I studied 21 world-class content marketers for over a year. Here’s what I learned…

content marketing thought leaders

You are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.

Jim Rohn – Speaker and Bestselling Author

Want to get better at content marketing?

If you believe Jim Rohn, the solution is to surround yourself with people who you trust and respect.

I believe him.

You should too.

But nurturing a genuine relationship with thought leaders and high performers takes time. The time we don’t often have.

There is a solution.

It doesn’t matter if you’re beginning at content marketing or a seasoned pro.

The following list of 15 content marketing thought leaders is some of the best in the game. From each, I’ve distilled one detail which separates their work from the field.

It’s this one detail which defines why each stands out from noise. Understanding and embracing these details is paramount to our success.

You will not be able to adopt them all. No one on this list captures every detail.

Instead of attempting to take on all or even a few of these details, focus instead on just one.

Pick one detail and make it part of every piece of content you create. Once you’ve mastered one detail, come back and pick another.

1) Jay Baer

content marketing execution matters

image credit: http://gph.is/XMf5Gu

You can know all the tricks. You can study all the tactics. You can test all the strategies.

What separates the best, from the rest, is simple.


In the immortal words of Morpheus, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking it.”

The pieces must come together. The activity must yield results. The needle must move.

All the tricks, tactics and strategies in the world don’t mean crap if you don’t produce results.

No one in the content marketing industry is better at execution than Jay Baer.

Just look at the way Jay has launched his new book, Hug Your Haters, a bestseller before it’s official release.

There are no secrets in the publishing industry, but very few people with focus and fortitude to execute the process.

Takeaway: Execution matters.

Get a taste of Jay’s work: How Chris Ducker Grew His Community With Periscope

2) Sujan Patel

Some version of, “What’s the ideal length of a blog post,” is one of the most commonly asked questions on Quora in the content marketing category.

Wrong question.

The better question is, “How much value do I need to provide with each blog post?”

Tough to answer. Unless you’re Sujan Patel.

There are few people consistently providing as much value with each blog post as Sujan Patel.

Always go deep on value.

Takeaway: Dig deep on value.

Get a taste of Sujan’s work: B2B vs. B2C Content Marketing: How to Crush It with Each Type

3) Andy Crestodina

Andy is an incredibly smart content marketer. I had the opportunity to meet Andy and hear him live at Social Media Marketing World last year.

But it wasn’t until I heard Andy as a guest on Jay Baer’s, Social Pros Podcast that I understood his unique detail.

In the episode, Andy explains his content strategy. In particular, Andy does not feel the pressure of always rolling out new articles multiple times a week. Instead, Andy publishes less often but creates rich resources which solve a particular problem.

One blog post. One problem at a time.

In this way, Andy’s work becomes an invaluable resource to his website visitors. For you know, if Andy has written on the topic, you have your solution.

Does your content solve one problem?

Takeaway: Solve one problem completely.

Get a taste of Andy’s work: Lead Generation: Website Best Practices

4) Gini Dietrich

We’ve all heard it — the implication that the business of public relations is synonymous with clouding the issues, glossing over the truth,  and putting lipstick on a pig.

When politicians “spin” the truth we blame their public relations handler.

When corporations gloss over the details of the latest scandal we all know the PR department had their hand in the messaging.

So what does Gini Dietrich name her blog? Spin Sucks.

Gini took on the demons of her industry and in doing so attracted an audience of people dedicated to fighting the same battle.

Gini stands out because she won’t allow herself or her company to be boxed into the tired myths which haunt her industry.

Takeaway: Beat the myths.

Get a taste of Gini’s work: Why Seemingly Smart People Have Fear of Failure

5) Neil Patel

Neil Patel easily sits in the top 5 of all content marketers (if he’s not simply the best).


He tests everything.

Neil Patel doesn’t assume.

He tests. Everything.

Why does Neil Patel test everything?

People hate website pop-ups. Yet pop-ups are one of the best ways to drive user action. Despite what people say, their actions have proven over and over that not using website pop-ups is bad for your business.

Want to know how I know this?

Neil Patel. He’s done testing on pop-ups than anyone I’ve come across.

Let action drive strategy, not theory.

Takeaway: Test, test, test.

Get a taste of Neil’s work: 7 Ways to Make Your Brand and Content More Likable

6) Marcus Sheridan

they ask you answer

image credit: http://gph.is/1uyxzdF

Six years ago, I built my insurance business on the back of one simple principle: Answer client questions.

Little did I know, at the same time, 600 miles to the south, Marcus Sheridan was doing the same thing for River Pools and Spas.

The only difference is, he gave this process a cool name, “They ask, you answer.”

Answering client questions is the base principle on which every tactic and every strategy in content marketing has been built.

The easiest and most valuable way to do this? Answer the questions you receive about your business every day.

Takeaway: They ask, you answer.

Get a taste of Marcus’s work: The Hubcast 76: Buyer Persona Generator, Earning Customer Trust & HubSpot Pages

7) Barry Feldman

If I had to describe Barry’s work in one word, it would be solid.

Solid, with complete respect.

Every blog post, every infographic, every Slideshare, and every eBook delivers value.

He never mails it in. He never goes short. He never hits publish just to get a post out.

Barry Feldman is the model of consistency. The headline, the copy, the images… He doesn’t skip a step.

How often do say, “Good enough?”

If it’s once, it’s too often.

