Updated: Apr 17, 2021
Ever wonder how certain people become the go-to resource in their field, constantly getting interviewed by the media, invited to speak at industry conferences, and attracting interest from prospective clients? It happens because they’ve found a way to be known for their expertise on a couple of topics, and it’s completely attainable for any company or entrepreneur.
It starts by establishing content pillars – the broad topics or themes that will guide which content you choose to put out in the world, regardless of the format. Content pillars help you to be consistent and focused with your content, which means they’re as much about what you won’t talk about as what you will.
Here’s an example from another part of my business, where I help high school students applying to college with their admissions essays:
Something I will talk about: How students can elevate their message beyond specific activities and accomplishments by identifying broader themes. My related content pillar could be, Identifying Themes.
Why: Because this is core to the actual work I do with students when I help them with their college essays
Something I won’t talk about: Psychological concepts about teens’ mindsets, how parents can have positive interactions with their teens, etc.
Why: While some college admissions counselors do talk about these subjects, they’re outside my realm of authority and expertise, and they don’t tie directly to the actual work I do helping students with their college essays.
By establishing my content pillars, I can be intentional about the content I share. When I see other college counselors out talking about a broad range of topics, I can resist the urge to do the same by going back to my own pillars and remembering that the whole point is to share content that reinforces my unique viewpoint and expertise.
Establishing your expertise through content pillars
Are you ready to become known for your expertise? Here’s how to get started.
Start broad. Since you do your work every day, you may be too close to it to immediately see patterns or themes that could make for great content. It can help to start by getting everything you do down on paper, making sure to capture all of your products and services. Then, walk away from your list and come back later with fresh eyes to see if any other ideas form. You should ask your clients or your team for their observations. How have you added value to a client in a way that made a big difference for them, but that you might have hardly noticed? What small projects do you really enjoy, even if they’re not significant to your portfolio today?
Narrow it down. Now that you have all the information at your fingertips, it’s time to narrow down everything you do to what you actually want to talk about. There may be work you have to do but don’t enjoy – so, you wouldn’t want to proactively position yourself as an expert in that area. Conversely, there may be work you want to do more of in a part of the business you’re trying to grow. This is a perfect candidate for a content pillar because you want to establish your expertise in this new area. Define 3-5 pillars that convey what you want to be known for. Aim for broad areas that your content can easily ladder up to – for example, Operational Efficiency is a better content pillar than Process Engineering. The latter is too precise; instead, it could be used as a specific topic to support the overall theme of Operational Efficiency.
Create an execution plan. Once your content pillars are in place, you’ll probably be excited to start communicating. Remember, the point of all of this is to communicate in a focused way, so you need a plan for how, when, and where you’ll share your content. That plan is an editorial calendar that outlines specific topics you’ll write about, each of which should contribute to one of your content pillars. It will also help you develop a consistent cadence to help you show up regularly and establish your presence as an authority when it comes to your pillars. You can use Word, Excel, or any other format to create an editorial calendar – just make sure it includes all the necessary information and is easy to consume at a glance.
While your content pillars will form the backbone of your content, remember that nothing lasts forever – they need to evolve as your business does. Stick with it: When you create content pillars and repeatedly share content that reinforces your expertise in those areas, you’ll rise above the noise and become known as a thought leader. And, if you haven't yet audited your communications to understand what's working and what's not, don't skip that step!