If you are, there is no point in reading this guide.
If you already have too many inbound media requests to handle, are overwhelmed with customers, and top-level talent and investors are pounding at your door, well done, you’re already a thought leader. Go respond to those media requests!
For those who aren’t there, this guide is for you.
This is a practical, no bullshit overview of the step-by-step process you can follow to break through the noise and establish yourself as the trusted go-to thought leader in your industry.
This exact process has been battle-tested over the past four years as we’ve worked with over 160 clients, created over 5,000 pieces of content, and secured over 3,000 media hits at outlets like the Today Show, 60 Minutes, and Fox News.
All of those results have come from following this exact process. Now, we’re sharing it with you so you can see the same results.
Here’s what you can expect to learn:
- How to build a foundation for PR success
- 4 tactics to establish your thought leadership presence
- How to research your industry
- How to develop your strategy
- How to execute your campaigns
- How to maximize your ROI
But before we dive in, let’s talk about why thought leadership matters so much today.
In the past, companies could get away with flying under the radar and growing their business by simply focusing on building the best product or service. Today, that’s all changed. Good products and services are not enough. To truly be successful, it takes a lot more.
Today, you need to be trusted. If your customers don’t trust you, they won’t buy from you. After all, they have more options than ever before. If you don’t have trust and credibility and your competitors do, your competitors will win.
While most companies understand the value of trust and credibility, their approach sets them up for failure from the start.
Over the years, we’ve identified a few core roadblocks that prevent companies from establishing their thought leadership. These roadblocks include:
- EGO — This is the number one thought leadership killer. We see this time and time again, where companies feel they are “too good” for a media opportunity. This can be because they think the outlet is too small or the reporter doesn’t have a big enough following but we believe you should say YES to every opportunity you get because you never know what one piece can lead to.
- TIME — Research, coming up with ideas, creating content, and building media relationships, all take a lot of time. To achieve results, it requires founders’ time, the executives’ time, and other team members’ time. Everyone has to have buy-in to the process. Otherwise, it’s impossible to overcome the time investment required.
- STRATEGY — When you decide to become a thought leader, it’s critical that you have a clear strategy developed that aligns with your company’s overall business objectives. There is nothing worse than becoming a thought leader in the wrong niche.
- FORGETTING THE BIG PICTURE — The path to becoming a thought leader takes time. And oftentimes, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. It should never be about ONE podcast interview that might have a small audience. It should be about how that ONE podcast interview combined with everything else helps you reach your goals in the years ahead.
If you can overcome these common challenges, your chances of success dramatically increase.
While everyone wants a feature on the cover of The Wall Street Journal, the reality is, it takes time to get there. Sure, maybe you’ll get lucky and get there overnight! If you want to bet on luck, go right ahead.
We prefer to bet on a proven process. And that process requires you to have the mindset that you are building a foundation. It also requires you to understand that this foundation is never truly stable. Neglecting any part of your foundation for too long can cause the entire thing to crumble, sending you back to square one.
Here are the four tactical ways to build your foundation and begin establishing your thought leadership.
Of Thought Leadership Development
Founder and Executive Insights
Founder Insights are pieces of content published under your founder’s name that leverage your founder’s knowledge, experience, and time on the front lines. These compelling thought leadership articles aren’t selling your company — they are selling your founder’s expertise. And these insights are placed on targeted media outlets that speak directly to your target audience.
These pieces are typically called guest posts, op-eds, or byline content.
How byline articles help establish thought leadership:
- Builds momentum almost immediately
- Consistent cadence of new content
- Establishes relationships with key outlets and editors
- Opportunity to test effectiveness of your message
If you are serious about becoming an industry thought leader, we recommend a minimum of one article going live every week. This byline article should be posted on your LinkedIn Pulse, all your company’s social media pages, and your company blog. (For more on maximizing the value of founder insights, click HERE.)
The reality is that unless you’re Apple or Google, no one outside your company cares about your company’s announcements. A new hire, a product update, or even a funding round isn’t going to be groundbreaking news. But that doesn’t mean your announcements aren’t valuable. In fact, they’re a critical part of the process.
Why Are Announcements Critical to Thought Leadership?
