smiling pencil writing thought leadership content

How to Create Thought Leadership Content When You’re Not the Expert

According to Email on Acid's report, Building Thought Leadership with Content, only 26% of marketers believe their thought leadership content is "very successful." And even self-described best-in-class marketers cite "producing the right content" as the biggest challenge.

So how do you create thought leadership content that hits the mark?

Marketers are hired primarily for their expertise in marketing. Detailed product knowledge is then typically acquired on the job and often falls short of the detail we need to consider ourselves as true thought leaders.

While many of us know how to design a detailed customer journey map or build the perfect MarTech stack, how many of us can proclaim to be absolute experts in the industry we serve? This creates problems when it’s our responsibility to create thought leadership content we need to promote our businesses.

The good news is, you don't need to be that industry-leading expert to produce great thought leadership content. You just need to know who to interview.

This doesn’t mean that you can outsource your thought leadership content production to someone “more qualified” in your organization. Creating content is the job of the marketing department.

In the 20+ years that I've been helping marketing organizations create thought leadership content that is engaging, useful, and timely content, I've come across countless marketers who have tried to farm out content production to their colleagues in other departments. This “strategy” only ever contributes to hurried content, missed deadlines, and deadly dull campaigns.  It probably also explains why I never open any of those hastily compiled email newsletters I typically receive on the second Tuesday of every month.

Here’s some advice on how to create thought leadership content to support a stronger marketing strategy:

Think like a journalist

light bulb for thought leadership content ideas

The best content marketers think like journalists.

A good journalist will have a reasonable understanding of the topics they cover (business, politics, sport, etc.). However, because their remit will typically be quite broad, it would be impossible to be an expert on everything they write about. For example, a business journalist might write an article about banking one day, the automotive industry the next day, and the energy sector the day after that. Their secret weapon to producing expert-led content is a solid list of contacts who they can call on to fill in the blanks in their knowledge. Essentially, a journalist's job isn't to be an expert; it's to ask the right people the right questions and then document the conversation.

For some thought leadership content, writers will add key quotations from subject matter experts without assigning the byline to a specific thought leader. This works well for pieces involving multiple experts, and it's just like a journalist using multiple sources in a story.

In other cases, you'll be ghostwriting on behalf of a thought leader, which means you need to find a way to capture the expert's voice and potentially their writing style.

In much the same way a journalist’s output will be inspired by current news events, your ongoing marketing objectives should guide the way you create thought leadership content. Do you want to promote a specific product or service? Do you want to highlight the type of clients you work with? Do you want to raise the profile of an individual in your organization as a thought leader?

Before you start creating content, you need to know precisely why you are creating it. This always begins with a good briefing document.

A good brief – the shortcut to success

road signs for thought leadership content shortcuts

Whether you create thought leadership content yourself or commission a freelancer or agency to do it for you, you should always start with a brief.

A good brief will typically include the following details:

  • The objective of the article
  • A suggested headline
  • The target audience
  • A list of questions that should be addressed in the article
  • A list of suggested keywords for SEO purposes
  • Your author’s byline (This could be you or the “expert” in your organization whose profile you are trying to raise).
  • Your interviewee contact details
  • Suggested images, links, and other references to be included in the article
  • Suggested word count
  • A deadline (a good journalist will never miss a deadline, marketers can learn a lot from good journalists)

Get the brief right, and it suddenly becomes very easy to plan and create your content. It’s the content marketing equivalent of painting by numbers.

Document everything

smartphone recording thought leader interview

Once you have the brief in place, it’s time to interview your expert and document the conversation.

I personally like to use Zoom to conduct my expert interviews. This means the interviewee can sit comfortably at their own desk and not have to worry about connecting to the Wi-Fi in a strange meeting room and have all of the resources they need at hand to answer my questions.

Zoom also allows me to record the interview and means I’m not distracted by hastily taking notes which I later discover I can barely read. It may also be possible to use the video or audio from the recording for added-value social media campaigns or podcasts, helping you do more with less.

Whether you're including quotations from a thought leader or writing a piece on their behalf, this recording ensures you capture the expert’s voice in your writing and quote them accurately.

For a long-form article (2,000+ words), I'll typically schedule a 60-minute meeting and, by following the questions on my brief, usually have enough detail after 30 to 40 minutes.

I like to keep my interviews fairly conversational and will let the interviewee occasionally go off-piste. However, I always try to keep the discussion's objective in focus and steer the conversation back on track if the conversation strays too far from the path. 

I always end my interviews with the question: What haven’t I asked you? This typically stuns the interviewee into silence but occasionally delivers the answers that add incredible value to my content.

Then the really hard work begins — transcribing your notes.

I always transcribe my own notes. This is a long and laborious job but worth every moment because it’s only when you listen back to the interview that you really understand what was said. You could pay someone else to do this for you and save a lot of time, but I feel this creates a disconnect between you and the commentary and may reduce your work's authenticity and impact.

Word count matters

typewriter for creating thought leadership content

Writing is a funny business. It can take me hours to write an article's opening sentence, and then the following 2,000 words just pour out of me.

As someone who earns their living by writing, I try and produce 1,000 words a day. This doesn’t always happen, and I try not to beat myself up too much if I occasionally only reach 500. The most important thing is to ensure that your words offer real value to their target audience. It's also important to remember, if it can be said in 600 words, don't waste your readers' time by squeezing in unnecessary content – your readers will thank you for it. 

