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17 min read

The Path to Achieving Corporate Thought Leadership

We're in a world where everyone wants to be a thought leader. But what does it look like for your company to gain thought leadership? 


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Lisa Gately from Forrester meets with us to discuss thought leadership – what it is, what it isn’t, and how to create a thought leadership campaign. 

According to Lisa, “Thought leadership is a social dialogue. It is an intentional exercise of knowledge, skills, and expertise to build awareness, elevate perception, and drive preference related to key issues that audiences care about.” 

Thought leadership is brand equity – but it’s not easy to achieve. Most thought leadership misses the mark because it doesn't provide a unique perspective on an issue, it's not prioritized with internal resources, and it's ultimately self-serving -- it's product or solution marketing -- not industry leadership.

Lisa discusses how to diverge from our traditional way of thinking about thought leadership and build a thought leadership plan that's strategic, resourced, and meaningful.




Are you a leader in your company or have you ever had a leader in your company say to you, I'd like our company to have some thought leadership? Can you make that happen? I am Morgan Norris, senior Brand and Content Strategist at TREW Marketing, and I'm guest hosting Content Marketing, Engineered today for Wendy on a topic I am so passionate about, Thought Leadership. Listen, this is something I hear on a monthly basis. The client comes to us and says, can you make me a thought leader? Or our company needs some thought leadership. What do we do? And so today we're going to look at what thought leadership is, who can be a thought leader, and then what it looks like to plan, execute, and measure a thought leadership program for your organization.


Welcome to Content Marketing, Engineered, your source for building trust and generating demand with technical content. Here is your host, Wendy Covey.


Hi and welcome to Content Marketing, Engineered. On each episode, I'll break down an industry trend, challenge or best practice in reaching technical audiences. You'll meet colleagues, friends, and clients of mine who will stop by to share their stories. And I hope that you leave each episode feeling inspired and ready to take action. Before we jump in, I'd like to give a brief shout out to my agency, TREW Marketing. TREW is a full service agency located in beautiful Austin, Texas, serving highly technical companies. For more information, visit And now on with our podcast.


Hi everyone, and welcome to another episode of Content Marketing Engineers. I'm here today with Lisa Gately, a Principal Analyst at Forrester. Thanks for being here, Lisa.


Hey, thanks for having me.


Yeah, I would love to kick off with just having you talk a little bit about yourself and your role at Forrester.


Well, thanks. I'm a B2B marketer by background. I've spent years working at tech companies in product, content or brand marketing roles. All of those have something to do with thought leadership. And so a lot of my experience as a marketer has fueled what I now do today at Forrester. I work with a variety of marketers in B2B organizations. They all have challenges and want help in how do they work through all of their content in terms of quality, scale, efficiency, and this perennial issue of how can I help my company as we become more of a thought leader in different areas.


I love it. So I was telling you before we started recording, I don't think that I have had a client in the last six to nine months who hasn't said or asked about how do I become a thought leader. And so it's definitely something on the top of everyone's mind. I saw you speak for the first time at Content Marketing World this last year. We did a Content Marketing World Roundup podcast episode back in the fall and we were sharing kind of the best highlights of the conferences that we had been to and definitely your session was a key one for me. It just felt like it brought a lot of pieces together around thought leadership. So talk to me about what is thought leadership? How do you define it, what is it and what is it not? Talk to me about that.


Yeah, well I'm glad that session spoke to you. We define thought leadership. It's really an intentional exercise of your knowledge, skills and experience. It's all intended so that it's going to help you and build an awareness, elevating perception. You're eventually driving perception for your organization. So despite how people think about the content element, it's really about things that drive results long term for your brand.


You love it. So what kind of a state of thought leadership today? Everybody wants it, but who's actually gaining thought leadership? What does it look like kind of in today's world to be a thought leader?


