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Thought Leadership Content: What It IS and What It’s NOT

Consumers crave it. Marketers obsess over it. Brands want to be known for it.

“It” is thought leadership, that mysterious blend of big ideas and business sense that differentiates the changemakers from the conformists. 

Most of us know genuine thought leadership content when we encounter it. But trying to define it and pinpoint what does and doesn’t count as thought leadership gets a little murky. So let’s recap the history of thought leadership, examine why it’s valuable, and outline a clear and simple thought leadership checklist you can use for evaluating your content.

What Is a Thought Leader?

As a term, “thought leadership” is relatively new to the buzzword lexicon, but the concept has existed for a few decades.

Joel Kurtzman, former editor-in-chief of Strategy + Business magazine, coined the term “thought leader” in 1994. His thought leader definition described business innovators with “distinctively original ideas, unique points of view, and new insights.”

A decade later, in 2004, an Australian named Matt Church founded Thought Leaders, a global training company that prioritized providing “meaning, relevance, and engagement” over mere information. 

Fast forward nearly another two decades to here and now, where even SEO platforms have co-opted thought leadership as a content strategy. According to SEMRush, “thought leadership is all about you creating value, building knowledge, and taking a stand.”

Toss these definitions into your Vitamix, give them a quick blend, and—voilà!—you’ve discovered the recipe for thought leadership content:

  1. Begin with an original idea, unique point of view, or new insight 
  2. Connect your audience to your idea in a way that’s meaningful, relevant, and engaging 
  3. The final result should create value, build knowledge, and hold a firm position

Isn’t “thought leadership” just another term for what Google calls “helpful content”? 

We’ve already written about Google’s “helpful content update,” which Google implemented to  “ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.”

Google’s description of helpful content sounds quite a bit like thought leadership content—except for one critical factor: Google is a search engine whose powerful AI is built to deliver answers to inquiries. 

Put plainly:

Helpful content answers questions people are already asking.

Thought leadership content answers questions people haven’t even asked yet.

Creating authentic thought leadership content

As a B2B business owner or executive, you likely don’t have time to produce your own thought leadership content. The good news is there are resources available to help, like content marketing companies. The hopefully-not-bad news is that you do have to be involved in a way that you might not be for other types of content. 

It’s one thing to hire an outsider to create general content for your brand or business. They can typically produce this content without your direct involvement. But when you outsource thought leadership content, that content still requires a thought leader. And you are that thought leader.

Don’t worry—you don’t have to do all the writing, editing, and publishing yourself. (We can handle that part!) Your role as the thought leader is to generate a fresh idea that will captivate your audience and add value to their experience with your brand or business.
If that still sounds like a lot of effort, you can rest assured that it’s worth it. Why? Because other owners and executives (likely those in your customer base) want high-quality thought leadership content. And we have the data to prove it.

B2B Decision-Makers and Buyers Want Thought Leadership

When Edelman and LinkedIn published their 2021 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, it revealed some fascinating metrics!

  • 54% of decision-makers (and 48% of C-suite executives) say they spend more than one hour each week reading thought leadership content 
  • 60% of B2B buyers say thought leadership builds credibility for unfamiliar brands
  • 57% of B2B buyers say thought leadership builds awareness for new or little-known brands 
  • 53% of B2B buyers are only interested in working with new or small companies that produce thought leadership content

But it’s not all good news…

  • 71% of decision-makers say they glean valuable insights from less than half of the thought leadership content they consume

The key takeaway? You have an excellent opportunity to create the valuable thought leadership content decision-makers and buyers crave but don’t always find.

But first, it’s important to become crystal clear about what thought leadership content is and isn’t.

Thought Leadership Content IS… 


A new idea, new perspective, new solution: all provide ample opportunity to craft original content that isn’t a run-of-the-mill regurgitation of existing content. We’re not saying you can’t tackle a topic others have already addressed. But for it to be thought leadership, you do have to bring something fresh to the conversation. 


