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In a world of metrics and tight budgets, thought leadership as a marketing tool can come across as a vague notion. After all, if you just want to boost sales, what good’s an op-ed about company culture, or talking about industry trends on a podcast?
Scrappy, lean startups are programmed to assess the ROI of every strategy, which usually means how many clicks a website’s getting, and how many of those clicks convert. But business development is not just about new customers. It is also about attracting talent, partners and investors, and turning your community into brand ambassadors.
Today, companies are being observed with a far more critical eye by all of their stakeholders, whether they’re potential customers, hires, partners or VCs. Leaders who really drive forward the narrative in their industry will discover that thought leadership raises their profile, image and appeal, generating blanket returns in the long term. But that ROI comes when content is leveraged as a business tool, and put to work in both the outside world you’re trying to draw your way and your inner circles.
In this first of two articles, we’ll talk about using thought leadership to build those essential external relationships:
1. Engage your community.
Every article you write must have a clear reason to exist. While you’re probably not promoting your product directly (this would get you into trouble with editors), you should be writing about an issue that’s important to the people you want to reach — whether that’s promoting diversity and inclusion or offering remote leadership tips that have worked for you. Always pen your articles with the question: Why am I writing this article now? What new prediction or insight are you truly offering?
When your piece gets published, you need to put it on the radar of the people that will draw value from it. Your first move is to share, email or direct message the published content with your close community:
• Business partners
• Journalists who’ve already had some contact with your company
To save time, you could prepare this mailing list in advance and use tools such as Mailchimp, Benchmark or Sendloop to create and send those emails.
Make sure the message you use to share the article resonates with your audience on a personal level. Include phrases like: “I’ve spoken to many of my friends about X lately, and in this article I finally put my thoughts down on paper.” Don’t gloat; make it clear that you’re just contributing to a wider discussion, and encourage them to engage too.
While you want your community to share the article, don’t make it seem forced. Rather than “please share!” give them the initiative — for example, by saying: “If you find the article valuable or want to start a conversation, it would be great if you shared it on your platforms.”
2. Use your opinions as a business card.
Half the senior executives in a recent survey said thought leadership had convinced them to get into business with a company. And 45% said they’re consuming more content since the pandemic, when we’re more in need of common solutions than ever.
Use your thought leadership content as a badge of expertise to expand your network. When writing your article, if the media outlet you’re publishing on allows it, include quotes from people you want to connect with in the future. Once the content has been published, set up a media calendar for sharing the article on multiple days, tweaking the social media post each time. The post could take direct quotes and data points from the article, and you can also start a thread with the juiciest takeaways from the article. Try to carry out A/B testing and understand what type of posts are most popular.
To extend your reach, tag the journalist who published the article as well as any organization mentioned. Use hashtags on your social posts to reach groups outside of your primary contacts, and reach out directly to potential partners, tailoring each post according to topics they’ve recently been talking about. Make yourself useful to them.
Top tip: You can check who is sharing your article using tools like Muck Rack or even by simply putting the URL into Twitter. That way you can identify people you should be starting conversations with. For example, send them a friendly message saying: “Thanks for sharing my article, I would love to connect,” or ask for their thoughts on a topic covered in the article.
3. Draw in investors.
Fundraising might be one of the clearest examples of using thought leadership as a business development tool. Since 2020, investors haven’t been taking big risks, and they’re placing their money in fewer companies. They are looking hard for proof of traction: solid data that shows the business isn’t getting stagnated by the pandemic. Many companies are struggling to show traditional traction to stay alive.
But traction is not just about revenue or acquiring customers. If sales are slowing, you can prove you’re still getting traction through recognition — public interest and hype around your brand.
Media recognition is key here. When your founders’ advice to entrepreneurs is being featured in top-tier media, and those posts are getting shared like crazy, you can indisputably show that people are paying attention to you.
Investors know that once the pandemic subsides, those companies will make short work of turning those leads into clients and collaborators.
Investors will also take your thought leadership content to gauge your wealth of knowledge as a founder, when the lack of face-to-face meetings makes it harder to get a sense of whether or not they can place their trust in you. Your strength as a leader is often as crucial as the product itself.
Always feature your thought leadership content (and how much interaction they received) in your pitch decks and business proposals. Share new thought leadership wins with prospective investors directly to build up your social proof with them.