Here at the WordStream blog, we talk about influencer marketing and thought leadership quite often. Many marketers know how valuable thought leadership can be to a company’s growth, but actually implementing a thought leadership marketing strategy is a lot harder than it sounds. There's a lot to figure out: What does thought leadership really mean? How do you combine thought leadership and content marketing? How do you execute a full thought leadership marketing campaign?
To complicate matters, there’s usually a fair bit of luck involved, too, which makes the goal of achieving a reputation as a thought leader that much harder to attain.
Photo via Distilled
Take WordStream’s Founder and CTO, Larry Kim, for example. Larry is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and knowledgeable experts in the world of PPC and search marketing, but how did he get here?
I sat down with Larry recently to talk about thought leadership marketing, and today, we’ll examine the specific techniques and strategies that Larry used to gain recognition, respect, and renown in a highly competitive field.
By the end of this post, you’ll know Larry a little better and have several actionable strategies you can implement to establish yourself as a thought leader in your own industry or vertical.
Larry Kim: The Early Years (Or ‘How to Lay Thought Leadership Foundations’)
If this were an episode of Intervention, we’d probably open on a sepia-toned shot of a college campus, complete with an ominous voice-over – “Larry first experimented with PPC while he was studying electrical engineering at college in Waterloo, Canada” – but this isn’t an episode of Intervention.
“The University of Waterloo, where Larry Kim first experimented with PPC as a student…”
Larry really did, however, first get started with PPC while he was a student. Dissatisfied with the tools that AdWords provided at the time (the year 2000 specifically, when Larry was among the very first 350 advertisers to use AdWords at launch), Larry started writing his own PPC software tools. These tools later became the foundation of WordStream, and in 2007, Larry launched his company. The rest, as they say, is history.
But what does all this have to do with thought leadership marketing?
Thought Leadership Takes Time AND Strategy
Larry laid the foundations of his thought leadership almost 20 years ago. That’s not to say that becoming an influencer in your niche is guaranteed to take this long – it most certainly isn’t – but it is worth noting that Larry has been working on raising his profile in the online advertising space for a very long time, whether consciously or otherwise. This began by contributing something of value to the community, namely his free tools and the products WordStream would eventually develop.
WordStream’s AdWords Performance Grader, one of the many free tools
that was developed and adapted from Larry’s original software programs
However, merely being an active member of the community isn’t enough – you need a well-planned strategy to realize your thought leadership marketing goals.
Larry’s Thought Leadership Tip #1: Dominate ONE Underserved Niche
As well as exercising patience, Larry’s first thought leadership tip is to create and adhere to a clearly defined strategy from the very beginning – specifically, dominating one highly specialized niche in your field that isn’t being adequately covered or explored.
“My first speaking engagement was SMX West in March 2013 – and this was on a panel,” Larry says. “It was a little challenging, because by that time, search had already been around for 15 years. It’s difficult for late-movers to try and make an impact when there’s already major players in the space. They have their subscriber bases, they have their social followings, they have their distribution channels, so I was very intentional about strategy from the outset. It’s not just about tweeting or cranking out blog content – there has to be a strategy.”
‘The Nate Silver of PPC'
Although social media and blogging represent an incredible opportunity to reach new audiences, there should always be a strategy informing your decisions. Larry realized early on that in order to make himself heard in a highly competitive space – even as an expert in the field – he’d have to target and dominate a single, highly niche subject area.
Statistical analysis of the U.S. 2016 Presidential race from renowned statistician
Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight agency
“The way I looked at it was, if I’m going to do this, I want to carve out a niche, as opposed to just being lost among the vast volumes of content on the internet,” Larry says. “I spent a lot of time just reading other people’s stuff, and then kind of mapping out the market – almost like a competitive analysis – of who the thought leaders were, what their styles were, what made them great, what their distribution channels were, that kind of thing. What I found was that a lot of the search marketing articles were based solely on people’s opinions. They didn’t have any credible data to back up these claims. So, for me, idea number one was whether I could be the Nate Silver of search marketing.”
