyers want a focus on current trends, but 38% want thought leadership that discusses the future.

3. Get Specific

Among thought leadership audiences, 77% want subject matter experts talking about specialized topics, as opposed to senior executives discussing business issues. Gain expert insights from people in your industry who can provide original insight and ideas.

4. Share Ideas, Not Advertising

Buyers dislike thought leadership content that is unoriginal, too sales-y, and too corporate. Those types of content have their place, but it isn't in thought leadership. Trust that creating unique, valuable content will lead to success.

How We Can Help You Get Established as an Industry Expert

Everybody wants to become a thought leader in the B2B industry, aspiring to not only share insights but also to shape and influence the conversations that drive innovation and progress. However, achieving this coveted status requires an ongoing commitment to consistently providing valuable perspectives, guiding others, and being at the forefront of industry advancements.
If you're getting started in your thought leadership journey, crafting expert-fueled, thought-provoking materials is vital for success. That's why you need to hire writers with a genuine passion for knowledge-sharing, a keen understanding of market trends, and the ability to articulate unique viewpoints that resonate deeply with your target audience.

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