5 Essential Thought Leadership Skills For Content Marketing Success

There are a ton of people doing content marketing right now, but most of them aren’t thought leaders. Thought leaders aren’t just bloggers, or even the people speaking at conferences. Thought leaders are the people who drive conversations, influence others and shape perceptions in any given industry. Thought leadership means you create the news rather than […]

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There are a ton of people doing content marketing right now, but most of them aren’t thought leaders.

brain_shutterstock_65181187Thought leaders aren’t just bloggers, or even the people speaking at conferences. Thought leaders are the people who drive conversations, influence others and shape perceptions in any given industry.

Thought leadership means you create the news rather than simply sharing it — that yours is a respected voice others turn to in order to better understand the state of the world. If you can earn the “thought leader” label, it’s huge for building your brand and amplifying the reach of your content.

Can anyone be a thought leader? Maybe — but the people in our industry who currently earn that title stand out because they have certain qualities that other writers and marketers don’t have.

In my column today, I’ll share the five essential attributes of thought leaders that I’ve identified from analyzing some of the best out there. Read on to see if you could develop these qualities to become a thought leader yourself.

Thought Leadership Attribute #1: Ability to Find Compelling Story Angles

Trond_Lingbo_TwitterThought leaders see the story others don’t because they live and breathe the industry.

They are voracious readers who make time — several times a week or even every single day — to read the news, engage people in conversations and stay on top of current events.

If you’re a thought leader, when a story breaks, you’re already thinking of the unanswered questions and the story behind the story.

You’re playing out various scenarios of what might happen next and have an informed opinion about each potential outcome.

People are genuinely interested in your perspective and what you have to say (or write) about what’s going on because they know you’re going to have a unique take on it.

Thought Leadership Attribute #2: Great Storytelling Ability

Okay, so you have something original and compelling to share. Are you effective in how you put your message out to the masses?

There are a lot of super-smart people out there, but thought leaders stand out among the noise. Why? It’s largely because they are great storytellers regardless of the medium.

You could be a fantastic writer, an engaging speaker, or a talented visual artist. However, you’re telling the story; it’s connecting and resonating with people because you’re just that good at storytelling.

Rand Fiskin has become a thought leader in SEO in part because he’s a great storyteller. He has a knack for finding patterns and arcs, as in the below slide deck:

[slideshare id=34772391&doc=why-content-mktg-fails-arial-140516104708-phpapp01]

It’s harder to find compelling story angles in PPC because there’s not as much mystery and flux as there is in SEO.

George Michie of RKG is a great example of a compelling business storyteller on the paid side. For example, I haven’t seen anyone else point out that getting into the Knowledge Graph has a downside for your brand: Google also conveniently points users to your closest competitors.

You need to know how to create a hook. You need to know how to create suspense, lead with the news, build characters and flesh out the details your audience cares about. Whether your style is funny, analytical, satirical or super-serious, master that storytelling style and your audience will love it.

Thought Leadership Attribute #3: Credibility/ Trustworthiness

pinocchioSimply, if you’re a thought leader, your audience trusts you and knows you aren’t talking out of both sides of your mouth (or other parts of your anatomy).

Credibility is very important to you, and you make every effort to protect yours. You fact-check, cite reputable sources and make sure you’ve considered all angles before putting your opinion out there.

You might still be controversial or even outrageous at times, but you’ve earned the trust of your following and perhaps even the begrudging respect of your adversaries. People don’t have to love everything you say, but they trust that your intentions are good and you’ve done your homework.

You understand that this trust is a currency in communications and you’re not going to do anything crazy to lose it.

Melissa Mackey is a great example of a credible personality in PPC. She’s worked hard over several years to build an audience and to keep their trust by being open, honest and accountable. Back in December, she published a comprehensive case study at Search Engine Watch that demonstrated her in-depth knowledge on the actual impact of PPC on sales.

Melissa is a credible voice in PPC because she shares those experiences in a way that leaves no room for doubt: she knows what she’s doing. You’ll pay attention when she speaks or writes because she’s proven herself.

If you want to be a thought leader, you have to share the love. Keeping all the good stuff for yourself and asking people to just trust you doesn’t work. Show them why you deserve their trust.

Thought Leadership Attribute #4: Social Clout

Thought leaders are connected. What you know is important, too, but who you know helps you get what you know out there.

The internet has been a massive equalizer. You don’t have to work for one of the top agencies or hang out in exclusive Manhattan business clubs to be connected with the people who can help drive interest in your message.

Thought leaders are resourceful and seek out the people and brands that can help amplify their stories. You are constantly networking and building relationships with all kinds of people in your industry, but especially other influencers. You’re active in social media and have become a trusted source for media and PR professionals.

Take Mark Traphagen from Stone Temple Consulting. It’s nothing for Mark to start a conversation on Google+ and end up with dozens of people chatting in his thread, seeking out his opinion and sharing theirs. People look to him because he an influencer and a thought leader in his niche.


You know which reporters cover which topics and which individuals are most likely to share your content. You don’t see other thought leaders as competition, but as allies who will share your content — as you share theirs — because it’s top quality and inspires people to take action.

Crafting good content is great, but it’s all pointless if you can’t get anyone to share it.

Thought Leadership Attribute #5: A Distinctive Personality

Thought leaders don’t simply broadcast news or regurgitate other people’s
information. You need a unique personality that comes through in your content.


You might be a little quirky, edgy, funny, or more likable than others. Topics like marketing strategy have the potential to be super boring — in fact, most business topics just aren’t all that exciting.

You have to understand why it is that people engage with your content — why your voice is interesting to them. And you have to capitalize on that charisma without going too far and becoming an overblown caricature of a personality.

So Can Anyone Be a Thought Leader?

If you were born with all of these tools at your disposal or have somehow already developed these attributes and are using them to their maximum potential, you’re probably one of the most prolific thought leaders in your industry. Kudos for that!

For the vast majority, though, developing these attributes — and keeping them sharp — is a work in progress. The good news is it’s not impossible.

People like Jennifer Sable LopezJoe Kerschbaum, and Michael King are established thought leaders in internet marketing, but it didn’t happen overnight. They are active in the industry every day and try really hard to consistently demonstrate each of the above qualities.

It takes a commitment to become a thought leader, but the benefits are clear. The great thing is the internet is a massive equalizer, and if you are willing to put in the time and energy, anyone can do it!

 (Stock images via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Larry Kim
Larry Kim is founder and CTO of WordStream, provider of the AdWords Grader and 20 Minute PPC Work Week.

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