- Shows that your company is “making moves”
- Builds up your online presence
- Gives you a reason to connect with the media
- Builds momentum
You should aim for at least one small announcement per month (such as a new hire, product update, etc.) and one big announcement per quarter (Funding round, major partnership, etc.). Announcements are typically sent out on a newswire and are a “formal” release of information. (There are a number of newswire services, but our favorite is 24-7PressRelease.com because it costs around $400 and has the same reach as more expensive services.)
Handpicked Reading: 15 Ideas For Your Next Press Release
This phase is all about becoming the ultimate industry resource to the journalists and media outlets in your industry. You can do this by monitoring journalists who write about relevant keywords and topics. Use that knowledge to proactively reach out to reporters and offer to be a resource or to connect them with someone who may be a resource in the future. The key is to focus on adding value without asking or expecting anything in return.
Why is Resource PR Critical?
- Gives you the chance to build relationships
- Appear in articles as the go-to expert
- Generates collateral to share with your customers
Depending on where you are as a company, it can take a few months to build relationships and establish enough credibility for the media to trust you. That’s why it’s critical to focus on the other phases first because they support these efforts. Your target objective after 90 days should be 3-5 mentions per month.
The Mad Men days are dead — now, it’s all about being Mathmen (and women). This means you develop your creative ideas using data, not just your gut. When it comes to these ideas, you swing for the fences and look for a big idea that will create a lot of noise. These ideas can be as aggressive as a PR stunt or as casual as market surveys you conduct to generate exciting statistics that the media will feature in articles.
Why Are Data-Driven Stories So Critical?
- They can help your brand make a “big splash”
- Editors respond well to data-backed stories
- Best chance of going viral
- Can become what your company is known for
Creating these types of campaigns takes a lot of time, energy, and resources, so we recommend aiming for 2-3 per year.
Your Battle Plan
Conduct Your Deep Dive Research
For most people, research doesn’t sound like too much fun, which is why it’s the most commonly skipped step. But it’s also the most important.
Good research takes a lot of time. Combing through hundreds of articles, creating Excel databases with thousands of rows, and analyzing everything you find is no easy task. But if you want to be successful in establishing yourself as a thought leader, there is no way around it.
Your research should be broken up into four core categories:
- Customer Research: Deep dive into truly understanding your target audience.
- Content Research: Deep dive into the keywords and conversations taking place in your industry.
- Competitor Research: Deep dive into your competitors’ content and media strategy.
- Media Research: Deep dive into the outlets, podcasts, and journalists covering your industry.
Extract Insights and Develop Your Strategy
A thought leadership strategy should perfectly align with the company’s core business objectives. Everything you do should support these core goals in some way. These goals and your strategy should also be carefully documented and measured.
Without a clear and documented strategy, you shouldn’t even waste your time trying to become a thought leader. You’ll just end up burning through resources — and you’ll run the risk of being recognized for the wrong thing.
Strategy starts with asking targeted questions aimed at gathering insights that will direct your campaign’s objective. Developing your strategy requires you to extract your ideas and insights and write them down on paper.
Here are 15 core questions we’ve identified that can help define your thought leadership strategy. Click on each slide for a more detailed explanation.
What are your business objectives? (90 days, 1 year, 3 years.)
Clarifying your business objectives allows you to develop a strategy that gets you closer to achieving them. If you don’t have a strategy that helps you get closer to reaching your goals, there is no point in dedicating the time, energy, and resources it takes to build your thought leadership.
How will you evaluate success? (90 days, 1 year, 3 years.)
By mapping out how you will evaluate success over each phase, you can clarify how you’ll determine what’s working and what’s not. While we advise to not focus on immediate metrics like clicks and leads in the short term, the long-term evaluation metrics should be directly tied to a tangible business outcome.
What are you a thought leader in?
Complete this sentence (and be succinct): We are thought leaders in _________________. This statement should be broad enough that it can evolve, but specific enough that it can guide your overall strategy and direction. It’s common for vision to evolve as your company grows. But having a clear starting point to guide you is critical.
What makes you a thought leader?
Everyone wants to be a thought leader. In order to stand out and break free from all the noise, you need to clarify what experiences make you different from everyone else.
What are the core talking points you can speak to with expertise?
Your talking points should directly tie into the benefits you bring to your customers. They should be the points that you will tie all content and conversations back to, and they should guide the overall campaign. These talking points will also evolve over time and should be reviewed every 90 days.
Who are the top thought leaders in your industry?