Yeah. So it's an interesting one because I see a common set of thinking. A lot of organizations will ask about thought leadership and I can tell through conversations they're thinking of it as a content strategy as a result of content marketing. And content marketing is important, their campaigns are important. But I would characterize thought leadership and those things, especially content marketing, they're interrelated, they reinforce each other. Then as I was saying, thought leadership is really going to manifest in different ways from its delivery mechanisms, the messaging and substance, the KPIs, the time for you to see some results, all of those things set it apart. And as I said, it's much more of a brand level exercise and it's a longer term exercise where I would see a lot of organizations today. What we know is they may be going about it in a very siloed fashion. There may be lots of topics and themes topping that. Everybody in the organization in different silos thinks the thought leadership also amongst those fragmented efforts, it's really hard to get resources and hard to get your muscle behind it. So I really commonly see the other things are it's hard to have a unique point of view.


If maybe your experts or your executives, they're not really as strongly involved. That's very tough to get everybody behind it and line it up with your company's objectives, your brand goals. And really I see a lot of organizations where in addition to the resources and the lack of uniqueness, it's really all about them. You see a lot of content, it's just thinly veils, but it's all about the offerings and it's not about the issues that your audience cares about. So that inside out kind of focus.


So how do you go about creating a thought leadership plan? I think a lot of times from a marketing perspective it's tasks like you said, kind of on the marketer to say as like a marketing strategy, right? That executive comes in and they say we need some thought leadership. Can you walk me through just the steps of what that even looks like over the course of a year, however even long it needs to be, but what that looks like going from that initial conversation of we need some thought leadership to actually forming and executing a plan, what does that look like?


Yeah, it's really important to set those expectations that first, I would say in a plan, you have to invest in understanding audiences in trew marketing context a lot of times too. You really want to see that the organization has some corporate or brand level messaging that's really that there's clarity about company, the things you think of. But your company mission, your purpose, your vision, what are your capabilities in the most concise way possible? And I really see a lot of organizations, they've struggled with it over time, lots of reasons why. But if you are not clear about your audiences and your own messaging, some of that brand work upfront that is really essential. It's very hard. And we talked at Content Marketing World about a lot of times executives have a very different expectation. They think this is a short exercise in today's we all see things in social media or in society that you're perceived as a leader. But there's a lot of work that goes into it. So the first part I'm talking about is understand your audience, understand the market context and your own messaging. That is really going to give you the grounding in where are the potential areas for your company.


When realistic, when you're doing that audience research, is that focus groups and interviews? Is it looking at kind of research that already exists? How do you go about really knowing that audience?


That's such a great question because you can do lots of ways. I wouldn't say there's only one style or a specific checklist you have to do all of. But you're right. Focus groups, what people commonly think of through their buyer persona research. It could be, are you talking to your customer advisory board? Are you talking to and listening I would say talking to and listening to buyers and customers. Are you also watching external influencers? You're looking out in the marketplace to know who cares about some of these same issues and where do you see interest that's shared and growing and the way that your audience would talk about this? What is really resonating so that if you come back and then you talk to people in your organization, whether it's your experts or even your sales teams and your partner, when you're trying to figure out which of these topics are likely to still be in conversations a year or more from now. Okay, you're trying to distinguish what's a big flash, what's a theme versus a longer term theme. It's hard in distinguishing that. So definitely to your point about focus groups, surveys, you could be partnering with external influencers.


You could be doing research in a variety of ways like voice of the customer type efforts, customer community. Those things can be really helpful for you.


Okay. So that's kind of we've listened to our customer, we've listened to our audiences and we're starting to hone in on a few topics that we might want to kind of focus on. So then where do we go from there as an organization?


Well, I'd see from there a progression of how are you finding some internal experts that could reside in many different parts of your business. But let's say you've got some people in product or different executives, different leaders in the company. You want to bring cross section of people together for ideation.


I will love that.


Yeah. On some of these themes, how do they play off each other, which lead to some really good sessions that give you some good juice. You could go do something on these themes.




And you're testing out are these things that your external audience cares about. It's not just talking about your company's offerings.




