9 Steps For Repeatable Thought Leadership Content Development

Written by Devin Sizemore

October 13, 2017

In a previous piece for LTP, I shared the process my colleagues and I use to place thought leadership pieces in high DA sites.

But, because that article focused on the pitch process, I skimmed over what is really the most challenging part – producing those articles to begin with.

The thing about thought leadership marketing is that it depends on having some thoughts worth sharing . . . which takes time to develop in the best of circumstances.

In my last article, I suggested making sure you have a few big ideas ready to push out there into the world. A big idea should make readers sit up and take notice and say to themselves, “Who wrote this? I like how they think.” A big idea gets people to navigate to your site, to sign up for your newsletter, and to post the article on LinkedIn.

Most importantly, big ideas make messages appear in your inbox that say, “I’d love to set up a call.”

A big idea should be arguable and should inspire people either to agree enthusiastically or to argue back. But most stuff passing as thought leadership marketing is really just disposable content created solely for the purposes of getting a link and getting forgotten. No one is going to bother arguing with it.

So, how do you actually find and develop these big ideas?

Below are some principles and practices that my team and I have developed at my content marketing services agency. Using these ideas isn’t going to entirely erase the fact that developing great content takes time. But, as I said in my previous article, if you aim for efficiencies rather than scale, and if you have patience, you can start to build advantages over your competition.

1. Use what your organization already knows

Many of my clients can talk passionately in-house about issues in their industry and their market, but then the “messaging” in their marketing plans develops in isolation from those internal conversations.

When this happens, it’s not just the passion that gets lost along the way. It’s the actual insight, information, and expertise. Some companies fail to use the ‘what they know’ that no one else knows.

If you can focus on what you know and on capturing that — rather than on the message that you want to send — then you have the seeds of real thought leadership.

What do you know? Consider that:

  • Every product worth any attention got its start by noticing something interesting that other people aren’t noticing.
  • Then that product was developed by researching, reading, talking, gathering information, and testing.
  • Then the product got up on its feet because it attracted resources and support from board members and investors who were convinced of the trends in market.

At each stage, your company, along with its leadership and its front-line employees, were developing insights that are unique and that can be the basis of one or more big ideas.

I get pitched myself as the editor for sites that I run, and I tend to stiffarm marketing people asking to write about a product launch. That doesn’t provide value for our readers.

But when I ask these marketers why they are developing the product, then we are getting somewhere. What’s the size of the market? Why is this needed? What are the trend lines you are watching? What did you learn while you were validating the product?

The answers to those questions are what your organizations know that no one else knows. That’s the basis of your thought leadership marketing.

Sit down with your colleagues and ask yourselves these questions:

  • Why did we develop this product?
  • What has made this such a hard problem to solve?
  • Where’s the research that went into our product development?
  • What trends are we spotting in the market?
  • What have we learned about the needs of customers?

2. Remember that thought leaders – their audiences – are everywhere

Too many thought leadership marketing projects are built exclusively around the CEO. The goal is to get their bylines in the major business magazines.

But remember that everyone on your team should have unique insights about the trends and issues you are working on. Touch base with and ask the above questions of your engineers, designers, IT support, HR leads, payroll department . . . everyone. Be open minded about it.

In other words, if your organization believes that anyone can be a leader in their position, then it follows that anyone can be the source of thought leadership content. So, when you’re reading the tips below about ghostwriting and interviewing, don’t just assume it’s all about the CEO.

Meanwhile, also keep in mind that people in different roles in your organization have different audiences that might be valuable.

For example, let’s say you are marketing a B2B SaaS product. Getting articles in the major business publications that are read by your CEO’s peers would be great. If it’s just you and as the marketing lead and the CEO working on your thought leadership content, you may be overly focused on Fortune magazine and the marketing blogs that you read.

But do you know where your graphic designers, UX designers, and product managers go for insight, inspiration, and thought leadership in their fields?  You may not be aware that they are following prestigious design blogs like 99u.

And don’t just take my word for it. Ask your design colleagues where they get the most exciting and engaging ideas. It might be someplace else entirely. And for your IT colleagues and your finance colleagues, it will be definitely be other publications.

Then imagine a piece on that design blog under the byline of someone like your head of product – speaking to his or her peers – sharing insights that your company has earned. Would that help establish your brand as a thought leader?

If so, then you have multiple audiences for a single big idea.

3. Mix up the modes

Extending the reach of your thought leadership marketing is very difficult, but one way to get more value out of your efforts is to get them out there in more than one form.

