The TLM Process: How Thought Leadership Marketing Really Works

Chris Medenwald | February 5, 2021 | thought leadership marketing

Thought leadership marketing (TLM) works.

In 2020, Edelman-LinkedIn surveyed 1,164 B2B executives and managers who make purchases for their respective firms. More than half (53%) said they spend at least one hour every week consuming TLM content—articles, videos, social posts, etc. showcasing subject matter experts (SMEs) and their knowledge.

More impressively, 88% of these agreed TLM content effectively improves their perceptions of organizations, and 71% said TLM content is one of the best ways to understand an organization’s strengths and capabilities.


TLM may work, but what exactly is it?

As I’ve written elsewhere, TLM is…

An approach to marketing that uses digital content and distribution to proliferate the work and industry knowledge of SMEs in order to demonstrate the organization’s expertise, assist customers in purchase decisions, and ultimately grow the business.

You might express TLM as a handy dandy little formula (because we all just love math):

Subject matter expertise + marketing tactics = thought leadership marketing

Simply stated, TLM is the application of marketing tactics to subject matter expertise, culminating in high-quality TLM content. And many organizations, particularly in industries where knowledge is the product to a large extent (e.g., higher education), don’t have to look far to find rich caches of expertise.

Simply stated, TLM is the application of marketing tactics to subject matter expertise, culminating in high-quality TLM content.

As seen in this case study about one academic program at the University of Arkansas, TLM is a powerhouse way to raise the profile of organizations and reach new levels of growth.

And although TLM works, how exactly does it—you know—work? Wink, wink.


The TLM Process: How It Works

TLM can be represented as an iterative seven-step process that, like many-a-good business process, starts with getting clear about what you’re trying to achieve and ends with measuring results and gleaning lessons.

Behold, the TLM process… [“And there was much rejoicing. Yay.”]

The TLM Process 

Step 1. Define aspirations, goals, objectives, products, competition, and personas

As Boromir (aka Sean Bean) said, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” Neither does one simply walk into TLM.

You first have to get really clear about what you’re trying to achieve and where exactly you want TLM to take your organization. You also have to spend time defining and understanding your products, competitors, and customers.

Personas, what HubSpot defines as “semi-fictional representations of your ideal customer,” are particularly important.

Think of a persona as a single, semi-fictional “individual” who represents a larger group. HubSpot's primary persona, for instance, is named "Marketer Mary." 

Personas let companies “market to many by marketing to one.” They do this by portraying a group of consumers—who share common behaviors and/or characteristics—as a single, "semi-fictional" consumer.

If you’re not creating TLM content for a specific customer (i.e., persona), frankly, you shouldn’t be doing it.

After all, who’s it for?


Step 2. Understand the pressing questions of a single persona

Seth Godin—you know, the bald guy with signature brightly-colored glasses that all us marketers quote incessantly—likes to talk about a “minimal viable audience.”

Instead of marketing to many, Godin encourages organizations to identify “the smallest group that could possibly sustain you in your work.”

If you try to be everything for everybody, you end up being nothing for anybody. As Godin points out, your marketing looks and feels “average.” 

If you try to be everything for everybody, you end up being nothing for nobody.

So, in step 2, identify one persona critical to your organization’s success. For a college or university, for instance, this might be prospective students, or, more powerful still, a subset of prospective students.

You’ve already done your homework on these personas in step 1. But now it’s time to identify the one persona you want to go after, and then to identify and clarify the questions they’re specifically asking about your category or industry.

Once you’ve identified this one persona and their questions, it’s on to step 3.


Step 3. Find overlap between the persona’s questions and the knowledge of a subject matter expert within the organization

Here’s where the magic happens.

At this point you know the real, everyday questions being asked by a persona critical to your organization’s success.

Guess what? Your organization has answers.

Specifically, you probably have one or more SMEs within your company whose work, knowledge, and achievements coincide perfectly with the persona’s questions.

And your SMEs can answer these questions with real authority, not the noise that seems to lurk around every corner of the internet.

So, now, it’s just a matter of finding overlap between the persona’s questions and the know-how of at least one SME in your organization.


