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What Is Thought Leadership? Definition and Examples

By: Brandon Woods — November 29, 2021

Thought leadership is a powerful technique 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.

the thinking statue

What Is Thought Leadership?

Thought leadership is a content marketing tactic establishing an organization and/or individual as a valuable industry resource. The strategy often centers around a particular person, such as an executive or subject matter expert, but 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 increasing the industry presence of a company or individual.

Benefits for the Industry

As sales entrepreneur Jake Dunlap said to Business News Daily, thought leaders “set the pace for the industry.

Any content creator can comment 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 give their opinions or answer the biggest questions relative 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, as 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 engaged with their content.

Types of Thought Leadership Content

Many people associate thought leadership with in-depth articles and white papers, but those are only a few of the options available. Today’s thought leadership content is often more easily consumable and can be presented in a variety of formats to suit audience preferences.

Content Formats: Reading, Viewing, and Listening

Among Edelman and LinkedIn survey respondents, 56% prefer 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, such as:

  • White papers
  • eBooks
  • Podcasts
  • Videos
  • Webinars

The difference is thought leadership’s ability to share new ideas and spark innovation, instead of just participating in the current buzz.

Tone and Style

Thought leadership content needs to have research and/or expert observations behind it to carry weight, but 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.

According to Edelman and LinkedIn respondents, 41% of thought leadership audiences prefer a denser, more information-rich content created for industry experts. The remaining 59% prefer “primer-style” content with concise takeaways and fewer details.

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.

Thought Leadership 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, establishing your brand as authoritative among decision-makers and other thinkers who will elevate your ideas.

The goal of thought leadership in content marketing is to highlight credibility and establish the brand as a leader. Content that reaches this goal will be noticeably higher-level and focus on ideas, rather than marketing a brand and its products/services.

While it’s possible to add this kind of content to an existing blog or podcast, it’s best to highlight them as the unique materials they are. This lets you market them specifically to an audience of experts and establish that platform as a go-to location for innovative thinkers.

6 Great Thought Leadership Examples 

Great thought leadership stands out. It has an air of authority and excitement in innovation, and it draws people who appreciate that kind of thinking. Here’s what it looks like at its best.

1. The ZenDesk Blog

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.

2. Deloitte Insights

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).

3. GE’s Txchnologist

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.

4. The Forecast by Nutanix

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 take in 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.

5. Philips’ Future Health Index

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. It’s geared primarily toward healthcare leaders and centers on 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 readable by an educated lay audience. Philips is a great example of a company that’s strengthening its reputation in a target industry through smart, data-based content. The online presence of that content allows Philips to emphasize its work in the ever-evolving healthcare field.

6. iResearch Services

iResearch Services is a thought leadership company whose CEO, Yogesh Shah, has written thought leadership content about thought leadership itself. His recent article in Forbes Magazine suggests that in the next few years, business leaders will start to use thought leadership as a demand generation tactic.

Demand generation points out the need for what a company has to offer without being overly sales-oriented. Shah 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.

Tips for Creating Engaging Thought Leadership Content

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 the 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 current trends, but 38% want to see into 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.

Getting Started: Outsourcing Thought Leadership

Lack of time is one of the biggest barriers to a thought leadership strategy. Your innovators may not have time to write long-form articles or video scripts to share their ideas.

If you need some help, Compose.ly is here for you. Compose.ly writers have created content for a diverse range of industries, from customer success to cybersecurity. Learn more today, and get ready to drive the future of your industry.


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