An example of Larry’s original data regarding Quality Score and average click-through rates
This concept of data-driven marketing research would later become an integral part of virtually all Larry’s content, from blog posts to conference presentations. However, although he knew that original data could support bold claims, he still needed a niche.
Before long, he found it – AdWords’ Quality Score metric.
Thought Leadership Content Marketing: Owning Your Niche
If you want to become a thought leader in your space, content marketing is absolutely essential. After all, it’s difficult to establish yourself as an expert in your field if you’re not publishing content that demonstrates your knowledge or expertise.
Larry decided to demonstrate this knowledge by zeroing in on Quality Score as his niche.
“I literally spent 18 months writing about Quality Score in AdWords – how it’s calculated, how it affects your ad delivery, its impact on cost-per-click – everything,” Larry says. “The topic was doing well, so I just went all in. It was like CNN after a major disaster; there’s just constant headlines for two months, except I did this for 18 months. Google even issued a white paper, the first white paper it published in five years on Quality Score, debunking my theories. You know you’ve made it when they’re forced to respond to some of these ideas. They didn’t mention me by name, but you could tell by the language and the counterpoints that they were reading our stuff.”
Content Marketing Takes Time
This probably isn’t what you want to hear, especially hot on the heels of the last tip. That said, it’s important that you set realistic goals and keep your expectations firmly grounded in the realm of the possible.
Take Larry’s blogging journey and the WordStream blog in particular. Larry started blogging as soon as WordStream launched as a company, way back in 2007. The web was a very different place almost a decade ago, but Larry, Elisa, and the early blog contributors did much the same thing as they do now.
It took almost four years before they saw any results.
The graph below, taken from WordStream’s Google Analytics data for the period January 2009 to January 2015, shows how long it took before WordStream’s content marketing efforts began to bear fruit:
Although it took several years for Larry and WordStream’s content marketing to start bringing in serious traffic, WordStream’s content is now the single largest driver of leads in the entire organization. Today, the WordStream blog attracts more than 1 million unique visitors per month, and thanks to his experience and insight, Larry’s columns have been syndicated by some of the world’s leading marketing and entrepreneurship publications such as Inc. magazine.
A slide from Larry’s INBOUND 2015 presentation
Some WordStream content, such as this news story about the imminent demise of Google+, earned us enormous referral traffic due to mainstream press pickups – exposure that further established Larry and WordStream as leading voices in the digital marketing space.
Larry’s Thought Leadership Tip #2: Have a Strong Opinion and Develop a Unique Style
Now we know what an uphill struggle content marketing can be, how can you stand out from the crowd, especially in those crucial, formative days? By taking a strong stance on an issue, and by developing a unique personal style.
“Most of the articles I was reading lacked a point of view,” Larry says. “I feel like if I research a piece, and the conclusion is ‘it depends,’ I’m just not going to write it. The ones that I’m going to go after are going to have a strong point of view. I’m not just going to curate some lists; it’s going to be counterintuitive, non-obvious recommendations that go against conventional wisdom – and then back that up with data.”
A great example of contrarian content backed by original data, taken from this blog post
about why everything you know about conversion rates is wrong.
However, a strong opinion can be a double-edged sword. Bold stances attract a lot of attention – and sometimes, this can be harmful as well as helpful.
“The problem with that [approach] is that it can get you into a little bit of conflict,” Larry says. “It’s a little bit like comedy – if you’re not offending anybody, then you’re not really trying hard enough. If your confidence is so bland and ‘meh’, then it’s not going to be memorable and you’re not demonstrating thought leadership by rehashing old stuff. You have to have an original point of view.”
A Quick Controversial Content Case Study
We’ve talked about contrarian content before. However, sometimes, a merely contrarian or unpopular opinion simply isn’t enough to make your voice heard. Sometimes, you’ve got to take the gloves off and advance a deeply controversial opinion to get noticed.