If you’re active in your industry, this should be immediately clear. Top thought leaders are often quoted in the media and are top-of-mind for the conversations that matter in your industry. List their name, what they do, and why they are a thought leader.
What’s the future of your industry?
Elevate yourself above the day-to-day noise and really think about your top 3-5 predictions on where your industry is headed. As you list these predictions, many of them should directly tie into what your company is doing, without being overly commercial.
What are your top 3 dream headlines?
Think through how you want to be portrayed in the media and what you want the headlines to say. While this is partly aspirational and can take time to become a reality, it can also help guide the overall direction and steps you take as you begin your campaign.
What are your top 3 dream outlets?
Similar to your top headlines, these are the top three dream outlets you want to be featured in. For 90% of you, we assume WSJ and TechCrunch are on the list. ; )
What problem do you solve for customers?
This is all about the high-level problem and pain point your company solves. It’s not about your solution. It’s about what is keeping your customers up at night and driving them toward finding a solution. Defining this well will help you generate more empathetic content that your audience actually wants to read.
What third-party data highlights this problem?
Supporting data can have a major impact with the media, investors, and customers. This is not necessarily your data. It should be third-party data that highlights the exact problem you’re solving.
How does your solution work? What are the top benefits?
Create an overview of how your solution works and how it solves your customers’ problems. List out the key benefits. These should NOT be features. Who cares about features? Your overview should be about the tangible benefits that help your customers solve their problems and reach their goals.
Who else is trying to solve this problem?
This is always an emotional question, and most companies quickly say they have no direct competitors. Sure, maybe there are no direct competitors doing EXACTLY what you are doing. But there are likely competitors that have identified the problem you are aiming to solve and are tackling it in their own way. Failure to recognize this is one of the fastest ways to get beat out by someone else in the race to be recognized as the top expert in the field.
What keywords, phrases, or conversations do you want to own?
This is not about SEO. This is about topics and conversations that are taking place. And it’s critical to think through in detail because this will be used to guide your research and planning.
What do you want to write about?
Last but not least, think through what you want to write about. If you’re a founder, you likely have a lot of ideas in your head but just haven’t had the time to write them down. Now’s the time to list out all those ideas. And when you begin executing, you can use that list to get started.
Execute With a Goal of Building a Foundation
With your research and strategy done, it’s now time to execute and start seeing results from all that work you’ve put into the first two steps.
Execution — Phase 1: Founder and Executive Insights
- Step 1: Research the process for submitting contributed content at each target media outlet and identify the outlets’ editors.
- Step 2: Begin creating byline content that will be published under your founder’s, CEO’s or other executive’s name. We recommend creating 10-15 pieces at a time in order to be the most effective and your overall goal should be to build a content machine that creates one article every week.
- Step 3: Build relationships with the editors at each outlet and begin pitching your highly targeted thought leadership content based on the process they ask contributors to follow. You can find this information on the contact page, about us page, or on pages named contribute, submit a guest post, and op-eds. You then work with the editors to revise your content as needed.
- Step 4: Get your content live and distribute it across your social media and owned media channels.
Execution — Phase 2: Momentum
- Step 1: Make a list of all possible announcements you’ll have in the upcoming 90 days.
- Step 2: Create an editorial calendar to map out releasing one small announcement per month and one big announcement per quarter.
- Step 3: Create the content for each press release.
- Step 4: Publish your announcements on the newswire and share on social media and owned media.
Execution — Phase 3: Resource PR
- Step 1:Take your list of journalists from the research step of this process and follow them on social media. Most journalists prefer Twitter but you should carefully research each to determine where they are the most active and where they are most likely to engage.
- Step 2: Engage with them on social media, share their content, comment on their articles, and work to build an authentic relationship with them.
- Step 3: Look for opportunities to add value to them and don’t expect anything in return. Share an article that they may find useful, drop them an inside tip, and offer to be a source or connect them with a source for a story.
- Step 4: As you get quoted in articles, share them across your social media and thank the journalists for including you.
Execution — Phase 4: Mathmen Ideas
- Step 1: Of all the different tactics, this one is the most vague and broad because it depends heavily on the company and industry. To identify opportunities, we recommend using tools like BuzzSumo.com to identify popular stories that have proven to be favored over time.
- Step 2: As you identify stories and trends that you can capitalize on and improve, plan and develop your idea. For example, the idea could be a PR stunt, newsjacking, or a market research report.
