5 Ways to Make Thought Leadership ‘Magic’

By Anna Redmond

The best thought leadership casts a spell on its audience. As if by magic, it transforms passive readers into enthusiastic advocates who tweet, share, like, and post about it, racking up enough social media engagements, views, and backlinks that ensure that it will persist in Google search rankings forevermore.

Hold onto your wizard hats, folks, because I’m about to give away the secrets to casting that perfect thought leadership spell. It is possible to build exceptional content every time. The catch is that it’s whole lot of old fashioned hard work.

I was inspired by Steve Rayson’s great post on the BuzzSumo blog about the five types of “magical content”—that is, content that gets both links and shares. Below is a reaction post in which I mostly agree, argue a little, elaborate a lot—and also consider how Rayson’s insights can apply to thought leadership specifically.

According to Rayson, “magical” content is “rarer than a unicorn or a Patronus” (a mystical creature conjured by wizards in Harry Potter). And he offers some numbers to prove it:

Last year we analysed one million random posts and found 50% of posts received fewer than 8 shares and 70% of content was never linked to.

And it’s not just blog posts on company websites that get overlooked this way. Many articles published on prestigious websites like Forbes get ridiculously few links and shares. (That’s why Hippo includes social influencer promotion with every piece of thought leadership we help you create.)

Rayson goes onto explain that the posts that escape this low-shares trap—the unicorns and Patronuses—tend to fall into five categories.

1) “Authoritative content that answers popular questions, such as ‘what is…?’”

At first glance, this structure might seem too simple for in-depth thought leadership. But actually, it can be a great way to showcase domain expertise on a particular topic. At Hippo, we worked with Singapore-based venture capitalist Vinnie Lauria on his Forbes Asia article “What Makes an Asian Tiger?” which in two years has racked up almost 60,000 views.

But there’s a catch here: you have to be very, very careful which question you’re picking. With the amount of content on the internet ballooning more every day, popular questions that haven’t already been answered are getting as rare as Patronuses. And it’s not just about picking a great question—it’s also about picking a question you or your company have the authority to answer. As Rayson puts it:

The difficulty is that to create a unicorn or Patronus you have to, as Lee Odden says “be the best answer”. This means you have to choose the question carefully in an area where you have authority or can build authority, without being promotional or biased towards a product.

I’m often asked how promotional is too promotional. The best test of genuine thought leadership is genuine insight. Are you able to share something new, innovative, unusual or unexpected that the reader would have been at great pains to discover otherwise? If so, congrats! You’ve earned more leeway to ever-so-slightly mention your product or company.

The “authority” piece is another difficulty. Some areas of inquiry require real credentials. If you’re trying to write the definitive explanation of string theory, but your highest qualification is an undergraduate English degree, your article will not be taken very seriously (and will languish in Google rankings as a result). But as you move away from STEM and into softer subjects, it’s easier to rack up or bolster authority through the combination of experience and thoughtful pieces.

For example, earlier this year, my Hippo teammates helped me write a well-received piece on men reporting to women in the workplace. I admit it: I’m neither a women’s studies scholar nor an expert on power structures. I am, however, a female boss with a penchant for research. In crafting this piece, I worked with the Hippo team to review a variety of interesting studies and apply them to my thinking, as well as incorporating key conversations I had with other female leaders. The result was a thought-provoking piece that earned me more than 4,000 shares, guest slots on radio shows, as well as an invite to speak at a conference. As far as the media is concerned, I’m now an “expert” on women in the workplace—all on the strength of one great article.

2) “Strong opinion pieces”

Rayson says he and his team were surprised that controversial political posts got not just a lot of shares, but a lot of links, too—implying that other articles were citing them as an authority. He continues:

What also surprised us was that the findings didn’t just apply to political posts. It applies equally to controversial or strong opinion posts in B2B industries. Strong opinion posts appear to attract more links on average than other post formats.