Step 4. Based on the SME's knowledge, create remarkable content to answer the persona’s questions

“Remarkable.” Another Godinism. [swoon]

The point is, today, with the glut of content out there and everyone competing for your persona’s attention, it’s not enough to have answers.

You have to wrap answers in high-quality, best-in-class, yes, remarkable content.

It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it.

The persona is actively asking questions, whether on Google or social media, and your organization has the answers. But your answers will likely fall silent unless you present them compellingly—that is, unless you stand out from the noise.

Social posts. Blogs. Videos. Podcasts. Yes, TLM can assume any of these content forms.

But if you want the TLM to be noticed…

…make it remarkable.


Step 5. Distribute, syndicate, and promote content through channels where the persona is actively seeking answers

As my granpappy used to say, “Everything you need to know about marketing you can learn from fishing.” Sound wisdom.

And one popular marketing-fishing truism is this: “Fish where the fish are.”

  • Persona with questions. Check.
  • Subject matter expert with answers. Check.
  • Remarkable content. Check.

Now, you need to “go fishing.” I’d suggest the fishing holes where your persona normally swims.

  • It might be LinkedIn or Facebook.
  • It might be Google.
  • It might be community sites like Quora or Reddit.
  • It might be a website—yours or someone else’s.
  • It might be some, most, or all of these.

This is the all-important where question. Where should you distribute your content to best connect and engage with your persona? Over which channels?

You probably identified these channels in step 1 when you were doing your research on personas.

Here, in step 5, you hit “go.” Distribute that remarkable content.

Go fishing.


Step 6. Nurture, qualify, and convert leads

“Right” is an important word in marketing.

Believe me, you don’t want traffic and leads. (Some of you are thinking, “Huh, I don’t? Could've fooled me.”)

No, you don’t. You want the right traffic and leads.

The right traffic is more likely to become quality leads, and the right leads are more likely to become quality customers.

The right traffic is more likely to become quality leads, and the right leads are more likely to become quality customers.

If you want traffic and leads, you can get it. You can buy it easy enough.

But you don’t want it. You want the right traffic and leads.


TLM, better than other forms of marketing, drives the right traffic to your website, social media profiles, and other digital properties.

But traffic—even the right traffic—is not enough. Step 6 is about taking the right traffic generated from remarkable TLM content and converting it into leads.

Just because someone is on your website doesn’t mean you have enough information to engage them properly. But through forms, landing pages, lead flows, and other lead capture tools, you can convert unknown strangers into known leads—and start an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship with them.

But it takes remarkable content nurture, qualify, and convert leads.

That's right, content again. There's a reason we say "content is king."

Yes, it takes content—social posts, blogs, videos—to generate traffic, but it also takes content—landing pages, blog subscription forms, and content upgrades (e.g., ebooks)—to turn that traffic into leads.

Step 6 is where you make this happen.


Step 7. Measure results against objectives and consolidate lessons

This is where the dog finally catches his tail.

A process that began with defining goals, objectives, and the like, ends—but doesn’t really end—with measuring progress toward these goals and objectives.

Garrett Moon, founder of CoSchedule, encourages marketers to focus on “one metric that matters.” As he puts it, the 1MTM is a “relentless focus on growing the metric most closely related to growth.”

This might be a specific…

  • Number of visitors—the right visitors, remember—to your website
  • Number of conversions
  • Number of sales

The “right” 1MTM for your organization will depend on an assortment of factors: your goals, your industry, and the maturity of your TLM content-marketing program, for instance.


But in step 7, it’s all about measuring the effectiveness of your TLM content and distribution against the 1MTM and other metrics.

  • Are you making progress?
  • As quickly as you could?
  • Why or why not?

And as we measure, we learn. We glean lessons that will help us on future iterations of the TLM process.

We learn and optimize tenaciously. There’s no other way if you want to stand out from the pack and reach new heights.

Then, it’s “wash, rinse, and repeat.”

Bolder and wiser, you reiterate the TLM process.


TLM? It’s What We Do

There are seven steps in the TLM process…and we at Modthink love them all.

We’re low-pressure operators here, and we’re always game to chat with folks about TLM and its potential for their work.

Reach out anytime. Oh, quick note, we say “y’all” a lot.


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