I can’t deny it: the term ‘thought leadership’ makes me want to cringe. It might be the hordes of LinkedIn ‘influencers’ self-proclaiming their thought leader status, or it might be that I seriously hate jargon.

If you’re anything like me, you probably hate it too. But don’t let the cringey terminology put you off. The truth is, creating effective thought leadership content is now an essential cog in the marketing wheel.

What is ‘thought leadership’, anyway?

In a nutshell, thought leadership is anything that helps an individual or company become an authority on a particular subject.

The content itself can be anything from opinion pieces, LinkedIn posts, white papers, podcasts, videos or even conference presentations.

Effective thought leadership helps turn those who practice it into sought-after experts on their chosen field. In turn, this allows them to become a trusted source of information, reach a wider group of people, and ultimately charge higher rates.

Sounds great, right? So why isn’t everyone doing it? The problem is, creative effective thought leadership takes time, effort and, well… thought. If that content isn’t planned and executed correctly, you might as well be talking to a brick wall.

So if you’re struggling to make your voice heard above the noise, here is the ultimate guide to creating great thought leadership content that doesn’t suck.

Have an opinion

As an ex-opinions editor, I know for a fact that the vast majority of people don’t have anything interesting to say. It might sound harsh, but it’s true.

And before you ask, no, ‘AI is going to be a big deal in 2019’ is not an interesting angle. In fact, here is a brief list of ideas that you can immediately cross off your list:

  • How Bitcoin is going to change marketing forever
  • Why [insert popular industry trend here] is dead
  • Why your company is a disruptive innovator
  • A case study about how brilliant your most recent work is

As you’ve probably gathered, thought leadership is not a place to tell the world about how great you are.

It’s a chance to show your expertise through interesting, helpful, informative, and perhaps even divisive content.

The good news is, as long as you can find an interesting nugget of expertise or opinion to share, then you’re doing better than 80% of writers.

It doesn’t need to be a PhD thesis – the best content almost always comes from a simple idea. Your job is to help your audience see those simple ideas in new and unexpected ways.

Inspiration can come from most unexpected of places, and it doesn’t even have to be something that happened in a work context.

You can get ideas from your favourite TV show, something your kid said, or while mindlessly thinking about something completely random while having a shower.

Be an expert…

There’s no point writing about a topic unless you truly know it inside out. The best thought leaders know enough about their specialist subject to not only discuss an issue, but dig holes into the status quo and suggest alternative paths.

True experts are able to not only spot issues in their specialist area, but have ideas about how to fix those issues.

This piece from Ben Shepherd is the perfect example of content that not only discusses an issue, but offers solutions.

Sure, not everyone will agree with your opinion, but that’s okay. If your content causes debate, you’re probably heading in the right direction.

… or find an expert

If you still don’t feel comfortable stepping into the ‘thought leader’ role, that doesn’t mean you can’t execute an effective thought leadership strategy within your team.

Find someone who has something interesting to say, and encourage them to share their thoughts.

Don’t rule out the more junior members of your team – often, they will have a viewpoint on an issue that you wouldn’t even have considered. Plus, you’ll have everyone thinking: if the junior’s this good, what are the rest of them like?

Don’t sell

Thought leadership can be an excellent content marketing opportunity, but you must go about it VERY CAREFULLY, especially if you’re attempting to get your article published externally. Editors can smell a hidden sales message a mile away.

The classic formula for bad thought leadership content goes something like this:

A: There is a problem

B: This is a really bad problem that you need to worry about

C: Funnily enough, our company has the exact product required to fix the problem!

D: Buy our solution.

E: The end.

No matter how hard you try to hide it, readers can smell this formula a mile away. So instead of trying to shoehorn your products and/or services into your writing, think about how you can provide a genuinely useful, unique and interesting take on a particular topic.

Sure, you can point out issues. But the answers you provide to those issues shouldn’t be all about you – they should be about the wider industry. That’s who you’re talking to, after all.

Your content doesn’t even have to be about an industry issue: why not inject some positivity and discuss a shining example of someone else’s work that you think is incredible?

If you do it right, your content will open up conversations with your prospective customers, instead of hammering them over the head with a sales pitch.

Context is key

Before you get started on your piece, make sure you’ve got your end target in mind. Who are you trying to reach, and where will they be reading your content?

If you’re targeting a publication, make sure you fully understand what that publication’s audience requires. For example, in most cases, you probably shouldn’t make the piece 3,000 words long. For an opinion piece, 600-800 words is fine.

Spend some time reading and understanding what kind of content the publication accepts. Do they prefer listicles? First person stories? In-depth technical analysis? Every publication is different, so do your research.

Similarly, if you are planning on posting the piece to LinkedIn, make sure you understand what kind of content does well on that platform.

Some useful topics to explore on LinkedIn could be:

  • relevant anecdotes
  • personal stories
  • issues around work/life balance

Make sure you put a lot of thought into your featured image and headline, because if you don’t, your potential customers will simply scroll right past.

It doesn’t even have to be in the form of a full-blown article – a short but insightful comment on someone else’s LinkedIn post could be considered a form of thought leadership.

Look beyond writing

Although this piece is primarily focussed on writing, there is a whole world of opportunity beyond the humble word. While opinion pieces are some of the most common and effective forms of thought leadership, it doesn’t end there.

Opportunities are everywhere, from podcasting to presenting research at an industry conference. Even video content is an effective way to share your thoughts, and it doesn’t have to break the bank.

Just please, whatever you do, don’t become one of those people who posts a clip of their 4 am gym session to LinkedIn as an example of work/life balance.

Don’t suck

So, this one might be easier said than done, judging by the steady flow of badly-written LinkedIn articles I see on a daily basis.

However, it also offers you a promise: if you don’t suck, you will be doing better than the majority of people who are attempting exactly the same thing.

If you have some half decent ideas and opinions about your industry, you’re already halfway there.