My process for ghostwriting thought leadership content


Let me preface by saying I’ve easily ghostwritten thought leadership posts for hundreds of founders and executives in my career. (I’m even working on some posts as we speak!)  

In my experience, most people approach thought leadership content all wrong and then they get turned off by it and think it is not worth doing at all.

First, great thought leadership content is all about the quality of your ideas. (Or put another way, it is about your thinking, not your words) Sure, it needs to be grammatically correct and not riddled with spelling errors, but you can hide mediocre writing if the idea you are sharing is strong enough.

Second, there are four different models that you can take to create thought leadership. They all have their pros and cons in my experience. 

Model 1: Subject matter expert writes the post

Chances are, your SME is busy as a founder, CEO, C-Level executive, lead developer, etc.  They are busy doing their job and don’t have the bandwidth to write thought leadership posts on a regular basis. Or, be the guest on regular 1-hour webinars that NO ONE with buying intent is going to watch. Then, the webinar recording inevitably collects dust in some Dropbox or Google Drive folder. 

Pro Tip: If you do decide to invest in webinars or longform video, here is a nifty, free content distribution framework that I created to help with repurposing the content, so it doesn’t collect dust. 

And even if they do make the time, many SMEs suffer from either the “curse of knowledge,” “imposter syndrome,” or both.

Pro Tip: If you’ve ever struggled with self doubt or imposter syndrome, like me, you are not alone and you should read this post.

imposter syndrome meme

Not to mention, this is also the most expensive way to create thought leadership content.  You are taking away time and energy that they could be focused in their zone of genius to write these articles, record videos, etc.

Model 2 – Hire a writer with SME to write this post.

Niche writers spent years learning and writing about a topic to gain this level of expertise.  For instance, I have spent years upon years learning the ins and outs about ecommerce and remote work. 

This can also work well, especially if the niche writer is writing under their own byline, but it is harder to find and you will pay a premium.

It can still work well if they are ghostwriting, but there are some notable drawbacks.

  • The writer still needs to learn your brand’s voice, style, and tone.
  • The writer needs to become knowledgeable about your product or service so they can weave it in naturally.
  • You and your writer may have differing opinions or viewpoints on specific nuances in your industry.  You need to make sure you are in sync especially if ghostwriting.

The big one – chances are you have strong views and a high quality of bar for anything that is published under your byline. (As you should) Even the best niche ghostwriter that you’ve been working with for years is probably only going to get a piece 96% of the way there.  You are going to want to review it and probably add or change a few things.

A more realistic approach for a niche ghostwriter (particularly if they are new to working with you) will probably get you 85% – 90% of the way there.

Model 3 – The Reporter Model

In my experience, this is the model that scales the best for SaaS companies in particular. This is when either your internal marketing team or outsourced writers or agency partners act like “reporters,” and they interview and extract the best insights and stories from subject matter experts. This can include both internal SMEs and external SMEs in your industry.

The best people to hire and work with in this model are former journalists.

Admittedly, as a former journo turned content marketer, I have a leg up as I lean heavily on my journalism chops. But, the core skills that you learn as a journalist translate really well to finding and communicating big ideas and conveying trust with your ICP.

  • The core journalism skills (That’s communication and storytelling) translate well to content marketing. At the very core of journalism, it’s about communicating effectively. To be successful, you have to be articulate and a good writer.
  • Journalism breeds curiosity and solid listening skills. Most people, who work in journalism, have one thing in common. They are curious about the world around them. They seek out ways to ask questions and listen to the people around them to understand issues and convey messages to a larger audience. The ability to ask tough questions as well as listen for subtle nuances and clues is an art form and a skill.
  • Be interested not interesting. You need to be curious and not afraid to ask the “dumb questions” or the “question that feels off topic but probably will take the piece in a new direction.”
  • Get good at interviewing people. There are certain active listening techniques and ways to phrase questions that I learned in journalism that are really helpful when interviewing customers. For instance, when you have to interview the same PIO who is used to talking in ~1 minute scripted soundbites, you have to be creative to get the real story and not the same soundbite as every other news site.