- Step 3:Once you’ve found an idea you’re willing to bet on, map out the idea, plan, and execute.
Distribute to Maximize Your ROI
As you begin to secure coverage, it’s critical to remember that to maximize your ROI, you should view each piece as collateral. Now it’s up to you to integrate that collateral into your company’s messaging and generate as much long-term value as possible.
How to leverage collateral in HR:
The demand for startup talent has never been higher than it is today. After all, it’s not the 1960s anymore: people don’t start at a company with the intention of working there until they retire. People are on the move. And recruiting and retaining talent is critical to a company’s success.
While your team may know all the good work they’re doing, that doesn’t mean they don’t need a little encouragement from time to time. Startups are hard and stressful. It’s amazing what third-party validation that the company is making an impact and is on the right track can do to morale.
Top talent doesn’t want to waste their time with companies that aren’t going to be successful. And your views are a little biased to say the least. Just because you say you’re great and are doing big things, that doesn’t mean applicants will think the same. However, you can leverage your collateral in job postings, on your careers page, and as follow-ups after interviews to confirm to your prospective new team member that your company matters.
The following is the media distribution process we recommend clients to follow after securing each media hit.
How to leverage collateral in sales:
Sales is all about trust. And there is no better way to gain trust than with the help of social proof and third-party credibility. If you’ve developed your thought leadership strategy properly by diving deeply into your target audience before you began, the collateral you are generating should be perfectly aligned with your business objectives and should add value to your audience.
- Use the collateral in your cold email outreach to establish trust faster.
- Use with prospects who’ve gone cold. Sending them a piece of collateral can be a great way to restart conversations. It’s also far better than “…just following up again.”
- Use to maximize the value of your existing client base.
- Add into the email signatures of all sales staff: “check out XYZ Company featured on TechCrunch.”
How to leverage collateral in marketing:
There’s a lot of noise online, and it’s harder than ever for marketers to break through. Buyers have more options than ever before and because of this, trust is critical. Media coverage gives your marketing valuable collateral that you can fully integrate into different parts of your marketing funnel and strategy.
- Push people who’ve visited your site to see the coverage by retargeting them.
- Target new audiences and push them to the coverage.
- Share across your company social media channels.
- Have your key team members share across their social media accounts.
- Post on your blog: “XYZ Company Featured in WSJ.”
- Post on LinkedIn Pulse.
- Include in your upcoming newsletter.
How to leverage collateral in fundraising:
Similar to sales, a critical part of fundraising is trust. But another critical factor is momentum.
Investors want to be on the next bullet train, and they have a fiduciary duty to find and pick the top companies to invest in. While we’d never say media coverage will directly bring in millions of dollars on its own, it can be used as a tool when you’re communicating with investors.
- Opening Doors: Using media coverage to open doors with new investors you’ve never talked to before by sharing it directly.
- Talking Points: Using media coverage throughout pitches and negotiations with investors you already know.
- Traction Proof: Using media coverage to show existing investors the traction you’re gaining.
And here’s a quick checklist of the steps you should follow for each placement:
- Post on your company blog with a link back to the article
- Share on your company social media accounts
- Post on Medium
- Share on the founder’s LinkedIn Pulse
- Ask employees to share on their LinkedIn pages
- Retarget to anyone that’s been to your website
- Add to your email signature (all employees who engage with customers)
- Include in an upcoming email newsletter
- Add the media outlet logos to your website and other collateral
- Integrate into your sales process (Have sales reps use for follow-ups or opening conversations)
Putting It All Together
By following the steps we’ve mapped out, you can begin to establish your company as the thought leader in your industry.
This is not a “growth hack.” When it comes to building trust and credibility, that doesn’t exist.
To be successful, you’ll need to dedicate time, energy, and resources to seeing this process through. While it can take time to see the full benefits of thought leadership, if you focus on developing your foundation from the bottom up, you will drastically increase your chances of success.
Let’s Talk Strategy
We don’t do sales calls. We talk strategy. If after we’ve mapped out your strategy you want to work with us, great. Let’s do it. If not, well then you at least have a strategy to execute on your own or with someone else. We won’t waste your time or ours. We are very selective in who we work with and only take on companies that have a problem we believe in, a solution we believe in and a team we believe in. Free strategy calls will depend on our confidence that you meet that criteria and if we don’t think we can help you, we’ll let you know.
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