Originally published on Nov. 25, 2015. Updated on March 10, 2022.
As marketers and business executives, we know how valuable it is to receive recognition as industry leaders — from other executives, key influencers, partners, clients, and prospective customers — and to become go-to resources for information about our industries.
A thought leadership strategy can help you achieve your goals of becoming a leader and trusted resource within your industry, but making the case for its investment, determining the long-term ROI, and understanding how it directly affects your customers’ journey can be difficult.
To help, I’ve outlined what thought leadership means and how it impacts your prospective customers on their journey to your product or service.
What Is Thought Leadership?
Thought leadership is achieved by continuously sharing unique insights and expertise through high-quality content. Being a thought leader doesn’t depend on the number of followers you have on social media. It relies on your ability to educate, improve, and add value to your industry as a whole.
Kelsey Raymond, the CEO of Influence & Co., said it best:
“To be a true thought leader in your industry, you need to become a trustworthy, engaging resource for others in your space.”
Establishing yourself as a trusted expert will help you humanize your brand and build an authentic connection with your target audience. That connection plays a critical role in each stage of the buyer’s journey.
Learn how to position yourself as a thought leader with this helpful guide:
The Problem Identification Stage (Awareness)
During the first stage of the buyer’s journey, your prospective customers are just becoming aware of the particular problems or opportunities they’re facing, and they’re looking for information to help them better understand and meet their own needs. At this point, your audience members aren’t looking for a sales pitch or overly promotional content — they’re looking for information and resources about what they’re experiencing.
While these members of your audience are typically the furthest away from making any purchase decisions, they represent the biggest pool of potential business you have, and you shouldn’t ignore this opportunity to educate and engage them.
Thought leadership content is critical in this stage of the buyer’s journey, and its success rests on your ability to reach these prospective customers using the platforms and publications they’re already engaging with.
Contributing educational articles to targeted online publications your audience is already reading, speaking at industry conferences, and advancing the conversations your audience is having on social media are great ways to start providing value to prospective customers during the first stage of the buyer’s journey. Other effective types of thought leadership content include webinars, emails newsletters, and on-site content such as blog posts.
For topics, think about the problems your prospective customers are facing and ways they would begin their journey, and let that guide your thought leadership content creation.
The Research Stage (Consideration)
Now that you’ve become a resource for your audience members by using your expertise to help them identify their problems and opportunities, walk them through various solutions. After all, thought leaders don’t just identify that a problem exists — they offer good solutions, too.
Ideally, you’ll have prepared for this stage of the buyer’s journey in the first stage by linking to your company website and blog content to help direct your audience to more resources that will help them make the best decisions.
But maybe your audience didn’t start with your guest-contributed content during the first stage of the journey. Prospective customers can still make their way through the funnel by finding you in search results from their independent research during this stage. And their chances of finding you increase with your consistency in publishing tactical, actionable, relevant, and educational content. The impact of this thought leadership strategy is threefold:
- You’re providing insight into your industry and the solutions prospective customers need, which builds your brand as an expert.
- You’re educating your prospective customers about the resources and processes for implementing their solutions, which is key to their understanding of the added value your expertise brings to their problem-solving.
- You’re able to clearly set expectations about the time it takes to solve their problem.
This is often the lengthiest stage of the buyer’s journey, and much of the thought leadership content you create will be targeted to this part of the funnel. Information collection and analysis is an ongoing process your prospective customers go through at their own pace. To be successful, you’ve got to stay top of mind and add value to these audiences, and you can do that by consistently publishing high-quality content.
The Sales Activation Stage (Decision)
As your audience members engage over time, they’ll eventually be prepared to evaluate alternative solutions and make a purchase decision. And once your prospective customers have identified their problems and are actively seeking solutions, they’ve entered the third and final stage of the buyer’s journey: the decision-making stage.
As a thought leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure your audience members are properly educated and help them understand what the best solutions will look like for them as prospective buyers.
The content you create for this stage should help them evaluate the pros and cons of their options. Should your prospective customers look at assembling an in-house solution to their problems, or should they consider outsourcing? What are the alternatives, and what do you offer that others don’t? What did other, similar prospects decide in the past, and what was the result? Generating case studies, comparison guides, comprehensive whitepapers, and other tools can help your prospects determine whether you’re the best solution to their problem.
Shifting to the Sales Cycle
At this point in the process, your thought leadership efforts have succeeded in engaging and educating your target audience, building more trust in your brand, and helping prospective customers have a personalized conversation. While the sales process is its own beast, it’s key that your team uses the thought leadership platform you’ve built throughout the discussion.
Maybe your lead needs more education about your process to justify the price, or perhaps they want to learn more about how you compare to another business they’re considering. Or maybe all your lead needs to see is your unique content published in authoritative industry publications to know you’re the right, credible choice. Regardless of the situation, leveraging your thought leadership content during an engaged sales process has the power to increase conversion rates among leads from all different sources.
Finally, remember these questions as you implement your thought leadership content marketing strategy:
- Am I helping members of my audience identify their needs?
- Am I providing enough information to help them solve their problems?
- Am I helping them evaluate their options and make the best decision?
If you can confidently answer each of these questions with a “yes,” you’ll be successful in using thought leadership content throughout the buyer’s journey, and you’ll position yourself as the go-to resource your audience looks to for information and assistance.