March 22, 2021 Content Chat Recap: How To Build An Executive Thought Leadership Platform

A #ContentChat header image that says today's topic is how to build an executive thought leadership platform.

Thought leadership has been proven to be valuable for companies. Half of business decision-makers say that thought leadership content influences their purchasing decisions, and 42% are even willing to pay more to work with an organization that produces thought leadership. However, many teams are misaligned with their thought leadership approach, or they simply don’t know where to begin.

In this #ContentChat, we discuss how to build an executive thought leadership platform. Read the full recap below, where we explain what is thought leadership, the qualities that make for a great brand thought leader, the key elements of an executive thought leadership platform, and more.

For further tips and resources, check out this piece that explains how to identify your thought leadership topics and what to include in your thought leadership profiles.

Q1: What is thought leadership? Can a brand be a thought leader?

Erika defines thought leadership as the process of taking a subject matter expert, creating content from their unique perspective, and turning them into a recognized and valued industry resource.

A1a: I define thought leadership as the process of using content creation and placement to take a subject matter expert with a unique perspective and turn them into a recognized, valued industry resource. #ContentChat https://t.co/ehYweWJvHz

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

The key points here being an individual (not the brand, a person!) and a UNIQUE perspective. Thought leadership should add something new and different to the conversation. #ContentChat https://t.co/Ff9kYzXDtZ

— Melanie Graham (@WriterGirlMel) March 22, 2021

Through that lens, brands technically cannot be thought leaders. However, brands can build a reputation of cultivating thought leaders.

1b: With this context, while a brand can promote and nurture thought leadership amongst its team, the brand itself isn’t a person, and thus can not be a thought leader. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A1. Can’t improve on your definition, but I DO think a brand can be a thought leader—in collective sense of having multiple thought leaders in different areas and POV. Maybe more accurate to say they have reputation as cultivator of thought leaders. #ContentChat https://t.co/BzAokEhXkD

— Carmen Hill (@carmenhill) March 22, 2021

Yes! I love this. And it is absolutely vital to not put all your thought leadership eggs in one executive basket. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A1 Thought leadership is using your knowledge and expertise to provide value to their audience
Brands can absolutely be thought leaders
-Alyx #contentchat https://t.co/VYvScsGvN6

— Charlie & Alyx – Charlie Appel Agency (@ColfaxInsurance) March 22, 2021

What is the difference between an influencer and a thought leader? Influencers simply have an audience they can activate, but influencers do not always have a unique point of view.

A1: I think thought leadership is all about becoming a subject matter expert in a field and sharing information which influences other people within that field. I absolutely think a brand can be a thought leader, and think it’s quite an important part of marketing. #contentchat

— Yvie (@yvieansari) March 22, 2021

Hmmm… two interesting points.

(1) If someone influences people to take action, might they be a thought leader even if they don’t have a unique perspective?

Or is that the key difference between a thought leader and an influencer? #contentchat

— Tod Cordill (@todcordill) March 22, 2021

I think that influencers aren’t necessarily people with a unique POV so much as they are people with an audience they can activate. They can also be thought leaders, but aren’t always, and vice versa. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

(2) A company is pretty much legally a “person.” If the brand has a consistent voice and expresses thoughts that compel people, might it be a thought leader?

There may actually be a team of people behind the brand that directs the thought leadership content. #contentchat

— Tod Cordill (@todcordill) March 22, 2021

That is certainly what the people who put out blog posts bylined by the brand’s name contented!

I am of the personal opinion, however, that you can be an industry innovator as a brand, but not a thought leader as a brand though your team can be. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

“Thought leadership” is thrown around loosely in the industry, which has caused confusion as to what is and is not thought leadership.

A1 “Thought leadership” tends to be a catch-all term for the type of content that shares your expertise and point-of-view about a particular subject. But not everyone is an actual thought leader. #contentchat

— Martin Lieberman (@martinlieberman) March 22, 2021

A1: I tend to think people don’t really understand this term and everyone thinks they’re a thought leader. This leads to Fautivational Speakers and it’s all quite annoying. I have a T-shirt to prove it. https://t.co/a7eE3H5Zuv

— Melisha Oakleaf-Wilson (@MissyRiley12) March 22, 2021

Thought leadership requires meaningful relationships with the people that thought leaders are trying to reach.

Thought leadership also values the importance of establishing meaningful relationships with people you are trying to reach! #contentchat https://t.co/EKYKMJjyYH

— smounzer1 (@smounzer11) March 22, 2021

Yes!! Your thought leaders have to be ready, willing, and able to engage with the community they are sharing their content with. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

Which is why it’s often so ironic that the company’s designated “thought leaders” are not who they say they are publicly. They have ghostwriters and ghost tweeters. Tough for them to build actual relationships that way. #contentchat

— Martin Lieberman (@martinlieberman) March 22, 2021

Totally agreed. These are really cases of content marketing masquerading as thought leadership. Because it’s not thought leadership without the active participation of the bylined person with the unique perspective! #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

Q2: When is a brand ready for an executive thought leadership program?