An excellent example of this is a campaign ran by content marketing agency Frac.tl (warning: contains language and terms that some readers may find offensive), which had been tasked with working on a campaign for apartment listing site Abodo.
The folks at Frac.tl pitched a highly controversial idea to their client – mapping out the most outspokenly bigoted places in America using analysis of tweets from Twitter, including racial slurs, misogynistic comments, and other types of intolerant discourse. The idea was to provide readers with a glimpse into the political and social atmosphere of various parts of the nation, the point being that there’s often a great deal more than an apartment’s appearance or amenities to consider when choosing a home.
Image via Abodo
The campaign received dozens of mainstream press pickups, and generated a firestorm of heated arguments on social media – a win in itself. The client was satisfied, and despite the potential harm such a controversial and contentious experiment could have had upon the client or agency’s brand, it was a major success in every way:
- More than 620 placements (240 followed links, 280 co-citation links)
- More than 67,000 social shares
- Press pickups by publications including Adweek, Business Insider, CNET, and The Daily Beast
You can read a full write-up of the campaign in this guest post at the Moz blog.
Developing a Unique Style
With so much content being produced, only the most distinctive voices will be heard, so Larry recommends developing your style early on.
“A third opening I identified was that, of the stuff I was reading, most of it was incredibly boring,” Larry says. “I did some analysis of the audiences and saw that they were mostly Millennials. You can get audience insights from Facebook and Google Analytics in terms of the age of the people who are consuming this content, and the biggest age demographic I found was 25-34.”
To Larry, this data represented an untapped opportunity – one that he leveraged to great effect.
Facebook’s Audience Insights dashboard, with a wealth of invaluable demographic information
“I thought, what if I could introduce a kind of Millennial sense of humor in my content? I just missed the cut-off for being a Millennial by, like, one year, but I do identify more strongly with Millennials than Generation X, so I employ storytelling techniques in my content. I include jokes and memes, I use emotional triggers. Why does content have to be so boring?”
Making Friends, Influencing People: Thought Leadership and the Conference Circuit
When you’re a big deal, people listen to what you have to say. People will even pay exorbitant amounts of money to come and listen to you talk.
Of course, there’s a lot more to conferences and public speaking than this.
Cracking the conference circuit can have an amazing impact on your career and position as an industry influencer, but according to Larry, most marketers come at conferences and public speaking from the wrong direction – namely, by putting the cart before the horse.
A fascinating – if slightly depressing – slide from Larry’s INBOUND 2015 presentation
“Conferences are basically an opportunity to repurpose your best stuff,” Larry explains. “When it comes to blogging, I’ll do between eight and 10 pieces a month, and most of them – like 80% of them – will go nowhere, but one or two will actually do very, very well. So what I do with those ‘unicorns’ is I basically double-down on those unicorns and repurpose them – I’ll turn it into a webinar and a conference presentation, and more derivative articles, like a follow-up story. And I know it’s a hot topic, because it’s auditioned well previously, so it’s not just me that loves the idea, I’ve gotten some validation from social metrics or SEO metrics or conversion metrics that this was a good topic.”
‘Auditioning’ Content for Conferences
I love Larry’s concept of “auditioning” content. By applying a data-driven approach to idea generation and content ideation, Larry isn’t taking any chances with his conference presentations. Each session Larry presents has been carefully vetted and auditioned using social validation and content metrics to prove that the topic resonates with audiences, making it the perfect content for a conference or speaking engagement.
Page views can be a valuable way to audition your content, but Larry finds that using engagement data from Twitter to be a far more effective way of determining a piece of content’s viability for further development, syndication, or repurposing (including data on Promoted Tweet performance).