If your audience doesn’t gain anything from reading your content, they simply won’t continue reading it. For content to count as thought leadership, it must add value for the reader by inspiring them, motivating them, challenging them, and even entertaining them.


The most influential thought leaders ground their content in personal experiences and individual expertise. Personal content is effective for a couple of reasons. First, true stories are interesting to read. Second, your true stories don’t exist anywhere else. They’re yours. Weaving personal experiences into professional content makes it more relatable, credible, and compelling.


Strong thought leadership content is typically tied to one individual. A company can be known for its thought leadership. But the content itself holds more sway when it comes from internal subject matter experts who can speak on behalf of their organization. After all, it’s tough to tell a personal story as a corporate “we.” Instead, identify your company’s thought leaders, and let them do the talking.


SEO is a powerful and important tool. Unfortunately, in their pursuit of growth, many business marketers leaned so heavily into SEO content that they no longer publish anything truly worth reading. Instead of skillfully weaving keywords into high-value content, they stack the keywords sky-high and then shove snippets of value into whatever space remains—if any.

Thought leadership content, on the other hand, has a singular purpose: to be read. Clicks and sales aren’t even on the priority list because thought leaders understand that they’re playing the long game by building an influential catalog of consumable, shareable content that will do their marketing for them.


You cannot be everything to everyone—and neither can your business. But you can be known by everyone. (You may never have owned an Apple computer or a pair of Nike shoes—but both brands are recognized and respected worldwide!)

No one makes their mark by being timid. As a thought leader, you must be brave enough to make the unexpected decision, express the uncommon opinion, or embrace the unpopular approach. We aren’t suggesting that you set out to be controversial for controversy’s sake. But if you’re afraid of ruffling a few feathers, your content will never get you anywhere.

So be brave with your message. Trust us: Someone has been waiting their whole life to learn what you know. Don’t deny them that opportunity.

Thought Leadership Content Is NOT… 


Dare we say it? Data is not thought leadership. Having something to say about the data? Now that’s thought leadership! If you can leverage statistics to support your story, that data can be hugely beneficial! But data alone doesn’t qualify your content as thought leadership.

Keywords or algorithms

You can pay a freelance writer to write 2,500 words on a single keyword, which might earn you clicks. But it won’t be thought leadership. You can hire a digital marketer to craft ad copy that triggers the algorithm, and you may gain more sales. But that’s not thought leadership, either.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping keywords and algorithms in mind when developing your ideas. But be wary of letting those elements drive your content. A more effective approach to thought leadership content is to outline your concept first, then do keyword and algorithm research. Put value first every time.

Audience size

Having a big audience doesn’t make someone a thought leader. There are plenty of wildly popular influencers with millions of followers whose content does not qualify as thought leadership. And there are plenty of incredible thought leaders whose newness or niche means their audience is still quite small.

Always brand new or unheard of

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel before you can talk about it. You simply need to have something fresh to say on the topic. Whatever your expertise, you know (or have access to) the same facts and information as everyone else in your field. Your unique insights and experiences are what set you apart as a thought leader.


If any random marketer can create your content without ever talking to you, it’s not thought leadership. YOU are the key ingredient in your thought leadership content—even if you enlist production help.


Content that exists primarily to drive traffic toward specific pages or actions is not thought leadership. Copy exists everywhere as filler—to instruct, to convey your brand vibe, or to meet a keyword quota. Some of that copy is even high-quality and high-performing! But that doesn’t make it thought leadership.

Give the People What They Want

Our lives are inundated with content, from articles to images to videos, and this sensory overwhelm can make content creation feel redundant and pointless. But people have proven that they aren’t tired of content. They’ve even said they want more of it! They simply want it to be better.

Here at Every Little Word, we create high-quality thought leadership content from your ideas, in your voice, and for your audience.

Book a Discovery Call to find out how!

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