Why Subject Matter Experts Are Vital for Thought Leadership Program Success

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I’ve got some bad news for you: A company or brand cannot be a thought leader. It is the people within the organization who can become thought leaders—and empowering them with company resources can create a valuable brand halo effect.

I’ve helped organizations develop thought leadership programs for decades. I’ve also been privileged to coach my content marketing peers at events like Content Marketing World to teach them strategies to refine their thought leadership philosophy and approach. 

That’s why it wasn’t surprising to me that current research shows thought leadership remains one of the best investments for content marketing teams. The 2024 edition of the MarketingProfs and Content Marketing Institute’s annual B2B marketing research reinforces the power of thought leadership, finding that:

  • 51% of B2B marketers say that thought leadership e-books or white papers produce the best results.
  • 27% want to create more thought leadership content with the help of artificial intelligence (AI).
  • 60% of top-performing organizations attribute their success to showing thought leadership. 

The challenge, however, is that teams frequently place too much importance on leveraging only company executives as part of their thought leadership program. Or, they view paid social influencers as thought leaders (they aren’t). 

The best thought leaders can often be the unsung heroes in the organization who are deeply ingrained in their fields and have many current examples they are eager to share—subject matter experts (SMEs). 

In this post, let’s explore how to boost your thought leadership program success by tapping into the power of your SMEs, including how to find them and ways to build their profile. 

Why Your CEO Isn’t Your Best Thought Leader

Marketing and public relations teams often center thought leadership programs around the company CEO or other C-level executives. I get why this happens. After all, it’s your leadership team that funds the program. But the thing is, your CEO and other top executives aren’t necessarily your best (and certainly aren’t the only) options. 

Why? Building thought leadership requires consistent activities and dedicated time. Company executives may be eager to support thought leadership initiatives at first. However, securing their time and attention to keep the program going can become increasingly difficult. It makes sense, given their other priorities. They have a company to run, and that has to take priority over working with the content team to craft a compelling thought leadership blog post.

Genuine, lasting thought leadership can’t be manufactured during an annual brainstorm and then outsourced for all activities. And hiring a ghostwriter can only go so far. Ghostwritten content without any insights from the person whose name goes on it is just content, not thought leadership. 

The other hurdle: thought leadership requires individuals willing to make bold, unconventional, and thought-provoking claims about their industry or topic. They back their contrarian perspectives by sharing their expertise and drawing on specific examples to lend credibility to their viewpoint. 

Many executives are unwilling or unable to give viewpoints that may invite criticism or questions. Or they feel uncomfortable sharing specific anecdotes and situations that occurred in previous roles. But generic ideas and obvious statements don’t build thought leadership—they just add to the noise.

How to Find Thought Leaders Throughout Your Company

Once you have buy-in from your stakeholders to expand your thought leadership program, it’s vital to cast a wide net. Ask managers to nominate their direct reports and allow people to volunteer to participate, too. Look for individuals who are passionate about their field, have hands-on experience, and are eager to discuss their views with others (even if that involves a few healthy disagreements). 

SMEs make the best thought leaders, but only if they are interested in developing their personal brands. SMEs are prime candidates for creating company thought leadership content if they:

  • Already create content
  • Engage on social media
  • Attend industry events
  • Can dedicate time 

If an executive happens to meet that criteria, that’s great!

After your organization sets its thought leadership priorities—often expressed as brand pillars or key topics— find SMEs who can champion these topics. Look across departments and find people who drive your team forward and inspire innovation regularly.

My friend Amy Higgins, a content strategist and longtime #ContentChat community member, reinforces that thought leaders can’t only plug corporate messages: “If they only want to talk about the product and not address the current trends or problems people are trying to solve for, they should not be a thought leader.”

I couldn’t agree more, Amy. 

3 Easy Ways to Build Thought Leadership

There are several ways to start building an SME’s thought leadership platform. If they are new to thought leadership, company-owned platforms and activities like webinars, blog posts, and short video content are great places to start.

