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A 3-Step Blueprint to Build Your First Thought Leadership Program


April 12, 2024


Thought leadership was the buzzword on every marketing leader’s lips a few years ago. It’s not the newest strategy on the block, but a strong thought leadership strategy is table stakes for brands that want to stand out from the crowd and showcase their industry expertise. And in a world where AI-generated content is everywhere, unique opinions and real experience are competitive difference-makers.

But you’ve been trying to get your thought leadership program off the ground for ages with zero traction. Your thought leaders (if you can find them) are too busy, leadership has competing priorities, and at one point you realized it requires a lot of content development. Yikes, right? But it doesn't have to be hard.

Let's outline a few shortcuts you can use to build out your thought leadership program, launch it, and grow from there. After all, getting started is the hardest part!

Step 1: Identify Your Internal Thought Leaders

You may already know the thought leaders at your organization. They’re often the subject matter experts (SMEs) who know the industry inside and out, helping the product team develop a roadmap and working with leadership to determine business goals.

Alternatively, you might be looking at your org chart and wondering just where those promised thought leaders are. It’s a pretty common conundrum—sometimes internal expertise is distributed across teams rather than individuals, or one person hasn’t been singled out from the rest as a subject matter expert.

Your first task is to figure out who your thought leaders are.

Examine your buyer personas for clues

Every marketing objective boils down to reaching and convincing your buyer personas to, well, buy. Look at your personas: what are their roles within a company? Who is an analog to those roles within your company?

Next, do a little recon on your colleagues in similar roles. Head to any public professional profiles, like LinkedIn or X. Are they active on the platforms you care about? What’s their audience like? Are their posts engaging?

Reach out to your colleagues directly. Do they participate in any communities where your buyer personas in similar roles could be active? This could be something like a Slack group, a LinkedIn community, a professional association like the Product Marketer’s Alliance, anything. What you’re assessing is their current influence and audience, things you can barnacle onto to reach new, better-qualified prospects.

Once you’ve gathered the info you need, craft a compelling 'pitch' asking them to devote a fragment of their bandwidth to your new thought leadership program. Outline potential tasks, time commitments, projects, and other activities you may be planning as part of your program. And remember, you’ll want this to be both transparent, realistic, and persuasive. Make it clear that marketing should be shouldering most of the effort in launching your program.

Tap into board members, advisors, and other invested third parties

Your internal thought leader doesn’t have to be a full-time employee. They can be anyone invested in the success of your brand. This can range from advisors to board members to consultants and even freelancers contracted specifically for their industry expertise. These individuals often have robust, high-quality audiences you can access via a thought leadership partnership.

Use distributed thought leaders across teams

If you’re running into walls left and right trying to find individuals qualified and willing to share their expertise and audiences with your org, consider distributed thought leadership. Tied to the brand itself rather than individuals, there are pros and cons to this option. You don’t necessarily get the benefit of tapping into an existing audience as you would with an individual, but you do safeguard your brand against the inevitable departure of a thought leader and loss of access to their audiences and ideas.

For this option, you’ll want to create a 'tiger team' of individuals across the org who can collaborate on the duties of a thought leader. This could look like a regular group sync to brainstorm topics, a Slack channel devoted to sharing and reacting to industry news and expertise, an 'office hours' open invitation to the wider org to contribute ideas, or any other creative idea that brings ambitious, curious people together.

Step 2: Get Buy-in for Your Program

Much of the friction involved in planning, launching, and maintaining a thought leadership program comes down to two things: bandwidth and confidence.

Objection handling: Low bandwidth

'Free time' is a beautiful dream no matter your role or company. Getting people to commit to everything involved in being a thought leader and growing the program is an uphill battle just because of the extra effort involved. Your job is to find ways to make it as easy on everyone involved as possible.

Here are a few ways to get around the low/no bandwidth objection:

  • “I just need 10 minutes of your time:” A half-hour meeting on the calendar may be too much for the busiest SMEs on your list, but almost anyone has at least 10 minutes to spare once a week. Provide a prompt and ask them to record themselves speaking about it for ten minutes. This can be stream-of-consciousness; what you’re looking to understand are the topic trends, noteworthy sound bites, differentiating opinions, and tactics and strategies that can seed your content ideation.
  • Ask for 3 things, no more and no less: You want to get a commitment to three things from your thought leader: ideas to build into content, their expert review and feedback on what you create, and a final approval. Let them know exactly how much time and effort these activities will take. Send calendar reminders and give clear deadlines, and pull in executive assistants for help when you need to!
  • Develop targeted questions and prompts: A blank sheet of paper is intimidating for everyone. Provide your thought leaders with strong direction on what you want to get from them topic- or goal-wise. The better guardrails you provide, the faster and straighter they’ll drive.
  • Repurpose existing content: Did your SME contribute to an internal or external webinar? Speak at an event? Write an engaging LinkedIn post? Use existing content to make ideation and creation easier. It’s far less effort to build on an idea than create one from scratch.