Larry’s Thought Leadership Tip #3: Be Honest with Yourself About Your Content
Now that we know you should only pitch and present your very best content at conferences, it’s vital that you’re honest with yourself about the quality of your content – something Larry says many marketers overestimate.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they think their stuff is much better than it really is,” Larry says. “Conferences are about just doubling down on your best content. It’s like having a top hand in poker, like four aces. Why wouldn’t you try to extract more value from that hand, because it’s so rare? The thing about this technique is that you’ve got to play a lot of hands. It’s like the quantity is auditioning content, and then finding an outlier and doubling-down on that by turning it into a podcast or a video or a conference talk.”
Larry’s Thought Leadership Tip #4: Focus on Content, Not Conferences
This may seem a little counterintuitive, but even if a speaking engagement could help elevate your profile in your industry, you shouldn’t necessarily focus on securing these gigs; rather, you should be focusing on relentlessly improving the quality of your content.
Public speaking engagements can be immensely powerful in establishing yourself as a thought leader in your space, but according to Larry, many marketers are missing crucial opportunities by focusing on the wrong things – namely, worrying about the prestige of certain conference appearances and how this can advance their status in their industry, rather than trying to improve the quality of their content.
Larry onstage at Marketing Festival 2015 talking about… Quality Score. Again.
“People try to do it the reverse way around,” Larry says. “They try to pitch conferences, but conferences call us. I get between seven and 10 conference invites per month, and I’ll typically accept one or two. Basically, what’s happening is that conference appearances are a result of having achieved thought leadership, as opposed to trying to use conferences to build thought leadership.”
This principle comes back to the strategy Larry discussed earlier. By focusing on creating the very best content possible, conferences now contact Larry to discuss potential speaking engagements, rather than the other way around. In addition, by auditioning his best content via blogging and social, Larry has done everything in his power to create a compelling, actionable, and – most importantly – memorable conference appearance.
The crowd eagerly awaiting Larry’s presentation at INBOUND 2015
“The social following and conference appearances are supporting factors, but let’s not forget what comes first,” Larry says. “Is it about trying to become ‘Twitter famous’? No. Is it about trying to do a ton of public speaking? No! You need original ideas and have made some sort of remarkable contributions first. People do it backwards.”
How to Create a Killer Presentation Pitch
As nice as it would be to have a premier conference organizer call you up asking if you’d like to present, sometimes you have to be a little more proactive, and that means writing a pitch letter that will grab the presentation committee’s attention.
Writing a killer pitch letter, however, is easier said than done. Fortunately, we’ve written more than few presentation pitches over the years, so here’s how to write a pitch that will make the judges sit up and take notice.
- Open with an interesting fact: Did you know that actor Samuel L. Jackson suffered from a debilitating speech impediment as a child, and only took up acting at the behest of his speech therapist? Neither did I until I was researching this post.
Opening a pitch letter with an interesting fact or statistic is a great way to grab your reader’s attention early on. The more forcefully you can grab their attention, the more likely they are to read on. If you can frame this factoid within the context of a wider problem facing your industry – like, for example, that some businesses have an organic reach on Facebook of less than 2% – even better, as it contextualizes the subject matter of your proposed talk in a way that promises an actionable solution for attendees, something all conference organizers desperately want.
- Have a compelling, ORIGINAL angle: “Why You Should Be Advertising on Facebook” is not a compelling angle for a presentation. It’s overly broad, offers very little in the way of enticing information, and features no hint of what attendees can expect.
“Hacking the Facebook News Feed Algorithm: 5 Ways to Recover Organic Reach”, on the other hand, is almost irresistibly compelling. From the title alone, we know what the topic of the presentation will be about (Facebook’s News Feed algorithm), the specific strategies or techniques attendees will learn (five “hacks” to use in organic Facebook campaigns), as well as why this is important (to recover the rapidly diminishing organic reach many Facebook publishers have experienced). Each of these elements could – and should – be fully explored and explained in your pitch letter.
- Make your presentation as actionable as possible: Most conference attendees don’t just want to hear well-known industry figured wax lyrical about whatever fleeting topic takes their fancy – they want to leave the conference armed with actionable strategies that will save them time and money that they can implement as soon as they get back to the office.
