For some companies, “thought leadership” is the be-all, end-all of content marketing.
But it takes certain ingredients to create true thought leadership content.
So what is a thought leader and how you can be one?
True thought leadership is more than just helpful articles. It lies at the intersection of three characteristics.
This might look familiar to anyone who’s studied Aristotle’s “modes of persuasion,” logos, pathos, and ethos.
The key to thought leadership is to live at the intersection of all three modes.
It’s like a Venn diagram. The true thought leader is equal parts influencer, key opinion leader, and subject matter expert.
Here is a good definition of thought leadership, based on a survey of 480 marketers, conducted with Mantis Research and Survey Monkey.
To be a thought leader, you must clearly communicate challenging new ideas, back them up with data and have a strong point of view.
These traits were the “must haves” according to the respondents. Adding the “nice to haves” makes it an even more meaningful definition.
It doesn’t hurt if you’re a likeable person who publishes consistently and doesn't shy away from controversy.
Now let’s look at the specific ways that thought leadership drives search rankings.
So how does this all affect search rankings? When an individual does all three of the above, they will be better positioned to rank in search engines.
There are two main search ranking factors:
Online, a website’s authority can be measured using software, such as Moz (they call it “Domain Authority”) or Ahref’s (they call it “Domain Rating”). They’re basically the same.
They track the quality and quantity of links to a website, then estimate the credibility of pages on that domain.
More authority means more potential to rank. It also measures the value of a link from another site to you.
Now, we’ll dive deeper into those three areas of thought leadership, and provide five concrete strategies along the way.
In terms of having “expert insights,” thought leaders often do the following. Each of which
Steve Rayson from BuzzSumo once conducted a study that looked at a million articles. The vast majority of those articles attracted zero links and had few shares.
Rayson determined that if you want to achieve links and shares, “you should concentrate on opinion forming, authoritative content...or well researched and evidenced content.”
Research is one of the most effective formats for content.
Year after year, in study after study, the data shows that original research outperforms other formats in terms of links and shares.
You can check for yourself. Put any domain into Ahrefs or Moz or SEMrush, and you'll find that the research-driven content are the URLs that attract links.
It’s a simple question, but we couldn’t find a credible answer.
So we gathered a list of top websites and had his assistant use Wayback Machine to note the date that the companies conducted major website redesigns.
Then we published a “website lifespan” study showing that two years, seven months was the magic number for when most brands conducted a full website redesign.
That is a new piece of data. That data makes our site the primary source for that information.
It’s an eminently citable, linkable, soundbite statistic that has attracted 100+ links with zero outreach. Wikipedia spontaneously linked to it.
Original research attracts links because those links are citations, because you're in their bibliography. Because you made something that supports everyone else's assertions.
Ready to give it a try? Just ask yourself this question:
What do people in your industry often say, but rarely support with evidence?
In other words, find the missing statistic.
Anyone can do this. But few content programs do. Only 39% of brands have publish original research in the last 12 months, according to a study by Mantis Research.
So why don't more people do it? Because it's a lot more work.
But it’s the 10x efforts that get 100x results.
Why do we spend so much time on these research projects? Why do we create all these graphics? Why don't we make videos? Why did we publish original research?
Because it’s the big content projects that have the best chance of getting the really big results..
If you truly want to differentiate, there are no shortcuts. When you’re ready to go big with thought leadership, write a book.
Sounds intimidating, right? Here’s an easy way to start: look at your “LBOW,” or Lifetime Body of Work.
Your LBOW is the sum total of everything you've ever published (and recorded) over your career. I track my own LBOW in a spreadsheet. It lists each of the 470+ articles I’ve ever written.
Make a list of everything you know, in outline format, on a topic. Do it on paper or with sticky notes, on a whiteboard or mindmap. The format doesn’t matter.
This is an awesome intellectual exercise. If it helps, open a bottle of wine.
Then stand back and look at it. Have you covered all those topics yet? Are there big gaps? Do you have expertise on topics you’ve never published. Start blogging on those topics, filling in the gaps.
Once you’ve got everything basically covered as blog content, set aside some time to start reformatting that into a book, using the outline as the table of contents.