So then what? And that's where for sure that's a tough one. Then you're trying to build together. You've had your group of experts. Maybe you're even bringing in some third parties. That's great. If you're trying to really you need to gain some trust or recognition in areas and working with someone else for objectivity they're known for their knowledge and expertise. Great. But then let's say you select there are some themes and we've vetted it. We've talked with different leaders in the company. We know it lines up with our company's strategy. It's lining up with product marketing, sales. This is believable. When you talk to employees, you go have conversations about it and be credible. You're also looking at setting expectations about your resources. Because we know as marketers, if this is somebody's side job that's really you're not getting any budget for it. This is rough. You need to meet the expectations with your investment and your effort. But I would say let's say all those things are still going. Then they'll bring in even more of your, let's say diverse skills. And that could be do you have people from product, content marketing, design?


Could be do you have external speaking coaches? Do you have, let's say, some of your executives who are really going to sponsor this and be involved for the long haul? You've got your columns team, you've got the marketers on that. That's where you're getting together that cross functional team beyond your experts. Now you want the marketing acumen. Now you want people thinking about how do we make this an idea to turn into content? What are the best ways as we love in content marketing? You're thinking about there's an awesomeness of what you could do and then how are you going to activate it not just on your own channels. How does this make really the best opportunity for you?


What's realistic. When you think about those time frames, you mentioned kind of finding the topics that people are going to care about. How long do you kind of challenge someone to keep a platform or a message? Or is it like pick a topic and then let that topic evolve over time? What does that look like?


Yeah, that's another in the realm of setting expectations. That's another area where one piece of advice is see if you can build the content plan for at least a twelve month runway. Yeah, you're running out of ideas and quality for that. You probably aren't on the right theme. We would say from the brand and thought leadership viewpoint, you want to play for the long haul, which is at least two years. So that's another one in setting expectations, some leaders will expect, does this become a monthly dashboard? And we've achieved it. We're done 30, 60, 90 days. No, it's a longer game.


Yeah. You mentioned KPIs at the beginning, too. What are examples of ways that you measure a thought leadership program?


Yeah, some of this will come back and of course, you're going to look at the classics of content, so you're looking at some engagement. But I would be even going bigger with how you would measure your brand. If you're doing some studies on awareness, looking at perception, those are some of the longer term brand measurement areas where thought leadership should be playing in there, share a voice. Some of those things that I realize people are in the world of, we're all looking at dashboards, of how things are doing on our website, or paid and organic social. Beyond that, you got to go bigger in the brand measurements.


I think sometimes when we have these discussions around thought leadership, there is concern over attaching a company's efforts to a specific person. What if that person goes somewhere else? What kind of risk is there? Is that risky? How do you kind of attach the thought leadership to the company and not a person? Or does it always need to be a person and you take that risk? How do you kind of hold those two things at the same time?


That's an interesting one, because you're right a lot of times you associate maybe a figurehead or a leader from a company, and there's always that risk for more reasons than thought leadership. But I see that because you've got that assortment of cross functional team also want to keep in. Yes, an exec sponsor is something we always recommend. That's important. But you also want to have other leaders in the company who know and understand what is the impact, what are the benefits of thought leadership. You also look across, if you're looking at it's not just one thought leader. You may have somebody who's at the forefront. They are the public face many times, but there should be some other experts. And that's where I mentioned some companies, they are partnering with third parties. They are aligning with influencers early and over time. It's natural. I think many organizations you'll have people who leave the business for a variety of reasons. You're going to start looking then about the executive expert and even employee level that as you start to build your bench of experts. I think one of the questions that Content Marketing World that struck me is a lot of people felt it had to be an executive.


You need executive support. In fact, I would go so far as be very cautious if you don't have executive support. But you also can build out some experts and so you're right to prepare for it's not all things around one person constantly. You've got alternatives.


I love that concept because I think about a lot of the organizations that we work with. And if you've got that cross section of people, those people have their own kind of spheres that they're playing in. Your executive is. Typically they're speaking at different levels. And it's not just speaking, but maybe they're authoring an article or they're asked for an opinion on something in a different circle than your lead of product engineering is. And if you've got them all on board around the same theme or a couple of themes, I could see how that starts to resonate in different ways and take different forms. That's a really interesting kind of concept and way of thinking about it. I love that cross section idea of people and then kind of some of that leadership becomes part of your corporate brand. This is an idea or a concept that we stand for as a brand or that we care about.


