Is My Content Thought Leadership?

JD Supra Perspectives

In conversations with lawyers and legal marketers on the topic of thought leadership, there often arises a need to make clear distinctions between thought-leadership marketing and other forms of content marketing.

As an agency, we firmly believe that thought-leadership content is the most effective form of content marketing for attorneys, as lawyers get sought out and hired for their expertise, and that expertise needs to be consistently available and discoverable if the content creator is going to elevate to the status of thought leader.

Mere “content” for content’s sake is generally not enough to fully allow an attorney to differentiate, to establish a credible expert reputation, and to separate oneself from the competitive field of peers and rivals in the increasingly crowded marketplace of ideas. Sure, if you would’ve asked me ten years ago, “Is any content better than no content, the answer would’ve been a reluctant “sure.” But today, the media are noisier, the voices are more plentiful, and our audiences have never been more distractible.

The good news? Most of the content out there is considered by decision makers to be subpar. There’s your opportunity: to elevate your subject matter expertise into thought leadership, and your thought leadership into new business opportunities. But you likely won’t achieve your aspirations by adding to the content tsunami. You must engage in thought leadership, not just content creation.

So what’s the difference?

Picking up where my partner Jay Harrington left off, who recently posed three questions to attorneys who aspire to become thought leaders on our podcast, The Thought Leadership Project, I have a quick litmus test for you...

Here are three questions to ask honestly of the content you are creating. Evaluate your content and content strategy through this prism, and you’ll be able to self-identify as a thought leader or a content creator.

Does My Content Consistently Serve a Singular Niche Audience?

By definition, generalists are not credible thought leaders. While their expertise domains may be broad and touch on a wide range of issues, it will always be difficult for a generalist to effectively penetrate any single domain with enough authority to garner the reputation as a leading voice, especially when competing against other domain-specific experts in a given arena.

Similar to how patients view their medical providers, we tend to go to general practitioners for shallow but broad medical expertise. But when specialized expertise is required, the stakes become higher, and we seek out leading care providers that have narrow but deep expertise applicable to our very specific and acute needs.

The same goes for the practice of law. As the stakes rise, so does the need for specialized expertise and deep understanding of the issues at play. Conveniently, as the stakes rise, so too does the premium, as highly regarded thought leaders are able to command higher fees and avoid the race to the bottom that generalists tend to need to.

Make sure your content strategy is oriented toward a narrowly defined niche audience—the narrower the better. Soon you will be recognized as a true expert...indeed, a thought leader, and not just an author who produces content on a variety of topics relevant to a broad number of industry segments that may or may not apply to any one individual at any given moment.

Does My Content Fully Address the Issues and Questions that My Audience Grapples with Daily?

Remember who you serve (or who you are endeavoring to serve). A common mistake we see among content producers is that they orient their content around themselves—eager to display expertise and authority—but neglect to serve the content consumer.

An example: “News jacking” is a term we in the content business use to describe the tactic of aligning one’s content strategy with what’s currently in the media. For example, consider topics like coronavirus and (in states like Michigan and others) the legalization of recreational marijuana. A common temptation for content creators is to author articles around the attorney’s expertise or track record relevant to these issues in the news. One might cite past successes or highlight specific case law in order to establish the reputation as someone with a firm grasp of the critical issue.

All of this is fine and good, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. What is too often missing is a deconstruction of the complexities that the content consuming audience is grappling with. Are you answering their questions? Fully? Are you writing or speaking in language that is accessible to potential clients who are not themselves lawyers? Are you providing answers and enlightening analysis, or merely presenting rhetorical questions and highlighting potential pitfalls?

Thought leaders lead. They demystify the complex. They give—even at the risk of providing “free advice.” Those online searching for solutions will keep searching until they find the answers they seek. Ideally, you want them to stop at your content, not glide over it in a continuing search for the comfort of knowledge.

Yes, you may be providing value at no billable cost. But those investments in establishing trust and earning authority will pay compounding dividends in both the short and long term. It’s highly likely your competitors are not providing those answers...but that is precisely what your potential prospects are seeking.

Does My Thought Leadership Meet My Audiences Where They Live, Work and Play?

Are you maximizing the reach and, thereby, the effect of your content? The first consideration you should make is being certain that your content is being published on your law firm’s owned media properties, such as your website/blog and the email alerts distributed to the firm’s database. But that’s only the first consideration. Too often, it’s the last.

Content creators produce content and publish that content on owned channels. Some will go the extra step of making sure that content is significantly leveraged across shared channels, such as social media—both the firm’s and the attorney’s individual social media platforms. One might even put practices into place to optimize the visibility and engagement of that content, as we coach and train our clients to do.

But when consumers of content seek out thought leaders and expert voices on topics relevant to their specific and pressing needs, they typically don’t go to marketing channels like websites and newsletters. They tend to seek out well-established, highly regarded niche authorities, such as industry media, trade associations and online content communities that orient their own missions around providing resources and value to the same audiences you might be courting for business.

We urge lawyers to seek out and secure publishing (or even syndication!) opportunities on third-party platforms that bring with them gravitas, earned trust and authority, and by extension to your content that they may choose to publish, an implicit third-party endorsement of your bona fides as thought leader. We recently had as guest on our podcast an expert in techniques thought leaders can master to position their content for publication on media platforms, if you’re looking to understand how this is best accomplished.

Be cognizant of where your audiences live, work and play. Know that these are the domains to which they retreat to find answers, seek out solutions, and identify experts. This is where your content needs to live...and when it does, how you establish your reputation as a legitimate thought leader.

The Thought Leadership Formula for Success

These comprise the foundation of our philosophy relative to thought-leadership marketing, as opposed to other forms of content marketing:

  1. You can’t be credibly regarded as a thought leader until you endeavor to serve a narrowly defined niche audience.
  2. You won’t earn the trust and affinity of that audience unless you provide true value to them, at no cost: answering their questions, simplifying complexity, and providing expertise and analysis that only thought leaders can offer.
  3. You won’t optimize the reach nor efficacy of your content if you don’t generate exposure on the platforms on which your niche audience relies to deliver expertise and thought leadership.


Tom Nixon is a principal with Harrington Communications, a thought-leadership marketing agency serving lawyers and law firms. He co-hosts The Thought Leadership Project podcast with the firm's founder, Jay Harrington. His firm provides workshops and remote training sessions to attorneys looking to master the art of thought-leadership content writing.

Connect with Tom on LinkedIn; follow his latest on JD Supra.

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