The online world is awash in content. Some of the most effective content at generating awareness and converting browsers into long-term customers aims for the soft sell of thought leadership rather than the hard sell of commercial content.

Much of that thought-leadership content unfortunately follows the tried and true technique of “ready-fire-aim.” With little thought given to why it’s being written, little of the content that marketers produce hits the mark with an audience. Content too often fails because it’s irrelevant, unsophisticated, or even worse, just plain boring.

The consequence of these communications misfires can be dire. Forty-six percent of executives surveyed by Edelman said that thought leadership had decreased their respect for an organization, and 29 percent of executives decided not to do business with a company based on their thought leadership.

To stand out from the crowd—and mitigate the risk of poor-quality content reaching your customers—we ask the following questions before kicking off a project to create thought-leadership content at the Insight Content Lab.

  • Who is our intended audience? This is one of the first questions to ask. Do you know who you want to reach? It’s important to be specific—not just generic executives, but C-suite leaders at global retailers or CIOs of Fortune 500 companies? Who are the secondary audiences you’ll reach, including journalists, researchers, and even potential recruits? Is the audience global, regional, or local in nature?
  • What urgent problems or challenges do our readers face? Leaders may need to get smart on an important topic they don’t know enough about, such as digital transformation. Their industry could face declining margins and fierce competition over market share. Their previous pricing approaches may have fizzled. This is often called in the consulting business the “burning platform.” Without a real understanding of a specific audience’s needs and the burning issues they face, content has a low chance of resonating with readers.
  • What is our differentiated point of view? Anyone these days can launch a blog post into the world. Few people have something truly new and different to say. It’s remarkable how many times people write about a topic without first reading what their competitors are saying, or what’s going on in the news. More than two-thirds of authors we’ve worked with have a topic more than a point of view on the topic. Content that lacks a distinctive point of view is little more than a dry book report about what you’ve learned in your research.
  • Why does this topic or issue matter? Journalists call this section the “nut graf,” because it distills what’s important about the story “in a nutshell.” It tells busy readers why they should continue reading, and gives them enough of the top-line story to make sure they take away the right messages. In a landscape in which readers skim and flit through online content, and read as few as 20% of the words on a page, using “signposting” techniques such as the nut graf are essential.
Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash
  • Why are we publishing this now? While timelessness can be useful for “evergreen” content with a long shelf life, timeliness is often essential for content that is more of the moment. Recent events can heighten the currency and immediacy of thought-leadership content. The question “why now” relates to the burning platform—readers need to see and feel some immediacy, or else their eyes begin to glaze over.
  • What’s the value at stake? This is sometimes called the “size of the prize,” and it’s frequently overlooked, in our experience with hundreds of projects. Busy executives want to know whether the size of the market or the potential upside is particularly meaningful. If you can quantify the impact in terms of percentage points of additional margin or revenues, even better.
  • How accessible should we be to nonspecialists? Overly academic and technical jargon can be a big turnoff for readers of thought leadership, constructing a wall between insiders and those just outside the gates you may also want to reach. Sometimes you need to signal that you are fluent in the latest lingo, but you also need to define your terms and sometimes make things understandable to, yes, even your parents.
  • What actions should the reader take? Sometimes actionable advice is the main event, as it is in this article. Sometimes it’s just a passing reference. Regardless, the advice shows that you have more than an academic understanding of the topic gleaned from a few hours of desk research, but rather that you have the deep experience in a field to help readers begin to approach their problems. For authors who spearhead any kind of consultative, sales, or marketing effort, this section is critical to establishing your credibility.
  • What supporting examples and evidence illustrate our thesis? Specific details can make an article or report come alive with richness and color. Meaty details can include case studies, survey data, industry analysis, and named or anonymous client experiences. They should be woven throughout your story.
  • What kind of experience do we want readers to have? This question is last but certainly not least. The content drives the format, to be sure. But the format is vital to the story you tell. Do you have rich detail that will take significant text or graphics to properly to explain? Can you also create a “snackable version” in a quick-hit infographic or microcontent that boils things down for time-starved or on-the-go readers? Do you also need to create a deep-dive, immersive experience for those who want to geek out on all the data?

Answering these critical questions can ensure that more of your content marketing efforts rise above the merely serviceable and creates true thought leadership that inspires, engages, and spurs readers to get in touch.

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