Your pitch letter should go into detail about how your talk will benefit conference attendees. It should contain enough information to give the organizers a solid idea of your presentation’s content, yet hold enough back to entice them with promises of more. This is a difficult balance to achieve, but if you can pull it off, you may find yourself fielding an invitation to speak.
‘Land and Expand’ – The Importance of Growing Beyond Your Niche
Earlier, we talked about the necessity of identifying and owning a specialized content niche as part of your thought leadership marketing plan. For this tip, we’re going to look a little farther into the future, to the point at which you need to grow beyond that niche and expand into new, tangentially relevant content areas.
After years of writing about Quality Score and all things AdWords (and SEO, and content, and social, and…), Larry knew that there was only so much to be said about such a specialized niche of an already specialized industry.
“One challenge is that marketing is still a niche,” Larry says. “Even as a whole, marketing is still a relatively narrow niche. Once you’ve dominated a niche, like PPC, don’t stop there. You’ve got to ‘land and expand’ into other adjacent niches.”
Larry knew he had to branch out into other content areas to reach wider audiences with relevant content, so he went back to the data in search of answers.
“I looked at the audience insights from Facebook and Google Analytics that can tell you the interests of the people looking at your content,” Larry says. “In addition to marketing, the top interests were things like startups, entrepreneurship, and business growth. So about two years ago, I started an Inc. magazine column. There, the goal was to talk about subjects that were not even related to marketing, but were still relevant to the topics that the people who buy our stuff also care about, so that I can connect with them even if they don’t have a need for the specific products or services that we’re offering. Click-through and conversion rates are three times higher if there’s brand affinity.”
Once again, this comes back to Larry’s initial thought leadership marketing strategy. By setting clearly defined goals, it becomes easier to track progress toward achieving those goals, and may help you identify new opportunities to achieve them, such as broadening your reach with tangentially relevant content that your audiences will find interesting.
Larry’s Thought Leadership Tip #5: Syndicate Your Best Content
Another of Larry’s proven thought leadership marketing techniques has been to syndicate content across a variety of platforms. This is a great way to get even more mileage out of your content, and reach larger potential audiences with your message.
Larry’s content, syndicated on LinkedIn’s Pulse content discovery system
In addition to syndicating his content on LinkedIn Pulse, the professional social network’s excellent content discovery system, Larry also publishes content frequently on blogging platform Medium, an experiment that has yielded amazing results and gained Larry considerable exposure as a thought leader in the search and entrepreneurial spaces.
Stats from Larry’s Medium account, at which he publishes purely syndicated content
Our Best Thought Leadership Marketing Tips: A Recap
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, so let’s take a moment to recap Larry’s advice for aspiring thought leaders:
- Have a clearly defined thought leadership strategy from the outset
- Become an active, valued member of your professional community, and contribute resources of value to other members
- Content marketing is absolutely crucial to the success of a thought leadership marketing initiative
- Identify – and subsequently dominate – a highly specialized niche in your industry with your content
- Take a defined stance on contentious issues in your content
- Develop a unique style, voice, and tone to help your voice stand out in the crowd
- Use original data and research to back up your claims, or to serve as a resource for your professional community
- Only your very best “unicorn” content should be the basis of conference presentations
- Be realistic about the quality and value of your content
- Although speaking engagements can be valuable opportunities, conference appearances are the result of having achieved thought leadership, not a chance to build thought leadership
- Be aware of opportunities to “land and expand” into new tangentially relevant topic areas when you have established dominance in your core niche
- Syndicate content across multiple platforms for greater reach and potential exposure, such as LinkedIn and Medium
Hopefully this post has given you some insights into Larry’s journey, and some ideas for how to embark on your own thought leadership marketing endeavors.
Although serendipitous “breaks” can be helpful to becoming a thought leader in your space, Larry has demonstrated that a solid strategy and determination can elevate you to a position of respect and renown in your industry if you’re willing to work at it.