Those ideas catch fire. People start to build out more perspective as you're known for some things or with your experience of doing it. You're right. There's room for others to have perspective that adds to it different angles to it and that is also another mark of that's a good theme. It's really rich for your audience and other people in your company. It is so meaningful for what your company stands for as well. There's more room.


Is there anyone that you see that's doing this really well right now? Whether that's individuals or companies or different aspects that you see where you've seen thought leadership come through in a meaningful, thoughtful way?


I talked at Content Marketing World about some of the organizations and I named big enterprise companies. There are many people who I would say you don't have to be the biggest organization for this. I love it. See in fact a lot of this doing of people who've spent the work as authors or building out podcasts or different platforms that time. But some of the big players I mentioned in that session was really if you are looking for who is building out I mentioned a recruitment firm that was Crisp Holder, that over decades they have been looking at some of the statistics for leadership. And if you're looking across equity diversity types, it's really tied in well with their business. And they've built this out beautifully with the nature of their business. Companies like ADP who have looked over time, they know that from their own data, you're able to have your own data about something that interests the market in your audience. I think they can leverage it well in a meaningful and newsworthy kind of way. So you've run consistently with that, so you become known for it. We mentioned several different larger companies like Phillips, Philips Healthcare.


They chose some areas that match their brand promise and in fact, they had some of their leaders measured on. It was a KPI that they wanted the leadership support behind it. So I think in what some companies are doing to try and make this an ongoing program for their company, it wasn't just a one quarter plan or something we did in one calendar year. But I see that the bits of there using the data, some things that are very unique for you, you've got a viewpoint, and I should maybe mention that it's not all the big companies again. So I want to be fair and kind of taking that broad look at that, of how do you go about doing some things over time? And you've got those qualities we were talking about.


Yeah, sometimes it's easier to see it in the big companies because they have kind of the engine behind them. But there are things that we can emulate in smaller markets. And I think something we've seen as well is you don't need to be a thought leader to everyone. You want to be a thought leader to your audience and the people who care. And so that's who you're measuring that brand awareness by. And it doesn't have to be huge and flashy, it's just got to be targeted to the right audiences and people. And then I love the concept of data as well, the data that companies hold and how you can use that data. I think about maybe customers that we have and they've seen certain services take off or certain of greater demand for certain products. And what does that mean? What story is that telling about what's happening in the market and they can come out and be able to talk about that. Tell me about kind of channels and avenues. So I think thought leadership, the first thing that when I'm talking to clients, the first thing people ask about is speaking. I want to speak about this topic.


But what are other ways that you can show that thought leadership that aren't just speaking opportunities yeah.


To scale it, you're right, speaking does matter whether it's in person virtual events on demand, we're used to that. But complement it for the way your audience wants to consume content. So in a lot of that, it's kind of that element of you've got to be found you've got to have some elements of are there things people consume on their own? So are you contributing to it's not limited to is it blogs? Is it other articles, is it longer form reports? People who are really interested in this issue and speaking of data, they are interested in consuming that in many ways and we know you could repurpose content into different format types from that. The speaking is good for video. You also want to see are these things worthy enough that maybe you're speaking, you're also getting some coverage and talking to the media so you've got different parts of your team looking out for those opportunities. I haven't mentioned every conceivable format type but I think in a lot of that you're thinking beyond speaking. You're right. And when you develop some body of work, how are you able to repurpose it or repackage it into different formats and knowing what your audience prefers, they can assume some things.


It is not limited to live or on demand event if there's things to be found, great way of also you're attracting a lot of that interest. Other parties point to your work. That's really important. It's a great sign when you're getting that kind of attention. The backlinks, the social mentions, it's something shareable your orientation or your audience would find it valuable and they would pass it on to their colleagues or other people in their professional world.


Yeah, I like that. So we've got sort of this cross section of people that we've created. We put them together, honed in on some themes and then we're looking out at opportunities to share the messages that we create throughout that entire cross section of people, those evangelists throughout the company. And then we're able to measure that via brand awareness and perception in the market and that's what our kind of thought leadership program looks like. So I love that as a plan, what are things that people should watch out for? Just what are kind of red flags in the process or challenges that organizations hit along the way.


