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5 Ways to Level Up Your Thought Leadership Thought leadership is one of the most cost-effective forms of marketing. Here's how to use it to your advantage.

By Todd Stansfield Edited by Kara McIntyre

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Your thought leadership may be missing the mark.

New research shows that nearly three out of every four buyers don't find value in at least half of the thought leadership they consume. From the same research sample, however, nearly half bought from an unknown company because of its thought leadership.

This difference raises big questions and stakes over what distinguishes mediocre from good thought leadership. In my experience, the answer boils down to five characteristics. Here's what they are and how you can use them to level up your results.

Related: How to Harness the Power of Thought-Leadership Marketing

1. Teach, don't sell

Think about who you trust. Does that person want to see your life improve without getting anything in return? Or does that individual demand compensation before investing in your growth?

The most trustworthy brands educate their audiences without expecting to immediately profit. They serve the role of the professor rather than the salesperson. While the sales rep offers value in exchange for monetary gain, the teacher asks only for engagement and application.

And often, the former sees better results than the latter. In B2B, where customers spend as much as six months in their buying journey and switch vendors approximately every five years, patience and a methodical approach prove far more effective than a short-term focus.

This isn't to say that your content shouldn't sell — it should. But it's a question of timing. Prospects seek thought leadership to learn. This happens in the early phases of their buying journey (a.k.a. at the "top of the funnel") when they may not be fully aware of their problem or the solutions available to them.

To educate your audience:

1. Meet your customers at their Point A. To do so, use voice of customer data, internal learnings and external research to build a buyer persona for your audience. This persona should include the attributes that matter for your business and define at least:

  1. Pains
  2. Desires
  3. Motivators
  4. Failed solutions
  5. Beliefs
  6. Decision barriers

2. Provide content that brings them from Point A to Point B. Once you define your buyer persona(s), you understand who your prospect is and where they stand. You can then develop thought leadership that meets them at Point A and moves them to Point B.

Point A may be creating awareness for your prospect of their problem — or it may be introducing the solution.

Related: Buyer Personas: What They Are, Why They Matter and How to Best Build One

2. Take a stance

Do you trust the person who stands for nothing, who hesitates to take a side on an issue? Or the person whose perspective stays consistent, clear and uncompromising?

Trust calls for consistency and reliability. And by reliability, I mean knowing that someone believes (and will continue to believe) in something. By establishing your belief system, communicating it to your prospects and committing to it with action, you give your customers a foothold to trust you.

If their perspective aligns with yours, they will. If it doesn't, they'll move on.

Taking a stance creates a binary decision, which is incredibly valuable for your business. You no longer waste time on prospects who stick around because they don't yet fully understand you. Instead, you focus your scarce resources — time, talent and capital — on the prospects who buy into your philosophy, the ones most likely to close and renew.

To take a stance:

  1. Be provocative. Your business exists to defy the status quo. Embrace that role. Call out the danger of inertia and why alternative solutions won't suffice.
  2. Flesh out your logic. Clearly convey not only what you believe, but why you believe it. Give your prospects the full context to relate to your position.
  3. Lean on your research. Back claims with support to prove the credibility of your perspective and expertise.

Related: 11 Ways to Build Thought Leadership With Your Personal Brand

3. Back your claims

Experts don't give opinions. They present perspectives grounded in research, data and proven experience. As a result, they earn trust and confidence through authority.

A total of 80% of B2B prospects demand that brands validate their thought leadership with support from credible third parties. Given the volume of content produced every day, it's no surprise they feel this way. Trust calls for more than your word, but the voice of many.

To back your content with research:

  1. Cite your sources. Where appropriate, link to your independent research. You may also explicitly mention your source, but only do so for widely known organizations (e.g. "a Gartner study found…").
  2. Vary your research type and source. Include both independent research and empirical evidence, such as customer case studies or internal data. Also, rely on multiple sources, not just one for an entire content asset.
  3. Make it stand out. For numerical data, make it easy for readers to spot and digest. Use callouts to highlight data points and substantive statements.

4. Tell a story

The story appeals to emotion, the greatest motivator of all.

Storytelling also influences behavior by seizing the full attention of audiences, getting them to consider new perspectives and helping them make sense of complex information.

But unlike Hollywood films, your story should position your prospect as the hero, and yourself as the guide that will help them on their journey. Doing so will place you in the role of trusted advisor, personify your business, and make it transparent and relatable — all useful conditions for nurturing trust.

To capitalize on the power of story:

  1. Build the journey of transformation. Use customer case studies and anecdotes to give prospects insight into the journey they can expect before, during, and after adopting your solution.
  2. Incorporate your founder's story. Give background into why your business exists and its heroic pursuit to become the partner best equipped to help your prospect reach their desired state.
  3. Foreshadow the future. Build excitement by describing the potential for your prospects and the greater industry with full adoption of your solution.

Related: The Value of Building Thought Leadership

5. Stay cutting edge

Prospects want to buy from forward-looking organizations that aren't complacent in present success. Complacency is a sign of an atrophying business, one unlikely to remain a great partner for the average five-year duration of a B2B vendor contract, which we referenced earlier.

With technology becoming more entrenched in our lives and changing at an accelerated rate, businesses must actively push to stay on the cutting edge. That means staying attuned to the latest industry findings and continually adapting to signals that call for altering your view.

To stay on the cutting edge:

  1. Engage in social listening. What do you hear from your prospects about their journey of transformation? What do you learn from your competitors, what they say and do, and how they interact with your prospects?
  2. Keep tabs on credible third parties. Update the support for your perspective with recent research from independent parties. Avoid citing old findings that call your industry awareness and involvement into question.

Put the "leader" in thought leadership

By leveraging these five characteristics of effective thought leadership, you create the conditions to separate yourself from competitors.

You can attract the attention of skeptical prospects, earn their trust and confidence and win.

But only if you see thought leadership through the lens of your readers and what they truly value: A necessary transformation, as efficient and effective as possible — so help them. Infuse your content with these five characteristics, and see the difference it makes.

Todd Stansfield

Content Marketing Manager

Todd Stansfield is an accomplished ghostwriter and content marketer with more than 10 years of experience helping B2B and B2C brands. He earned a master of fine arts in creative writing from the City College of New York and a certificate in publishing from New York University.

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