Before a brand can support through leadership activities, the company must have a clear sense of its brand identity, have identified subject matter experts that are willing to commit to thought leadership, and resources to support these activities.

A2a: A brand is ready for an executive thought leadership program as soon as they have a clear sense of their brand identity, have identified SMEs willing to commit to thought leadership, & have resources to consistently create and distribute the resulting content. #ContentChat https://t.co/NBE0xwtYU6

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A2. Thought leadership has two key requirements:

1. People who have the expertise, POV and desire/willingness to contribute *consistently*

2. Infrastructure/ processes/ team with ability & commitment to support consistent publishing, distribution, promotion#ContentChat

— Carmen Hill (@carmenhill) March 22, 2021

A2: I think there are a lot of factors for this, but one key thing is having the resources to follow-up and respond to the thought leadership. It’s not a one-and-done thing and more of a conversation starter, so you need to be ready to have that conversation. #ContentChat

— Melanie Graham (@WriterGirlMel) March 22, 2021

Q3: What qualities make for a great brand thought leader?

Thought leaders need to be experienced in and passionate about your company’s industry and willing to share a unique perspective on hot topics.

A3a: A great thought leader is someone with passion and interest in your industry, and the willingness to take a stand and share a unique perspective on hot topics. #ContentChat https://t.co/etOoApThL0

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

And a thick enough skin to be able to handle someone publicly disagreeing with them on the Internet. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A unique and interesting point of view that sparks conversation and re-thinking previous knowledge / thoughts around the topic #contentchat https://t.co/96wIBKxZtI

— Yvie (@yvieansari) March 22, 2021

#thoughtleader traits:

unique perspective
willingness to step out of line and make a stand
passion
#contentchat

— Tod Cordill (@todcordill) March 22, 2021

A3: Knowledge and experience…but also passion! Passion for the subject matter, for the community around that subject matter and for the brand they’re representing. Without passion, the TL loses interest and/or sounds inauthentic. #ContentChat

— Melanie Graham (@WriterGirlMel) March 22, 2021

A3 Experience! #ContentChat https://t.co/94u1ahtNXQ

— Shane Shaps (@520eastbrands) March 22, 2021

Thought leaders should be able to make bold claims without being too constrained by the brand and its legal team.

A3 A great brand thought leader is someone who is actively involved in the leading, and doesn’t necessarily hide behind the brand (or a ghostwriter). Their POV is unique enough that they have to share it themself, and it’s not “watered down” by the brand. #contentchat

— Martin Lieberman (@martinlieberman) March 22, 2021

Good point, Martin.

When employed by a company, thought leadership needs be able to embrace some controversy without being overly constrained by the brand voice (and legal team).

The thought leader needs their own independent voice. #contentchat

— Tod Cordill (@todcordill) March 22, 2021

You nailed it, though, Tod. Can’t have legal or marketing always diluting the thought leader’s value. Like brand advocacy, it means more if people know it’s genuine thought and not just a company line. #contentchat

— Martin Lieberman (@martinlieberman) March 22, 2021

Thought leaders should be eager to teach others and share their expertise.

A3 Open-mindedness or a beginner’s mindset – you’re always open to learning more and building up your knowledge base
Willing to teach
Easy to work with, clear communication
Transparency
-Alyx #contentchat https://t.co/IAVXWzFvgB

— Charlie & Alyx – Charlie Appel Agency (@ColfaxInsurance) March 22, 2021

A3. A great thought leader knows thought leadership is about what the audience needs/wants to hear from you, not what you want to tell or sell them, while not being afraid to introduce new ideas or topics they don’t yet know they need/want. #ContentChat

— Carmen Hill (@carmenhill) March 22, 2021

Per Tod, thought leadership is an “always be helping” philosophy, not “always be selling.”

Yes! Thought Leadership is an “always be helping” and not an “always be selling” philosophy. #contentchat

— Tod Cordill (@todcordill) March 22, 2021

OMG yes!! If all of your SME’s proposed topics are all about the brand, they may be a great brand evangelist but that is not the same thing as being a thought leader. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

If a subject matter expert doesn’t have time to invest in thought leadership, they likely won’t be an effective thought leader.

A3b: An incredibly smart and experienced subject matter expert (SME) who doesn’t have the time or interest in building the brand in this way won’t foster the same engagement and results. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

As an example, I’ve worked with organizations that said they wanted to build a thought leadership program, yet those activities were not something employees had time during their day to support. Then it doesn’t happen. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A3c: This is why you shouldn’t always tap the most senior members of your team as your sole thought leaders. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

Q4: What are the key elements of an executive thought leadership platform?

First, identify your goals for thought leadership. Next, define your priority topics and associated thought leaders. Integrate these goals and activities into your overall content marketing strategy.