Because writing is a solitary endeavor, I always try and find a place where I can work uninterrupted. As a remote worker, this isn't difficult for me but may be more challenging for others. I don't always require absolute silence, just my own space. I've had incredibly productive periods of writing in airport lounges and quiet corners of cafes.

Just because a writer isn’t typing doesn’t mean they are not working. One thing I try not to do is just stare at a blank screen. If an idea doesn't come to me, I'll do something else until I find inspiration. It's incredible how many great writing ideas I have when taking a walk to my local coffee shop or on a bike ride down the beach.

Once you have your first draft on screen, the writing process is far from over. It’s time to start the editing process.

While writing is a solo job, editing is definitely a team effort. Never under-estimate the value a good editor can add to your work. However, it’s also important to remember not to let perfect be the enemy of good. Good enough is good enough, so create thought leadership content and get it out there so it starts working for you.

The holy trinity of content marketing

illustration of content, social, email

While marketers can take many different routes when distributing their thought leadership content, I always start the process with a blog post. A good blog post can be re-worked in many different ways and can provide the foundation you’ll need to produce equally engaging email campaigns and social media posts. In fact, I often refer to the corporate blog, email marketing, and social media as the holy trinity of content marketing.

That same blog post can then be used to build out more detailed ebooks or whitepapers, podcasts, YouTube videos, webinars, and presentations. This highlights the fact that great thought leadership content should never be used just once.

A good blog is also a quick and easy way to test the water and see if a concept resonates with your audience. My first book, Becoming THE Expert: Enhancing Your Business Reputation through Thought Leadership Marketing, was inspired by the engagement I received on a short blog post I wrote about using email marketing to showcase your organization’s thought leadership. That book opened so many doors for me and essentially took me around the world to events where I was invited to speak about thought leadership marketing. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t written that simple blog post.

Getting your work out there with email and social

social amplification of thought leadership content

Once you create thought leadership content and publish the piece, it’s time to put your email marketing and social media to work to ensure it gets the maximum exposure above and beyond any love it receives from regular visitors to your site.

Email marketing is an obvious mechanism to drive traffic towards your thought leadership. Don’t wait for your irregular monthly email newsletter to highlight the availability of your content. If your thought leadership is timely, engaging, and useful — get it out there while it is hot.

It’s also important to remember that as long as your content remains timely, engaging, and useful, it will always appear fresh to someone who has never seen it before. Therefore, expert-led thought leadership content provides excellent collateral for drip campaigns triggered by an autoresponder or marketing automation campaign.

Your thought leadership may also provide a valuable internal educational resource, potentially helping your colleagues raise their potential as industry experts.

Protecting your investment in thought leadership content

illustration of man protecting content

Many organizations are attracted to developing thought leadership marketing because they perceive it as a low-cost, potentially high-impact marketing solution. While this might be true, great thought leadership will still require a significant investment in time and effort to produce informative, actionable content.

To maximize the return on your investment, you'll need to make sure that every element of your campaign is optimized to ensure you are reaching your objectives. If email is part of your thought leadership marketing strategy, you'll want to ensure that your emails deliver on their promises.

Email on Acid’s automated email checklist will ensure your campaigns arrive in your subscribers’ inboxes as intended. We check for all those issues relating to inbox display, accessibility, deliverability, and image use.  We also check for those unprofessional spelling mistakes and catastrophic link errors that reduce trust and potentially damage your reputation as a thought leader.

You wouldn’t publish an article without proofreading it. So why would you send an email without first ensuring it was fit for purpose? Think of Email on Acid as an editor that can see beyond the page in front of you and help your better position your organization as the thought leader it deserves to be.

Final thought: How to define success

measuring thought leadership content

As marketers, we are all hungry for success, yet this can be challenging to attain or even comprehend. Many of us don’t actually know what success looks like because we hadn't set those all-important marketing objectives before we started building our campaigns. If you don’t know what success looks like, how will you ever know that you’ve attained it?

I like to think of content marketing as the fuel that drives an organization towards its goals. Put the wrong kind of fuel into your marketing strategy, and you risk going nowhere fast or overshooting your goals.

When we are defining success, I would typically look at three different metrics.


Remember, you’re looking for quality, not quantity. Having a good understanding of your potential audience size is critical when setting your goals. In some niche industries, there might only be 1,000 people in the world who could become potential clients. Get to know who they are, what problems they have, and then use your thought leadership to speak directly to them.

Opportunities or Leads

An opportunity or lead is an individual who has demonstrated that they have a need to engage with your organization. Sometimes, they might need a little extra motivation to realize this. This is where your persuasive thought leadership content comes into play. Successful lead generation is a balancing act. Try to match quality with quantity. Not enough business leads or too many inferior quality leads will lead to frustration and impact your wider organization’s morale. Too many (even high-quality) business leads will block your sales funnel and lead to a negative experience as your sales team fails to respond to their needs in a timely and professional manner.

Sales and Revenue

The end game. If your traffic isn't converting into opportunities and leads, and these aren't generating revenue, your thought leadership marketing campaigns have most likely failed. The best way to circumnavigate failure is to adopt a consistent approach to testing and be ready to optimize your campaign strategy as soon as it shows any sign of failing to reach your objectives.

How could thought leadership marketing help your organization reach its objectives? Share your comments below.

Check out our list of email marketing thought leaders and discover innovative thinkers and groundbreaking marketers to follow.

Get our report on thought leadership content strategy

Find out more about how successful marketers use thought leadership content to boost their strategy. Download our report to view survey results and insights.

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