For me, the above process started with sticky notes on the wall in my office. Eventually the outline and blog posts evolved into Content Chemistry, our illustrated handbook for content marketing.
Not only does the book generate some income (sales more than cover the printing costs) it also functions as a link magnet.
Book pages are very easy to build links to. Links appear to them naturally if you are active in other channels.
Write a guest post? The author bio links to the book. You’re a guest on a podcast? The show notes link to the book.
Here are two other SEO benefits exclusively for authors:
Thus far, we’ve covered how thought leadership is rooted in expertise. But expertise only makes you an educator.
What turns you into a thought leader is taking a stand.
Thought leaders stick their neck out. They plant a flag. They draw a line in the sand.
This is the difference between a thought leader and an educator. Thought leaders stand for something (and therefore against something). To do so they must express strong opinions.
They are not afraid of controversy.
Publishing strong opinions doesn’t feel safe, which is why not many high-profile individuals do so.
But a willingness to share your beliefs can result in huge SEO benefits, as in thousands of links.
Take Basecamp founder Jason Fried. One day Jason searched for Basecamp online and was incensed by the number of paid ads above his #1 ranked brand.
So he paid for the ad pictured below.
Then he tweeted it ...and then 13,000 people started talking about it ...and then, CNBC and thousands of other blogs and media websites started talking about it.
These articles quite naturally linked back to Basecamp.
This is the type of opinion-driven content that can result in exponential organic reach.
We don’t all have the follower base of Jason Fried.
But we can all think critically about this query: what questions are people in your industry afraid to answer?
The topics that you come up with can provide a great starting place for taking a stand of your own.
...or just be assertive
If you’re not ready to take a stand, you can practice by simply being more assertive in your writing. Don’t soften all the language. Be direct.
I once wrote an article called Fix Your Funnel: 15 Things to Remove from Your Website Immediately
In which I argue that no one should include social media icons in their header. The recommendation sounds something like this:
“Why put big exit signs, candy-colored exit signs on the top of your website? That'd be a terrible idea. Get that crap off your website.”
It’s a strong recommendation and it elicited some strong responses. That single post attracted 136 comments and nearly 5,000 shares.
Finally, thought leaders have followings. They are influential in the sphere that they inhabit and they are often cited by others.
They have big digital footprints. They manage their personal SEO.
They claim their knowledge panels. They’re social profiles are polished. But that’s not all they do.
By contributing to other websites, you create a clearly authoritative presence online. If you are hoping for an SEO lift from these contributions, you can take a very strategic approach.
See what phrases you’re currently ranking using Google Search Console or an SEO tool. Look for phrases for which you rank high on page two.
These are the pages that need a little lift. A boost. A link from another website.
The next time someone asks you to contribute or collaborate on a post, you’re ready.
Respond to the invitation, suggesting that a contribution that relates to the article you’ve identified.
Share a quote that references the article with a link. It should fit naturally into the content.
If they take the contribution and leave in the link, you may have just won exactly the link that can make the biggest difference in your search rankings.
So this regularly and you can support exactly the content that gets the biggest benefit.
True thought leaders are typically bombarded with requests to speak.
If you’d like to set yourself up for presentation invites, you’ll need a good speaker bio.
Publish a dedicated speaker bio page that’s optimized for the “speaker”-related keyphrase (such as “content marketing speaker”).
Then, set up alerts to notify you when your name or brand name is mentioned online. Talkwalker Alerts is a free and popular tool for this.
When you get notified on mentions, take a close look.
These links will eventually drive the rankings of your bio. And the rankings will lead to speaking opportunities.
It’s very unlikely that other speakers in your category have any clue how to do this. Most speakers pay no attention to SEO.
Rather than seek to become a speaker, start by just sharing your knowledge and advice with as many people as possible.
Don’t try to be a thought leader. Just try to be a helpful, prominent internet citizen. Be a visible expert.
Here's a quick list 15 ways to become a more visible expert.
If you’re not doing it yet, start saying “yes” to every opportunity to teach, write, create, collaborate and help.
Bottom line, end of story: learn something useful and then go teach it
You're going to have a rewarding life that way. That's good for you. It's good for everybody. That's what the internet needs. And that's who wins in the long run.