The difference between SEO content and thought leadership content can seem stark. Search-optimized content is often thin, lacking genuine thought or actionable solutions, while thought leadership is written by someone with experience that can teach and inspire people.
I’ve been asked how to make SEO posts seem less “SEO-y,” which to me suggests a consensus that such content is written for a robot to crawl, not a person to use.
Often written from polarizing perspectives, executives will outsource SEO to cheap agencies while reserving thought leadership content for the finest thinkers in their network.
That said, thought leadership doesn’t have to come solely from the writer. Using expert interviews, forums, and contributor quotes, any team can create thought leadership content without being experts themselves. Additionally, in the competitive world of search content, original thought and expertise drive success.
In this article, I explain how to use crowdsourced thought leadership to rank better and scale SEO.
What Is Thought Leadership?
Almost everyone has “thought leadership” on their LinkedIn headline, regardless of whether they’ve previously expressed original, influential thought.
But, what defines a “thought leader”? Specifically, what makes content “thought leadership”?
The confusion lies in the belief that thought leadership is a kind of content when, in fact, it’s how you approach content. Thought leadership can be a part of your sales pages, email campaigns, blog posts, white papers, podcasts, and, yes, even your SEO content.
Thought leadership meets the following criteria:
- It’s based on experience or expertise.
- It’s authentic and conveys a unique viewpoint.
So much SEO content is written thoughtlessly, as if authored by a robot. If you’re hiring people to write content, encourage them to use what differentiates them — their brains and their network.
Thought leadership can, but doesn’t have to be:
- A controversial opinion, or one that goes against conventional wisdom.
- Based on your own experience or data (or, you can draw conclusions from other people’s experience or data).
- An opinion piece. Thought leadership can be informational, a how-to, or any kind of content that SEO content typically features.
Thought leadership is not regurgitating what hundreds of other content marketers have already said. This approach lacks experience and forces writers to cobble together a solution on their own. Instead, authors can create thought leadership by gathering the experience and expertise of others.
How Does Google Define Good SEO Content?
Before we discuss why to use thought leadership, let’s look at how Google decides what kind of content should rank.
The Google webmaster guidelines provide some great questions that content producers should ask before they hit publish:
Content and quality questions
- Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources and instead provide substantial additional value and originality?
- Is this the sort of page you'd want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Would you expect to see this content in or referenced by a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?
- Is the content free from easily-verified factual errors?
- Would you feel comfortable trusting this content for issues relating to your money or your life?
So, it’s not just my opinion — Google is telling SEOs to use their brains.
This means you need to dig deeper into the topic and go beyond the obvious. “SEO-y” content is a result of writers not having experience in the matter at hand. They’re unsure where to find answers, so they wing it — and readers can tell.
Information isn’t limited to a single source. SEO content creators can crowdsource thought leadership through interviews, gathering contributor quotes, or even reading through Reddit and forum responses to get a better idea of how people solve problems.
Within your own network, you can query people who have solved the issue you’re writing about and quote them directly. Alternatively, you can interview an expert from your own company or team. Approaching your content as a journalist is the right mindset to have.
How Crowdsourced Thought Leadership Increases Search Rank
Adopting a thought leadership approach for your SEO content will significantly improve your rankings and CTRs. Here’s how:
1) Thought leadership improves on-page user experience
Imagine your user is a VP of Sales who has been in that position for the last 20 years.
When looking for help with a specific sales management topic, they open your article on their phone, which starts with:
“Getting more sales is most business owners’ main goal …”
Most likely, they’ll exit and move on because your content doesn’t seem relevant to them. Higher bounce rates mean lower rankings.
Alternatively, you could interview a VP of Sales or spend some time on a forum, and begin the article with a direct quote like:
“You’ve prospected long enough to know the pain points your solution solves are universal, but can’t get your SDRs to stop diagnosing at the start of their cold calls …”
Now, your target is more likely to continue reading. Google will see that people find your page relevant and will reward your article with better rankings.
The goal is to ensure that within the first two sentences, the reader feels the writer has been in their shoes (or at least has talked to people who have).
Then, make sure the content — the solution, the argument, the guide, etc. — is based on information you’ve gathered from people with genuine experience.
2) Thought leadership increases the chances of earning backlinks
Thought leadership often involves incorporating data, quotes, and contributions from respected individuals. Its content is built for virality, distribution, and link building.
It’s much harder to link to single-POV pieces written by someone with little experience in the topic. Why would someone link to another generic piece of content?
As a bonus, if you include other people’s expertise in your content, you can email them the piece afterward. That way, they can share it with their network or link back to it on their own website.
3) Thought leadership allows you to create valuable content faster
While quality will always win over quantity, there’s still an advantage to frequent publishing. You’re able to stack more long-tail keywords and build topical authority.
When you crowdsource thought leadership, your writer doesn’t have to carry the burden by themselves. You can ask around and then repurpose responses into a well-written post!
How a Small Team Can Create Thought-Leadership-Infused SEO Content
Thought leaders — the ones with the experience and know-how — are short on time, and most don’t want to spend it writing SEO content.
As a result, CEOs typically outsource or delegate SEO content.
Meanwhile, content writers are tasked with writing a piece about something they have no knowledge in, for a C-level audience whose day-to-day experiences the writer couldn’t possibly comprehend.
It’s unsurprising that SEO content turns out poorly when content creators are expected to produce expert-level content on their own. Instead, your team can use different sources to find quotes and information:
- HARO (Help a Reporter Out), where journalists get quotes from people to support their stories.
- LinkedIn. Find contacts with experience in a given topic to ask one or two questions to support your content. You can also export leads from LinkedIn and connect with them via email.
- Specialized Facebook Groups.
- Send short surveys to your email list (great for collecting linkable proprietary data).
Alternatively, you can write the outline for your SEO piece and then schedule an interview with an expert. Use the outline to formulate questions for the piece. Hit record, write it down, and optimize it for SEO.
Examples of Crowdsourced Thought Leadership for SEO
Here’s a real-world example:
My content marketing agency created a piece for our client, tye.io, a customer data cleansing tool, to rank for the keyword phrase “B2B email marketing.” Ahrefs gave this phrase a difficulty score of 32 (hard), meaning we’d need a ton of backlinks to land it on the first page.
We weren’t well versed in B2B email marketing, so we crowdsourced the content.
We went through Facebook groups and online forums like Indiehackers and asked for people with case studies and expertise to share what worked for them that year in B2B email marketing. We gathered the responses and wrote an SEO piece around it, offering them backlinks in return.
With just a few hours of extra effort, we crafted a piece with more insight than most of the others ranking on Google. We simply needed to optimize and distribute it.
Within a week it was on page one without any backlinks, despite Ahrefs saying we’d need many of them. Because the article was designed for people to digest, it was shared organically on the Marketing Brew and other newsletters. All that traffic signaled to Google this piece was worth ranking fast.
Not only was it easier to write because of the expert contributors, but it also was more informative, helped our client stand out as an authority on the matter, and garnered over a thousand new visitors in a short time.
Thought leadership is when a brand’s content assets are founded on expertise. You can and should display that know-how, even if you’re writing for search.
SEO is a balance of volume, optimization, empathy, user experience, and understanding search intent. As the internet’s bank of content grows along with Google’s desire to dominate, SEOs will find it increasingly challenging to compete without quality content backed by experience, expertise, and a thorough thought process.