It helps to remember that pieces of writing can have many different purposes. For example, consider these different modes that an article on a given subject might take.

  • Informative — Here’s a new development.
  • Reportorial — Here’s what other experts and first-hand witnesses say about the subject.
  • Synthesis and presentation — Let me contextualize all the research on this for you.
  • Exploratory — Here’s an interesting problem we’re struggling with and what we’ve done so far.
  • Argumentative — Here’s what everyone gets wrong on this subject.
  • How-to — Here’s the process we use.
  • Educational — We’re confident we’re the experts on this subject. Here’s our guidance.

When a piece of writing includes all those modes, that’s called a book. Don’t try to make a single blog article do what only a book can do.

Instead, choose a mode, and if you want to hit more than one, great. That’s another article.

A lot of the best thought leadership content boils down to educating customers. In an article I published elsewhere, I described four basic types of customer education content you can consider developing:

  1. Make the familiar strange by showing something amazing that your customers can do if they introduce a new element to their old processes.
  2. Make the strange familiar by showing that a challenging new trend doesn’t have to be that scary.
  3. Grow the market by helping non-users understand an unfamiliar new product category.
  4. Grow the ecosystem by giving stakeholders, such as suppliers, the basics they need to get into the market.

Each of those kinds of customer (or partner) education content helps establish you as a trustworthy and reliable source of insight and expertise.

And the great thing about those approaches is that you can apply all four to a single big idea, spinning one article out into several.

4. Use ghostwriters effectively

Leadership ThoughtThe problem with big ideas is that they are usually in the heads of people with big workloads. So, despite the best of intentions, the writing never gets done.

How many of you are marketing directors whose CEO has promised you a dozen times that they are going to write that article? This weekend, for sure! Because content marketing is a priority, right?

Or the CEO reminds your colleagues that content is everyone’s responsibility, so one of your engineers agrees to write a blog post. How is that going?

If you are like most of my clients, the weeks and months pass. The company goes on to other products, other ideas, other opportunities for content development . . . .

Ghostwriting solves this problem. You may need to get serious about writing that article for them, using their insights for the substance of it.

Many people misunderstand what ghostwriting is about, as my colleague Maria Wood explains in this comprehensive article on hiring a ghostwriter. The point of ghostwriting isn’t to pass off your CEO or other leadership as great writers. The point is to make sure their ideas get out there — ideally in their voice and in a way they can stand behind.

Readers don’t care if the “author” had help, and in business writing they expect it.

5. Interviewing with some attitude

I’ve written about how to work with ghostwriters, but a key part is effective interviewing – or submitting to effective interviewing. If the interviewing is skillful enough, then the actual writing after that point goes very quickly.

Essentially, you want a relationship where the big ideas get pulled out of the people who have them, and you want a process that provokes people to develop those big ideas more fully.

Interviewing should be a little bit uncomfortable or maybe even adversarial. I often say the goal is to ask the “helpfully obnoxious question.” That’s what helps the person being interviewed get off of their talking points and past stating the obvious.

Because, if your goal is to say something new and surprising for the reader, then you often need to surprise yourself. The first thought is rarely the most original thought. Interviews should push the interview subject to go a little deeper.

One of my clients teased me recently by saying, “I am more mentally drained after phone calls with you than anybody else.”

I took this as a compliment because we had established that I could play devil’s advocate with him. I had permission to challenge him on just how big the big ideas were, which led to better work.

Editors need to assume that the reader will be suspicious and ask tough questions of any article they are reading. So, the job of the interview stage in your content development is to take that suspicious posture in advance. That’s not easy for a young marketing associate — or even the CMO – to do with the CEO. But you are unlikely to get to real thought leadership marketing without it.

Plan for an interviewing process, develop your interviewing skills, and learn to walk that line to be “helpfully obnoxious.”

6. Plan more for editing than for writing

When I was a writing teacher, I had a mantra that I tried to get my students to adopt: “There are no rules to writing. There are only rules to rewriting.”

Experienced writers know that the first draft is usually the easy part, the second draft is slightly less easy, and so on.

Think of this as a last-mile problem. The first 80 percent of content production turns out to be the easiest, and things fall apart if no one is paying attention to the last 20 percent.

We see it all the time with our clients. A team member or an individual freelance writer they hired turns in a terrific draft of an article. But it’s not perfect. It’s maybe a little off message. A little misaligned with the strategy or with what the publication will accept. And maybe it has a few clunky sentences here and there.

