Why Thought Leadership Marketing Is More Than A Buzzword

By Ben Kulakofsky

Why Thought Leadership Marketing Is More Than A Buzzword

What do you think of when you hear the term “thought leadership marketing”? The topic is both polarizing and misunderstood. Many marketing executives push for more thought leadership based on old definitions of who qualifies as a thought leader. At the same time, pundits decry the entire concept as an empty buzzword.

Detractors say that thought leadership is a label marketers apply far too liberally. They say content labeled as "thought leadership" is rarely groundbreaking or original enough to deserve the title.

But this view fails to acknowledge important changes in how people search for and consume content. Those to whom readers look to for wisdom has shifted. And so it’s important to re-conceptualize thought leadership. Doing so will empower you to find new sources of inspiration for your content and widen your pool of potential customers.

What is thought leadership, really?

In Business News Daily’s article, What is Thought Leadership, and Why Does It Matter?, thought leaders are defined as “trustworthy, go-to authorities among industry colleagues and peers.” Skaled CEO, Jake Dunlap, is quoted as saying, “They possess an innate ability to contribute to the conversations happening today, while also being able to speculate on what is going to happen tomorrow.”

Felicity H. Barber from The Muse explains thought leadership slightly differently: “Thought leadership is a way for a brand to position itself as a leader in a certain field or sector by demonstrating its values or expertise.”

Trustworthiness, it would seem, is the thread that connects these definitions. You cannot become a thought leader without demonstrating that your advice can be relied upon to solve common business problems.

So, who gets to be a thought leader?

While detractors would have you believe that only those who have reached the top of their field can qualify as thought leaders, the truth is that such people are not often the ones who inspire the most trust among consumers. After all, not everyone earns their credentials through hard work and merit.

Ordinary employees, on the other hand, often become experts in the nuances of their industries, the tools they use, and the problems they solve every day. When these experienced employees are empowered to share their insights with the world, it can turn a company into a powerful thought leadership content machine.

What makes you a leader, after all? Status? Credentials? The answer is simple: you’re a leader if people follow you. Tweet That!

The main difference between thought leadership and other forms of content marketing is that thought leadership capitalizes on this native expertise, wherever it’s found. In other forms of content marketing, your authority can come from research, rather than your daily interaction with the subject matter.

Think about how you search on Google. Seeing a trusted name attached to an article helps, but a detailed and thorough explanation from someone who’s solved the relevant problem many times over will inspire just as much trust. In fact, that article will instantly transform the author into a reliable source for the future.

Write what you know

One of the best pieces of thought leadership content I’ve seen was published by the makers of PouchDB, a JavaScript database.

Using PouchDB requires heavy use of a JavaScript technique called promises. Without getting into the technical side of what that means, suffice it to say it’s a technique that’s very often misused and misunderstood by developers.

PouchDB’s article on promises delivers a thorough yet easy-to-understand overview of the most common mistakes made with promises. It also demonstrates how to use them correctly and uses PouchDB itself to illustrate the author’s points.

The fact that PouchDB relies so heavily on promises and its developers use promises day-in-day-out in their jobs lends this article a lot of trustworthiness. It’s the old adage of “Write what you know.” Because we trust that the authors have made and overcome all these mistakes through their work, we know their advice is worthwhile — and their product is too.

When I first read their blog post, I was so impressed that I decided to check out their tool to see if it was something I could use. Did I need a JavaScript database? No. Did I realize I was being marketed to? Yes. Had I seen other articles about misusing promises already? Yes. But the content was so strong that I was driven to deepen my relationship with the company.

That should be the goal of all content marketing and certainly of thought leadership marketing, specifically.

Do you need to be unique?

Every marketer today knows that there is an abundance of content from which you need to differentiate yourself in order to be heard.

At Foleon, we spend a lot of time helping brands differentiate by presenting their content in a modern, interactive way.

In terms of design, it’s easy to present your work in a beautifully laid out format that would have previously only been possible with the help of a team of designers and developers. Interactivity helps to hook readers. Using interactive content experiences also allows you to personalize your content to individual readers, which will do wonders for your conversion rate.

However, many articles on thought leadership insist that an original point of view is much more important than how content is presented. They say that thought leadership is only successful when it espouses an opinion no one has ever previously expressed.

Is this the case? Can your thought leadership content work without complete originality?

Let’s come back to the question of how you perform a search when you have a problem you need to solve. You know that there are likely multiple sources and multiple opinions on the best solution for you. You probably read many pages, looking for some sort of consensus.

When choosing a solution, you don’t necessarily go with one that’s unique. You choose something tried and true — something multiple writers or reviewers have confirmed (even if you select the best laid out and presented version of that).

Your thought leadership marketing doesn’t have to be truly unique, in fact uniqueness can even hurt you in some situations. This comes back to the point made above about writing what you know. Thought leadership content should strive to anticipate questions your audience might have and answer those in the most clear, thorough, and enjoyable way possible. If other sources agree with your conclusions, but yours is the most beautifully presented and helpful, you’ll be the one to win their business.

Where does thought leadership fit in with your business?

No marketing materials exist in a vacuum. Brand awareness is a great goal, but ultimately you need visitors to convert to leads and leads to convert to customers.

Thought leadership content furthers this goal when it connects to other parts of your marketing and sales operation. It can exist for every stage of the buyer’s journey and can be free or gated content on your website.

As free, un-gated content, such as a blog post, thought leadership material should include calls to action that guide readers to other areas of the website. It can take them to gated content and to information about your business, helping to ease them through the buyer’s journey.

As gated content, thought leadership serves to capture information about leads. It can even be sent to existing customers, turning them into repeat customers and evangelists.

Foleon supports these different use cases directly. Our out-of-the-box Access Control feature allows you to easily create gated content for lead generation, and can be implemented without the help of developers. It also includes the option for readers to log in with their LinkedIn, helping you gather even more (and higher quality) information.


The fact is that many companies now are publishing editorial pieces and calling them thought leadership. That phenomenon isn’t going away any time soon. Rather than debate whether such content is truly thought leadership, why not draw on your internal expertise and produce more content your readers will find informative and useful?

Every company is filled with under-the-radar experts waiting to be mobilized as thought leaders. Your marketing team alone undoubtedly has many. Because people check multiple sources when searching for tools and solutions, it’s easier than ever to get content in front of them. If that content comes from an expert’s perspective, it gets all the benefits of thought leadership marketing.

Want to see inspirational thought leadership content? See these white papers created by other companies, using Foleon.

Foleon & CMI White Paper

How to Overcome Content Creation Barriers

Why the time is now for B2B marketers to develop modern digital content experiences.

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Ben Kulakofsky

Ben Kulakofsky is a digital marketer and content writer. His past work has been featured in the Guardian and Al Jazeera. When not buried in his notebook, Ben can be found catching midnight showings of his favorite classic horror movies.

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