By Nathalie Lagerfeld & Jaimie Seaton
Think of the best thought leadership article you’ve ever read. Now think about why you remember it. Did it offer a new and perhaps bold perspective? Did it impart knowledge about a subject that only an expert or insider would know? Did it make you feel inspired?
Good thought leadership should do all of those things, and more. Developing thought leadership ideas that reach this standard can seem intimidating, or even mysterious, but it’s neither. Examples of effective thought leadership articles tend to have six elements in common:
You probably have some great ideas brewing inside your head already—and you can use these elements as a roadmap for getting them out onto the page.
Whether you’re an exec looking to write for yourself or a marketer brainstorming on behalf of a subject matter expert (SME), read on to learn how to create bold, memorable thought leadership articles.
1. Set your goals
In developing thought leadership topics, start by identifying your goal. Some thought leadership campaigns focus on raising general brand awareness; success might mean an invitation to speak at an industry conference or a journalist calling you for a quote on your area of expertise.
Other thought leadership campaigns have more specific goals, which can include:
While thought leadership is not the most direct route to increased website traffic or more online conversions, those goals could be part of the conversation, too. Identifying the goal of the piece will help you identify placement targets and hone the subject to meet that goal.
2. Speak to the right audience
Next, based on the goals you’ve set, think about your target audience. A good thought leadership piece explores a subject or issue that’s relevant to its readers, so you should have a clear sense of your target demographic.
Identifying your audience will help you in three key ways:
Without identifying your audience early in the content development process, you’ll risk investing in content that doesn’t reach the right readers or advance your goals.
Start by deciding who you’re writing for. Generally, your target audience will be defined by which goals you set. For example, if your goal is recruiting new software engineering talent, your audience should be software engineers. If your goal is to fundraise, your audience should be potential investors. If your goal is to drive sales, your audience should be potential customers of your business. And so on. By paying attention to what issues your target audience cares about, you can design a piece of content that will grab their attention.
Target audience also impacts publication choices. Just as you want to choose a topic that will interest your target audience, you’ll want to identify target publications that speaks to them, too. If you want to reach founders of small- to mid-sized businesses, for example, it makes sense to place an article in Entrepreneur or a similar publication..
By contrast, when Singapore-based ride-hailing company Grab wanted to recruit more technical talent, we helped them create an article that discussed why Southeast Asia is a great place for software developers—and placed it in VentureBeat, a tech publication.
Finally, your audience will determine your writing style for the article. If you are writing a piece for a trade publication whose readers have a certain level of technical expertise, you don’t need to take as much time to define terms and explain basic technical concepts as you would if the article were to be published in a general publication. Regardless of the subject of your piece, it should be written in a way to meet the knowledge level of your intended reader.
3. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion
Once you have your goal and target in mind, it’s time to identify a strong opinion you’d like to express through your thought leadership content. “Stay positive” is good advice in many areas of life, but not in developing thought leadership: the easiest way to come up with an attention-grabbing topic is to be a little critical.
You could suggest a different approach to a common problem in your industry, like Arm VP Dennis Laudick in his article “AI’s Success Hinges on New Attitudes, Not Old Regulations” for the Next Web. Or you could address a problem or weakness familiar to your target readership, as Domino Data Labs’ Chief Data Scientist Josh Poduska did in his piece “Most CEOs Don’t Know Where to Deploy AI Within Their Business” for InformationWeek.
When brainstorming, some questions to consider are:
Don’t be afraid to be bold here, even outrageous—remember, you’re not actually writing the article yet. Even exploring positions you don’t quite agree with can be helpful, since it lets you zero in on what you really do believe.
4. Make sure your topic is new and fresh.
Bear in mind that most editors will reject articles that mention your company or its clients directly. They also don’t want a thought piece that rehashes your marketing messaging. A good thought leadership idea is high-level enough that you can talk about it at length without the reader feeling like they’re being sold something.
Editors are also looking for ideas that are fresh and original. When you do have a topic idea you like, Google it first to make sure there isn’t a similar article out there already. If there is, that doesn’t mean you need to start from scratch—but you should adjust your piece’s angle so that it is clearly new and different. Editors often pose the question: Why are you the right person to write this article? Bringing your expertise and a fresh angle to a topic answers that question.
5. Support your ideas with research
Once you have your basic ideas, the next step is to do a little digging on the topic. Research is what transforms one person’s unformed idea into a credible, informative thought leadership article.
Don’t feel the need to pack your piece with statistics—even just 2-3 strong references can make an article more credible and interesting. For example, a Catalyst study about women and mentorship is at the core of our founder Anna Redmond’s piece on the inefficacy of women’s networking groups, published in AlleyWatch.
Your thought leadership article will carry more weight if it links to evidence from impartial, credible sources. While it’s okay to refer to a Medium post or personal blog in your article, don’t rely on self-published articles for facts and figures. Look to newspapers, magazines, and reports by established and neutral research institutions for the majority of your evidence.
6. Use your voice
Writing a thought leadership article isn’t like writing a research paper or reported story, where you can never use the pronoun “I.” In fact, it is actually preferable to let your personality come through. Too many thought leadership articles sound like they were written by committee or use a staid “company voice.” Sounding like a living, breathing individual will make you stand out among the many submissions editors receive daily—and it also makes for a more compelling, engaging article.
Depending on the topic and target publication, starting with a personal story may be a good tactic. For example, when Crosscut Ventures managing partner Brian Garrett wrote about the importance of entrepreneurs’ emotional health for VentureBeat, he started by telling a personal story about his own struggles to balance work and life. This opening drew the reader in and demonstrated Garrett’s own investment in the topic.
If you don’t have a personal story to tell or it doesn’t feel like a good fit for the piece, showcase your individual voice by adding some light humor or write the piece in a conversational rhythmic style.
Some publications publish specific submission guidelines for thought leadership pieces. (For example, here’s VentureBeat’s list.) These guidelines can include things like target word count, preferred file format, and so on. If you already know where you want to pitch your piece, check to make sure that your draft follows all the rules before submitting.
Effective thought leadership engages readers
Regardless of the topic, target audience, or where the piece is ultimately published, good thought leadership will strengthen your brand and build trust and establish credibility between the writer (or company) and the reader. Developing the right thought leadership topic can be a significant time investment, but in our experience that investment has great returns.
Want help developing your next thought leadership piece? Get in touch with Hippo’s experienced editorial team.
Nathalie Lagerfeld is the Executive Editor and Jaimie Seaton is an Editor at Hippo Thinks.