An effective online content strategy, artfully executed, drives action. Organizations that use online content well have a clearly defined goal—to sell products, generate leads, or get people to join a community, vote, or donate money—and they deploy a content strategy that directly contributes to reaching that goal.

Often people ask me, "How do you recommend that I create an effective ____?" (Fill in the blank with blog, podcast, whitepaper, e-book, email newsletter, webinar, etc.)

While the technologies for each form of online content are a little different, the common aspect is that through all of these media your organization can exercise thought leadership rather than simple advertising and product promotion: A well-crafted blog, podcast, e-book, or webinar contributes to an organization's positive reputation by setting it apart in the marketplace of ideas.

This form of content brands a company and the people that work there as experts and as a trusted resource to turn to again and again.

Don't talk about your company at all

OK, so what is thought leadership, and how do I do it?

First, put away your company hat for a moment and think like one of your buyers. The content that you create will be a solution to those people's problems and will not mention your company or products at all!

Imagine for a moment that you are a marketer at a sales force automation (SFA) provider. Rather than just peddling your SFA solution, you might write an e-book or shoot a video about shortening the sales cycle, and then promote it on your site and offer it for free to other organizations (such as industry associations) to put on their sites. Or perhaps one of the salespeople at your company could blog about the trials and tribulations of being a traveling salesperson.

She could post her thoughts from around the world using photos and videos of the hotels she stays in, the coffee shops she meets people at, and the tradeshows she attends. Perhaps there is a humor angle to it (cool title for the blog: Diary of a Road Warrior). Since the target market for your SFA solution is other salespeople, you would build a following of readers of the blog who are also your target market.

The SFA company with a blog like this educates and entertains buyers but does not sell the SFA services directly.

Instead, the idea here is that people who enjoy the blog are more likely to buy that company's SFA product when the time comes.

How to create thoughtful content

The first thing to consider is what form of thought leadership content makes sense for your organization and for the buyers you are trying to reach.

Here are some of the various forms of thought leadership content (there may be others in your niche market):

  • Whitepapers
  • E-books
  • Email newsletters
  • Webinars
  • Wikis
  • Research and survey reports
  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • Video content, vodcasts, and vlogs

Though each technique for getting your thought leadership content into the marketplace of ideas is different, they share some common considerations:

  • Do not write about your company and your products! Thought leadership content is designed to solve buyer problems or answer questions and to show that you and your organization are smart and worth doing business with. This type of marketing and PR technique is not a brochure or sales pitch. Thought leadership is not advertising.

  • Define your organizational goals first. Do you want to drive revenue? Encourage people to download something?

  • Based on your goals, decide whether you want to provide the content for free and without any registration (many more people will use the content, but you won't know who they are) or whether you want to include some kind of registration mechanism (much lower response rates, but you build a contact list).

  • Think like a publisher by understanding your audience. Consider what market problems your buyer personas are faced with and develop topics that appeal to them.

  • Write for your audience. Use examples and stories. Make it interesting.

  • Choose a great title that grabs attention. Use subtitles to describe what the content will deliver.

  • Promote the effort like crazy. Offer the content on your site with easy-to-find links. Add a link to employees' email signatures—and get partners to offer links as well.

  • To drive the viral marketing effects, alert appropriate reporters, bloggers, and analysts that the content is available, and send them a download link.

To embrace the power of the Web and the blogosphere requires a different kind of thinking on the part of marketers.

We need to learn to give up our command-and-control mentality.

It isn't about "the message." It's about being insightful.

We need to stop thinking "advertising" and instead get our ideas out by understanding buyers and telling them the stories they want to hear.

Done well, Web content that delivers authentic thought leadership also brands a software or technology company as one to do business with.

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image of David Meerman Scott

David Meerman Scott, B2B marketing powerhouse and fandom strategist, spotted the real-time marketing revolution in its infancy and wrote five books about it including The New Rules of Marketing and PR, with more than 400,000 copies sold in English and available in 29 languages.

Now, David says the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of superficial online communications. Tech-weary and bot-wary people are hungry for true human connection. Organizations have learned to win by developing what David calls a "Fanocracy"—tapping into the mindset that relationships with customers are more important than the products they sell to them.

Prior to starting his own business, he was vice president of marketing for several publicly traded B2B technology and information companies.