In particular, these three activities can lay the foundation for thought leadership:

  • Engage on social media. Find communities on social media channels that actively discuss your thought leadership topic. Your thought leader should dedicate at least 15 minutes daily to engaging on those channels. The purpose is to build relationships with others and become comfortable sharing their views and addressing questions or criticism.
  • Post content on the company blog. The company’s owned content channels are perfect for a budding thought leader. Encourage the thought leader to begin publishing content under their byline for the company blog or on other channels, such as filming short videos to explain a concept or idea for social media or the company’s email newsletter.
  • Attend industry events. Industry events are hotbeds of conversation and enthusiasm around a topic. But landing a speaking spot at many events can be difficult, even for the most seasoned speakers. So start with something more attainable. Ask budding thought leaders to attend at least one industry event each quarter to attend sessions and network with other attendees. Participating in industry events will help them understand what event organizers are looking for in speakers, and build genuine connections with others in their space—who may become future partners.

When thought leaders are ready to branch out, there are other activities and forms of recognition that become much more attainable:

  • Place contributed content. Identify third-party media outlets that accept content from expert guests. These opportunities cannot be self-promotional but instead lend advice and strategies for the outlet’s readers—who should be others interested in the thought leadership topic.  
  • Apply for industry awards. Awards programs can provide third-party validation for your efforts and recognize individuals for various accomplishments. Submit your thought leader for awards to reflect their impact on your business and their field, and celebrate their wins publicly. 
  • Pursue speaking opportunities. Pitch your thought leader to be a guest on an industry podcast or webinar, or apply for them to speak at an industry event. These opportunities can be challenging to secure, but they can provide great exposure for the thought leader if the opportunity reaches a relevant audience (even if that audience is small).

If your company has multiple thought leaders, pair those with overlapping interests to collaborate on content. This mentoring opportunity allows seasoned leaders to open doors for your newer thought leaders, while gaining a fresh perspective. Find ways for them to collaborate so they can learn from each other, and possibly even co-present to make each person’s profile that much stronger. 

Common Thought Leadership Pitfalls to Avoid

As with any other content marketing endeavor, teams can face various roadblocks when managing a thought leadership program. I commonly see these three entirely avoidable thought leadership pitfalls:

  • Developing only one thought leader. Strengthen each individual platform to your fullest capability, but do not put all your proverbial thought leadership eggs in one basket. If your sole thought leader leaves your company, it can create a void. That’s why I recommend you develop a group of thought leaders in tandem. 
  • Forcing a content format. Individuals prefer different types of opportunities—some love speaking to crowds, while others prefer writing out their thoughts. Play to each thought leader’s strengths and prioritize opportunities where they can shine. You can strengthen their potential weaknesses, but don’t force them to do something they do not enjoy. 
  • Selecting leaders who can’t or won’t partner with the content team. Thought leaders need to work alongside the content team. It’s non-negotiable. If thought leaders work solo and do not discuss their plans, they are likely missing out on opportunities to improve their results (and support the company’s content strategy). Similarly, if they can’t make time to share their insights and experiences, the team can’t help collaborate with them to create true thought leadership content.

Get the Hands-On Thought Leadership Support Your Team needs

Content marketing teams can thrive by partnering with their company’s thought leaders. Too often, C-level executives find it challenging to dedicate the necessary time to develop their platform—and that’s OK!

Seek out subject matter experts in your organization who are eager to engage with others in their space and truly move the conversation forward. 

My team has several other resources to help you on your thought leadership journey, including this article on how to create a thought leadership platform that earns people’s trust and our past #ContentChat conversation recap about what it takes to create a successful thought leadership program

If you’re looking for more hands-on thought leadership support, I’d love to work with your team to workshop your strategy, or I can speak at your upcoming content marketing or related business conference.

Get in touch here—we’d love to help!

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