Yeah, so by far some of this comes to the readiness. Meaning are people really setting the expectations? First of all, we talked about that durability something that's going to be in place for a while. So that's committing yourself to doing this. It's also we talked about the investment. Are you going to have some resources? There will be plenty of things that come up. We know as marketers you're asked to do lots of different things, your new things are going to happen but are you are you going to stick with this? So it's a choice to invest your time, your budget, your team, your effort will be on this. It's sense too like it was mentioning the siloed effect. It's also tough choices in some organizations where if you've got different teams, everybody is doing their own effort. You need to pull together and get some real muscle behind this. So that's also going to be some additional effort maybe in a larger organization in making some decisions and trade offs about we're going to go after this bigger theme.


I can see it's always it's really hard to support those the things that kind of market your own business are so quick to fall to the side when, if sales numbers are down or something like that, where there's this immediate need that people are tasked with. And so making sure that there's dedicated time set up to kind of continue forward with your thought leadership plan makes total sense. And then talk to me about what Forrester does to help clients with thought leadership. How does Forrester partner with organizations as they move forward in thought leadership?


Thanks for asking, Forrester. If you're not familiar with it. We power business and technology leaders in accelerating with customer obsessed growth. What do we mean by that? Is it's really saying we're in some dynamic, uncertain times and you've really got to have some operations or structure to help you out for customers. So our product, Forrester decisions means you have a subscription to work with advisors. So analysts like me, many others, can help you on levels relating to product marketing, sales in the marketing area. We work on content brand, corporate comms, all the different areas. So it's looking at this. We advise clients and companies wherever they are in their thought leadership efforts. So think of it as having an advisor by your side. You can work with us on an unlimited basis. At the same time, Forrester also has consulting groups. So we actually build thought leadership programs, custom content for our clients. We are known for our total economic impact studies. So that's another way a lot of tech companies work in interviewing their customers and putting some numbers to things. So there's a range of ways we can help with thought leadership. I see it most of all in advisory and in consulting.


Plenty of models for people who want to help.


Great, that's super helpful. And we'll have your contact information in this podcast in the notes as well, so that if anybody wants to reach out to Lisa, they definitely can. And I just love I think the underscoring message is really finding the right people, but also the topics that are meaningful. And so it's getting that research done upfront and making sure that we're talking about topics that people care about and not just our solution or our products. And that's why thought leadership is different than just content marketing for your products or your services because it's got to be thoughtful and it's got to be leading. I remember you said that and there's so much thought leadership content out there and it's not thoughtful and it's not really leading anybody. And so I would just encourage all of our listeners to think about what it is for your company where you can make an impact with thought, leadership and kind of walking through this process. So thank you. This is such helpful information and I think something that everyone is interested in, and I really appreciate kind of laying out that plan for it.


Yeah, thanks for having me.


Morgan thanks for joining me today on Content Marketing, engineered for show notes, including links to resources, visit TREWmarketing. Compodcasts. While there, you can subscribe to our blog and our newsletter and order a copy of my book Content Marketingengineered. Also, I would love your reviews on this podcast, so please, when you get a chance, subscribe and leave me your review on your favorite podcast subscription platform. Thanks and have a great day.


Morgan Norris

Morgan believes that the process of brand positioning and messaging powers companies by aligning corporate leadership, building a story that fuels staff and engages customers, and creating a foundation for consistent content – and she’s seen these results come true for TREW clients time and again over the last decade. She holds degrees in Public Relations and Spanish, with a minor in Business from The University of Texas at Austin. Morgan, her husband, and three kids recently moved from Austin to downtown DC, where they enjoy walking the city, visiting the local museums, and playing a guess-who-is-in-that-motorcade game.

About TREW Marketing

TREW Marketing is a strategy-first content marketing agency serving B2B companies that target highly technical buyers. With deep experience in the design, embedded, measurement and automation, and software industries, TREW Marketing provides branding, marketing strategy, content development, and digital marketing services to help customers efficiently and effectively achieve business goals.