This is not a disaster. It’s 80 percent there, and it can all be fixed.

But who is going to articulate those problems, assign responsibility for fixing them, and ensure they are resolved?

If no one is in charge of the review, feedback, revision, and proofreading, the draft just hangs around, not going anywhere.

That last 20 percent is the part of the editorial process where most content marketing projects break down. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s not a real content strategy if it doesn’t identify the editorial process.

Assume up front that the editing will take more attention than the writing will. Set up a good editorial process so your big ideas can keep moving through the pipeline and get out into the world.

7. Hire a freelance team, not a freelance individual

When you do budget for the editorial process, you might start seeing some discouraging numbers.

For example, here are the numbers for a content production team using average annual salary data from Glassdoor (not including taxes and other employment expenses):

You should have a managing editor = $67,115

You should have a copy editor = $45,463

You should have a proofreader = $36,290

Subtotal = $148,868

But to keep those three professionals busy, the volume of work coming into them might require four or more full-time content writers

= $45,757 X 4 = $183,028

Total = $331,896/year for a complete editorial team

That’s not realistic if you don’t have the kind of marketing budget that Fortune 500 companies are working with. You probably don’t even want to put out that much content.

So, you quite reasonably default to hiring a couple freelance writers to produce a handful of articles/month — and you expect your marketing director to manage what they’re sending in.

But the marketing director’s responsibilities include a million other things, so the editing never gets done, and you’re dealing with the last mile problem described above.

One solution to this problem is to hire the whole team on a contract basis, only for the smaller volume that you need. Take the budget that you could spend on a full-time writer. (This calculator on Toptal shows that the all-in cost of the average $45,000 writer is $90,000.) Then spread that across a group of freelance content strategists, editors, and writers.

Collectively, this team will give you less volume than a writer alone would, but they should give it to you 100 percent ready to go. That way you aren’t left with a pile of draft content that is pretty good but not quite there.

Best of all, you don’t have to hire freelancers one at a time anymore. If you’re image of hiring freelancers is Upwork, keep in mind that freelance and consulting marketplaces are emerging that let you hire and manage high-skill teams and that are better curated.

8. Build up from bits and pieces

One tactic I’ve used effectively is to comment regularly and briefly in other forums and to make those comments the seeds of an article that develops later. I do this by keeping a file where I paste all those accumulating comments.

For example, I’m pretty active answering questions on Quora, and I respond to HARO requests a lot as part of my link building efforts. Other marketers might stay active on Reddit, ProductHunt, GrowthHackers, or other forums.

The first goal in answering questions this way is to provide real value in these spaces. But I’m also thinking about how I can re-use my answers.

With HARO in particular, only a fraction of the thoughtful messages I’m sending out will actually get picked up and used. But I don’t mind.

Because I’m going to use those responses myself. I copy and paste every draft of a HARO response into a scrap file. Ditto for Quora answers, comments on blogs, etc. These gradually accumulate into a stronger and stronger case for the think pieces I have in the works.

9. Or vice versa: Spin out bits and pieces from major content assets

Finally, make sure your content flows the other direction. When you have written up a serious piece of thought leadership content and gotten it published, don’t be shy about raiding it to use elsewhere.

For example, one of my recent projects was putting together a comprehensive resource filled with research and data and then presenting it effectively. It was a huge amount of work in an effort to establish the site as a thought leader on a given subject (the emerging gig economy).

You can be darn sure that I’m leveraging that work by using it to answer questions on Quora, in HARO, etc.

Reuse without being repetitive

As always – and as many people before me have noted – a good content strategy will reuse and recycle. You should turn your blogs into videos, which turn into slide shows, etc. You should turn your podcasts into transcripts for blog posts, etc.

But you also want to keep the quality of your thought leadership marketing up. The point is to be helpful and surprising to the reader, which means being non-obvious. If you rehash your own work too much in the pursuit of scale, you undercut your thought leadership efforts.

So, what I’ve tried to share here are some of the practical methods my team has developed to make sure your thought leadership marketing stays genuinely thoughtful, gets more thoughtful over time, actually gets done so you can get it out there and that it leverages some efficiencies so you get more value out of your effort.

About the Author

Robert McGuireRobert McGuire owns McGuire Editorial content marketing agency and is the publisher of Nation1099, a forum for professional freelancers working to grow their gig economy businesses.

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  1. Rajesh

    Great and very helpful steps for every content developer.

  2. Rajesh

    Nice and useful article Robert Thanks for sharing.


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