Content Strategy Hacks: 12 Questions for Scoping a Thought Leadership Initiative
As a content strategist and marketing writer, I spend a significant amount of time helping companies create and launch the nebulous “thought leadership initiative.” Being a thought leader in your space is critical; after all, people want to buy from the experts and content provides an evergreen and always-on way to display your expertise.
However, I find there’s a lot of confusion around what thought leadership means and significant anxiety about how to actually get started. “I recognize thought leadership when I see it, but I really have no idea how our brand can contribute,” is a common refrain.
A great content marketing program anchored around thought leadership costs less in terms to time, money and headaches than attending conferences, traveling to meet clients one-on-one or setting up shop at trade shows. It can raise your brand’s visibility, help your team become an industry name and promote your products and services to solution du jour for the problems your clients face. But it’s important to do the work up front to develop a strong strategy so each piece of content or asset you put into the market is helping you achieve your bigger goals.
Over the course of hundreds of discussions with marketing managers, enterprise leaders and clients, I’ve developed the following framework that can help you think through how best to approach a content strategy for your next thought leadership campaign.
What are the goals of your thought leadership initiative?
The best thought leadership initiatives and content marketing programs have a clear goal. What do you want to achieve? For example, your goal might be to raise brand visibility to attract better freelance talent, or raise awareness of your products and services with a specific niche, such as tech companies. Be really specific, even if there are multiple objectives.
Broadly, are there audiences, topics or verticals that are especially important?
Dig deeper on who you want to reach – and why. For example, one tech company I spoke with wanted to develop a strategy that helped take their software into new industries. By being very clear about which industries or audiences you want to target, it’s possible to develop a narrative that resonates with them and ensure that your content doesn’t feel too generic.
What narratives or storylines do we want to explore for the campaign?
What’s the high level storyline you want to explore? For example, your story might be that B2B companies are missing a key opportunity within the customer experience by not focusing on how to leave customers feeling inspired. Or that banks need to keep pace with evolving B2B customer expectations by investing in the right technology. Find a project-wide narrative that makes sense and boil it down to a single sentence. For a creative agency, it might be: “Meet the unknown team behind award-winning campaigns and get their inside perspective on the creative process, marketing and branding.” Fundamentally, this answers the question, “What are we trying to say in the market?”
Will your focus be onsite content creation (blogs, white papers, etc.) or offsite placements, like guest blogs or contributed pieces to publications?
Be specific with your goals, and think about how specific publications – if you’re focused on placing content off your website – can help you reach the client audience you want to contact, and drive them to reach out to you.
What’s the CTA for these pieces going to be?
What’s your call to action? Make sure each content piece in the strategy has a CTA that ties back to the overarching objectives – and that there’s a high level CTA for a prospect or reader that makes it through the entire campaign. Does a clear onsite content hub, social media presence or other channel exist if you’re capturing readers through contributed pieces, specifically? If not, does it make sense to invest in that first?
Who are the thought leaders that will be part of the process?
Identify the contributors in your organization. Don’t just think about executives. Your data team, sales, and people interacting with customers every day have unique insights that may resonate with your audiences.
For each one, think through their positioning vis-à-vis the following questions/points:
- Name and role
- What are the issues and topics they want to discuss at a high level?
- What’s their unique POV or insight? (For example, a marketing executive with deep expertise in manufacturing, or an analyst who has been working at the intersection of analytics and marketing.)
- Bio, examples of their work, etc.
- High level scouting of specific ideas they have, publications they love, etc.
- What does their process look like? Will they work with a ghostwriter or draft their contributions themselves? Are they interviewers and outliners, or do they want to be pitched and edit a finished draft?
What will your contribution process look like?
Think about your overarching process. Will you work with a ghostwriter, or will an editor be reviewing people’s contributions? There are different approaches to thought leadership initiatives. You can develop a set process, or customize the process according to each thought leader’s preferences. Some options include:
- Pre-pitching and drafting. Integrating thought leaders during editing.
- Scoping with thought leader, conducting interview, getting an approved outline, and going through editorial drafts.
- Mid-point process between the two.
What publications and writing styles are you aiming for?
Based on your thought leaders and your goals, in which outside publications are you seeking to place? Alternately, what styles would you like to mirror for onsite content? Put together a list of targets, mapped to either the goal or the thought leader.
What’s a realistic timeline for achieving these goals?
What are you hoping to accomplish, and how quickly do you want to get it done – and get it done right? How reasonable is this, given the thought leader’s schedule, availability and interest in participating? This is the #1 variable in content marketing schedules. Setting expectations from the beginning is key, especially with executives who are loaded with meetings, client obligations or travel, or are “noodlers” and want more time to work with copy. Set initiatives up to succeed by thinking through these variables in advance.
What’s your desired content velocity?
What velocity are you hoping to achieve? Steady production of X pieces per month for the long term is one great option; another is taking the “surround-sound” approach if you’re trying to really raise the profile of one person or support the launch of a new service line within a specific timeframe.
What will your production process look like?
One possible structure includes:
- Short creative brief
- 20 minute interview with thought leader
- Approved outline
- Draft copy and associated social assets
- Review and revision
- Finalized copy and social assets
What will your editorial calendar look like?
Consider developing an editorial calendar that covers each quarter. Think about how often you will publish and what your content will include. Boil your overarching strategy down into quarterly themes, content series and weekly deliverables. Planning ahead increases the chances that you’ll succeed in building a sustainable thought leadership initiative.
How will your promote and distribute your content?
What will your approach to promotion and distribution look like? For example, will you pre-pitch outside publications and then write, or write and then place content that you’ve developed? Both approaches can work, but pre-pitch and write can create time pressure from editors who want materials fast. Writing and then pitching means you might not get placed in your top choice; however, working a ladder of publications from most desired to least desired is one smart approach.
What are your plans for amplification of the piece?
Examples include social programming and promotion, paid advertising and paid distribution. Don’t skip this area of planning, as it’s critical to your ROI.
How will we measure success? What are the KPIs?
You’ve invested all this effort. How will you know that it pays off? Think about everything from content-level metrics that show people are consuming and sharing your content, to how the initiative impacts the bottom line. Is it bringing you new customers and leads?
Launching a thought leadership initiative isn’t a small investment. But it can pay dividends when it’s carefully managed. Spend time on your content strategy before you start writing, and you’ll ensure that your investments help establish an ongoing and rewarding conversation with the market.
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