We at Hippo were not surprised by this at all. People love highly opinionated content, no matter what the topic or industry. That’s probably why the thought leadership piece we worked on that has the most shares also has an extremely provocative title: “Big Data Doesn’t Exist.” We always encourage our clients to take a controversial stance, even if it’s on a niche topic.

Unlike the “authoritative content” category, the “strong opinion pieces” category is a place where up-and-coming thought leaders can make a splash. Slater Victoroff, the author of “Big Data Doesn’t Exist,” is 24 years old; this was his first byline in a major tech publication (TechCrunch). A willingness to take risks and be bold can yield incredible results.

3) “Provide original research and insights”

In this section, Rayson particularly emphasizes how organizations that put out their own, proprietary research, like Pew Research and FiveThirtyEight, get tons of backlinks and shares. Businesses can get in on the game by commissioning surveys or interviewing customers. Rayson writes:

In my view regularly updated research content should be part of any content strategy. It builds your authority and can become cornerstone content that is referenced by your industry. My one caveat is that the research needs to be in-depth and serious to have credibility. That can take time to build.

Research is definitely at the core of most great thought leadership, but you don’t always have to commission a study to get it. As Rayson points out, companies can also “review, comment, and add value to” original research as well. But I don’t think Rayson makes fully clear the potential power of this approach.

Hippo draws on a network of academic experts to research every article we write. Their years of experience in their respective disciplines ensures that this research will be “in-depth and serious”; plus, by un-siloing knowledge trapped in academia, we often uncover surprising insights. For instance, in the article “Four Ways for Entrepreneurs to Recharge Without Losing Focus” in Fast Company, our researchers were able to link the challenges of the entrepreneurial lifestyle to recent research on the effects of decision fatigue. Many of our best pieces are the product of just such diligent exploration.

4) “Leverage trending topics but provide original insights”

Here, Rayson points out that most articles on a trending topic get huge numbers of shares, but then fade into obscurity. The key to getting backlinks—and hence longevity—is to tie the trend back to advice or information that has lasting value. Rayson writes of one such article:

Walter Chen’s post was timely and leveraged a trend, but more than that, it put the game in a business context. It also promised case studies and data backed insights on how to local businesses could use Pokemon Go to improve sales. This caused big influencers, such as Marc Andreessen and sites like Hacker News to share the post, helping to amplify it.

Though it worked well for Walter Chen, this technique can be risky if you’re planning to place your thought leadership in an outside publication. Trending topics vanish in the blink of an eye, but getting an editor to publish even a beautifully written and researched thought piece can take as much as a few months. Though the payoff can be huge, if the trend passes while you’re waiting for someone to publish you, you’re left with a well-written but ultimately useless piece.

By contrast, the trending topic framework works incredibly well for blog posts like “Is Code Protected By the First Amendment?”, a Hippo-authored post that appeared on the Dreamhost blog this March. A Q&A with a lawyer from our academic network, the post was tied to the controversy over the FBI attempting to force Apple to build a backdoor into the San Bernardino killers’ iPhones. Because of the timely topic and interesting insights from an authoritative source, the post was one of Dreamhost’s most successful up to that point, earning 1,700 engagements.

5) “Authoritative content on new products or developments”

Of the five content categories, this one where I disagree the most. Rayson’s examples in this section are all written by journalists, not industry thought leaders. There’s a reason for that. You wouldn’t trust Tim Cook to give you unbiased news about the smartphone industry, much less an honest review of a new Samsung Galaxy phone. Why would a Techcrunch editor trust you to write about competitors’ products in your industry? Even on your own blog, where you have more control, trying to do this violates one of the biggest directives of good content marketing: it shouldn’t look self-serving.

Yet Rayson himself hasn’t quite given up hope. He writes:

I think this is one of the more difficult areas for companies wanting to generate content that gets shares and links but it could be an opportunity if you provide regular news updates and briefings, or have an audience that looks to you to review products from a specific use case.

To me, this still sounds too much like running a news site, and not enough like a sustainable content marketing strategy. I’d love to be proven wrong, though. Have you seen a company use “authoritative content on new products or developments” to create a Patronus-like content success?

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

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