A4: It’s important to start by defining your objectives and what success looks like. From there, you need to define who is going to pursue what topics, and how those topics should support your overall content marketing strategy.#ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

Erika has a template thought leadership plan that can serve as a starting point.

A4b: I have a thought leadership plan-on-a-page template that provides a solid starting point for identifying your objectives and outlining SMART goals to help you achieve them.

Get it here: https://t.co/0ySsKjHtkd

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

Melanie and Carmen share a few other considerations:

A4: I would also add which channels you want to pursue this on, or what the distribution strategy looks like. #ContentChat https://t.co/UMZpOumt9k

— Melanie Graham (@WriterGirlMel) March 22, 2021

A4. The usual 5 W’s (and the H) :
Who has the thoughts & leadership?
What is the domain of expertise?
When and where will they publish?
Why are you even doing this?* #ContentChat
How will you launch/sustain the program?

* this comes first https://t.co/upmsFNuysQ

— Carmen Hill (@carmenhill) March 22, 2021

And check out this post for more details.

See also: https://t.co/GtYo7DvsNt which goes into all this at length. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

Q5: How can a brand coordinate thought leadership activities across multiple executives?

Erika recommends managing a group of brand thought leaders in a similar way to a speaker’s bureau. Use a spreadsheet to track the various thought leadership activities in play. Create speaker overview documents to assist in content creation and pitching your thought leader for media or events opportunities. Hold recurring meetings with your thought leaders to assess the opportunities available.

A5a: I like to approach managing a group of brand thought leaders in a similar way to a speaker’s bureau (which I did in my non-profit HR association marketing role). #ContentChat https://t.co/mSMciXI7zT

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A5b: Create a spreadsheet where you track potential and in progress thought leadership activities. Draft speaker overview documents that outline each SME’s topics, expertise, and applicable bio. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A5c: Then hold recurring meetings where you talk about what’s top of mind for everyone and identify the right matches for the available opportunities. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A5. A well-organized editorial council, backed by a dedicated editor and calendar. #ContentChat https://t.co/s5qHhMEvyC

— Carmen Hill (@carmenhill) March 22, 2021

One of my clients is launching a robust digital thought leadership platform (aka website), which will feature author/speaker profiles/bios, published articles, videos, etc. #ContentChat cc @RGP https://t.co/dSFlCNct5Z

— Carmen Hill (@carmenhill) March 22, 2021

Use this template to create your thought leadership profiles.

A5d: Here’s another template we use for pulling all of a client’s thought leadership profiles together: https://t.co/qPAFHPkuNG #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

To build on an earlier point, your company executives may not always be the best thought leaders. Follow Erika’s process for any of your identified thought leaders.

A5 To piggy-back on something you said earlier … why does it have to be executives? Maybe they’re no longer the “thought leaders,” even if they’re the public faces of the company. #contentchat

— Martin Lieberman (@martinlieberman) March 22, 2021

Totally agree. I believe most of the unique perspectives come from those who are not necessarily executives. Rather, they are ones who have a fresh mindset and are not afraid to speak up.

— smounzer1 (@smounzer11) March 22, 2021

+1
Excellent point. I think that knowledge and passion can often be found outside of executives. And non-execs may be more interested/have more time to dedicate to a TL program. #ContentChat https://t.co/YKkmwBpqvF

— Melanie Graham (@WriterGirlMel) March 22, 2021

YES! And/or, your executives share perspectives at a brand level (or personal passion domain), while your experts in other topics drill into other relevant topics—perhaps with a different, narrower audience. #contentchat https://t.co/tAmK5ghV4N

— Carmen Hill (@carmenhill) March 22, 2021

I think it truly depends on the company and the executives. When your executives are also co-founders, or were already industry visionaries, they are often perfect to be tapped for thought leadership roles. Versus lifelong middle managers for various entities. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

Q6: What are the common thought leadership activities that brands should consider?

Common thought leadership activities include blog posts, speaking engagements, awards opportunities, social media content, and more!

A6a: Once you identify the channels your ideal customers are most likely to engage with you on, identify the types of content that work for those channels and play to your internal thought leaders’ strengths. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A6b: Blog posts, videos, speaking engagements, Clubhouse/podcast conversations, infographics—so many ways to share your team’s unique areas of expertise to build relationships to grow your business. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald (@SFerika) March 22, 2021

A6: To add to this list…I know a lot of TLs like to use LinkedIn or Medium as publishing platforms. As always, it’s about your audience and resources. #ContentChat

— Melanie Graham (@WriterGirlMel) March 22, 2021

Be strategic with your thought leadership activities. It is better to drive meaningful results in a few places than try to be everywhere with little results.

A6. Company website/blog, LinkedIn, Medium, third-party guest articles and op-eds, podcasts, media interviews, speaking engagements… so many options. But better to be a few places in meaningful way, rather than “half-assing” it everywhere. #ContentChat https://t.co/g1ScGPS1Do

— Carmen Hill (@carmenhill) March 22, 2021

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