Objection handling: Low confidence

Sometimes even the most impressive experts quail when they think of actually positioning themselves that way. Your duty is to act as their hype-person and sounding board, building their own confidence in their work to get them eager to contribute.

Here are a few ways to build up their SME self-confidence:

  • Highlight existing success: Be strategic in how you phrase requests and ideas. Use their recent successes or wins to highlight their capability. Example: “I noticed that [respected industry heavyweight] commented on/reposted/reacted to your recent article. I’m not surprised—it was so insightful! Should we consider a followup?”
  • Share impact: Don’t ask thought leaders to contribute their time and effort without showing them how it’s working. Whether that’s a quick DM or email to celebrate engagement on an asset or a regular report showing metrics, make sure they know how their work with you is making an impact and driving towards business goals.
  • Frame negatives as a learning opportunity: Nobody can win 100% of the time. When you’re a thought leader with your ideas in the spotlight and under scrutiny, a perceived failure can hurt. If you’re facing audience or community criticism for a program, support your thought leader as much as you can. Frame it as an opportunity to learn from, use public-facing brand channels to take pressure off of the individual, and give them space to work through it. It’s not easy at the top!

Step 3: Idea Development & Repeatable Processes

When you’re building a thought leadership program, it can be tempting to just go for it, especially if buy-in was difficult to get and you just want to get this thing off the ground. It’s critical to have a strong, repeatable framework supporting your program, though: this is what will keep all involved confident that their effort isn’t going to waste, while reining in the potential for things to go off the rails.

Once you’ve identified your thought leaders and gotten buy-in for your program, you’ll have a good lay of the land. You know who you’re working with, what to expect from their time commitments, and how much support you have internally. It’s time to build out the processes that will support your program going forward.

Idea development

Obtaining and developing your thought leaders’ ideas can be tough stuff. We’ve got a process for making it easier:

  • Revisit the '10 minutes' tactic mentioned above for thought leadership ideation. Give your SME a prompt, ask them to record themselves talking about it for a set amount of time, and then dissect it for potential ideas.
  • Use transcription tools to turn the recording into written content. Go through and bold/highlight the things that stand out to you. These can seed ideas for content across formats and channels. Take the things that are difference-makers—controversial opinions, unique takes, etc.—and add them to an ideas spreadsheet (or whatever you use to track ideas).
  • Look at your business goals and see where they intersect with the ideas you’ve uncovered. Can you turn this into a marketing theme for the month or quarter?
  • After filtering the original recording through a few of these tactics, go back to your thought leader and present the list of ideas their way. What do they think? What can they expand upon?

Repeatable processes

Giving your team and stakeholders a clear idea of what to expect is half the battle toward launching your thought leadership program. Repeatable processes, clearly communicated, are key. Consider putting the following in place:

  • Standing meetings to brainstorm, inviting thought leaders, stakeholders, and marketing team members to collaborate (and in the process, build strong cross-functional relationships).
  • Content strategy frameworks that turn your strongest thought leadership ideas into different assets shared across different channels (owned publishing channels, social media, email, etc.) to ensure your message is well-distributed and cohesive.
  • Clear, documented SLAs that keep thought leaders aware of content development timelines, feedback cycles, and final due dates.
  • Transparent reporting that shows the impact of everyone’s work and shares insights and suggestions going forward. This can be as simple as a Google Slides deck that summarizes campaign performance and highlights how thought leadership pieces contributed.
  • A content calendar that’s transparent, accessible to all involved, and shows stakeholders and thought leaders what to expect and when, including any commitments for sharing published content with their audiences on social and in valuable communities where they are active.
  • Quarterly reviews to assess participation in the program, including reviewing your third-party contacts and internal org chart for potential new SMEs to include.
  • Feedback loops that survey everyone supporting the program and collect thoughts on what’s working well, what could be improved, and identifies friction points.

Launch a Thought Leadership Program

Building a thought leadership program from scratch can be a lot like herding cats. But if you’re creative and willing to get a little scrappy, it doesn’t have to be a backburner project forever. Building strong cross-functional relationships, finding shortcuts to getting the ideas to feed your program, and supporting it all with strong processes that build confidence in the program are the key to success.

Get in touch with Right Side Up as you build out your thought leadership program—we'll connect you with talented marketers who know what thought leadership in your industry looks like, how to engage subject matter experts, and produce content establishing your brand as an industry leader.

Felicia Crawford is a distinguished content marketing leader with more than a decade of experience building full-funnel content strategies for brands like Moz, Orum, and Mason America. She's adept at taking content functions from 0 to 1, leading cross-functional teams, and crafting effective messaging frameworks that enhance brand visibility and generate leads. Felicia's innovative approaches to marketing and knack for clarifying complex subjects have established her as a valuable thought leader in the industry. Felicia joined Botify in March 2024 to lead their content marketing efforts.

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