    Note: Even if you don’t have a journalism background like me, you can still learn these tactics by studying investigative journalists or top-tier interview podcasters or vloggers. One of my favorites at the moment – albeit a little controversial- at the moment – is Coffeezilla. Check out the interviews he did with SBF, as it is a masterclass at interviewing.
  • Don’t be afraid to go off-script in an interview. I probably don’t need to explain that having your writer or content marketer “wing” the interview” is not a good idea and flat-out disrespectful. But, straying from your templated questions is a good thing. For instance, if you have an expert who is shy or giving very short replies, asking them about the most exciting thing they are working on can get them to open up and feel more comfortable.

So, what does that look like in practice?

The most basic version of this approach is “the round-up post.” If you are brand new to this style of content, that’s a great training ground. However, it is the lowest barrier to entry, builds the least trust (out of thought leadership content) and it comes with a lot of pitfalls.

For starters, if you are using tools like HARO or HelpAB2BWriter to get your quotes, these sites are riddled with shady link builders who will reply to any quote. Many will reply to anything even if they don’t know anything on the topic. And some even straight plagiarize other sources in their quotes or will just copy and paste something from ChatGPT.

And the highest type of content would be having someone interview a founder, CEO, or senior leader in the community and then ghostwriting a “framework post.”

A Flawed 4th Model 

This is where a company creates an initiative for anyone in the company to write content on the blog. In my experience, this can work if the founder or CEO is a big internal champion for the initiative and goes out of their way to promote and incentivize it early and often. 

However, in most cases, this never gets off the ground or fizzles out quickly for a variety of reasons: (Note: They can all be overcome but it requires a very consistent and thoughtful approach.) 

  • No or few internal incentives to produce content. Even the most dedicated A-player is probably not going to spend 10 or more extra hours each week outside of what they are paid to do to contribute blog posts for the company. At least not for every long.
  • No internal champion or they don’t have enough sway in company. If you have any chance in making this work, you need an internal champion with a lot of authority in the company. Most companies who try this put a marketing coordinator or marketing manager in this position. 9 / 10 you are going to set them up for failure because when it comes time to follow up with the Head of Product or the lead developer who promised that blog post 2 weeks ago, they will be chasing that for weeks and weeks if they even get the post at all.
  • The marketing team is the only one who ends up contributing content. People are busy. Chances are, the only ones who are going to be directly incentivized to produce are marketers in the org. And you are right back to where you started. 

Avoid this common trap when scaling thought leadership content 

We’re going to call this trap – “the too many cooks in the kitchen problem.”

  • It kills team and individual morale.
  • It is expensive.
  • And it slows down your marketing output to a crawl. (It is hard to see consistent results if you aren’t publishing anything.)

Here is the number one sign you might have a “too many cooks in the kitchen problem.”

Every thought leadership post – or blog post in general – has to be reviewed and edited by 3 or more people before it can go live.

In my experience, here are some of the most common reasons why this happen

  • The ghostwriter or your marketing team in general lacks leadership, autonomy, and/or authority to make decisions.
  • Your content marketing strategy lacks clear and consistent content style guidelines. (Or, you don’t have universally agreed-upon standards on what content should look like on your site.)
  • Not enough distinction between roles, so everyone needs to “add their 2 cents.”
  • Having the wrong person in charge of managing your content marketing strategy
  • Having the wrong editor, fact-checker, and/or writer on board.
  • Not having a solid review process and/or being able to consolidate internal feedback.

While the root cause may look a little different for every organization, you should do everything you can to find AND solve the root cause of this before you move forward with scaling any content efforts.  

Looking for a strategist, who can write, to scale your thought leadership content? Let’s chat!

About the author

Jessica Malnik

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