Takeaway: Never mail it in.

Get a taste of Barry’s work: 125 Quick Tips to Sharpen Your Copywriting Skills

8) Sarah Peterson

You may be less familiar with Sarah’s work as compared to some of the other names on this list. I only recently became aware of her work through articles she’s written on the SumoMe blog.

My first thought upon finding her work, “This woman is GOOD!”

And I’ve had the same thought, every time I’ve bumped into her work since.

Be good at what you do.

Sarah Peterson is good at content writing.

She mixes a fast pace and casual style writing that is easy to read with immense value.

If your work isn’t good, no one cares.

Takeaway: Just be good at what you do.

Get a taste of Sarah’s work: Growing a Site from 0 to 10k Visitors a Month: Sarah Peterson Edition

9) Demian Farnworth

embrace your personality

image credit: http://gph.is/17vfJsm

Demian Farnworth is a quirky dude.

He’s half poet, half copywriter, and half podcaster.

And it works.

Listen to his podcast, Rough Draft, and you’ll quickly realize Demian is brilliant. You’ll also get a distinct feeling there’s an inside joke only Demian is aware of.

As each layer of the onion is peeled back, you become more enamored by Demian’s work.

I’ve seen this in my own work. When I loosened up and started mentioning simple quirks in my personality, (like I prefer being called by my last name), people began responding to my work with more emotional engagement.

Your quirks are an asset. They’re the built in differentiators that help you stand out from the crowd.

Follow Demian Farnworth.

He’s an amazing content marketer and fantastic at harnessing the quirky bits of his personality.

Takeaway: Quirks are an asset.

Get a taste of Demian’s work: What Is a Content Marketer?

10) Jon Morrow

Jon Morrow writes amazing headlines.

He wrote the book on writing better headlines (get Headline Hacks).

His exceptional headlines are the catalyst for massive traffic generation.

Want to attract massive amounts of traffic to your work?




Getting familiar with Jon’s work is a great place to start.

Takeaway: Better headlines, more attention.

Get a taste of Jon’s work: How I Wrote Posts That Touched the Hearts of More Than 5 Million People

11) Tom Morkes

I can’t help but be impressed by Tom Morkes.

When I first came across his work, Tom had just finished a tour of duty in the Middle East. What caught my eye was how Tom attacked his work with the focus and determination of someone who will not allow themselves another option.

At the time, he was helping people launch products with a Pay What You Want pricing model, building his publisher company (Insurgent Publishing) and traveling the world.

It’s easy to get distracted while building an online business. Especially when you have high aspirations.

Success takes focus.

Where most fail is directing focus on revenue (or themselves).


Success takes focus on relationships.

Maybe it is his military background or maybe it’s just who he is, but Tom is one the best at building relationships within the marketing industry. NOTE: Tom was the guy who gave me the kick in the ass I needed to publish Content Warfare.

Tom Morkes has become an authority in the book publishing and promotion space because people trust him.

So much so that he recently played a major role in  John Lee Dumas’s almost half a million dollar Kickstarter campaign for his latest book, The Freedom Journal.

You don’t get to help John Lee Dumas with the most important project of his career without first building many strong relationships.

Takeaway: Relationships before revenue.

Get a taste of Tom’s work: Focus, Growth, and $100k (2015 Year in Review)

12) Joe Pulizzi

content marketing authority

image credit: http://gph.is/1K1vP2F

Referred to as the “Godfather of Content Marketing,” Joe Pulizzi is the content marketing authority.

Not because he’ll Snapchat severed horse heads to you for acting against “the family,” but rather his intentional effort to own the space.

Content Marketing Institute is a standard bearer for digital publications in the content marketing space.

Joe started a physical magazine, Chief Content Officer Magazine, despite being a digital company, to reach marketing executives in the C-suite.

Content Marketing World is the epicenter of content marketing thought leadership every fall (which I’ll be speaking at this year. Booyah!).

But Joe Pulizzi doesn’t just sit on the mountain and stare down at us ants scurrying about. His work on native advertising from both brand and marketer perspective is second to none.

Authority isn’t a gift. It’s earned through hard work and empire building.

Takeaway: Become the authority.

Get a taste of Joe’s work: Content Marketing – It’s Going to Get Weird

13) Mark Traphagen

Mark Traphagen bootstrapped his content marketing education.

I’m serious, read his bio.

In only five short years Mark went from zero to primetime personal brand in the search and content marketing space.

How did Mark do it?

He took ownership of his expertise.

Mark didn’t wait for the perfect job. He didn’t wait for a certain number of email subscribers or blog traffic.

No, Mark educated himself one blog post at a time. He dove head first into Google+, creating some of the largest and most active Google+ communities on marketing. He networked with the best in the business (like his current boss Eric Enge).

Has Mark slowed his relentless education in content marketing now that he’s ascended?

No… and here lies the lesson. The marketing industry moves fast. What works today may not even exist tomorrow.

Take ownership of your expertise and make learning part of everyday life.

Takeaway: Educate yourself.

Get a taste of Mark’s work: Can a Google Answer Box Drive Significant Site Traffic?

14) Amy Schmittauer

Amy Schmittauer produces the Savvy Sexy Social Youtube channel.

If you’ve been in marketing for more than a week, you’re probably familiar with her work. What you may not know is Amy has produced Savvy Sexy Social for almost five years.

That’s three episodes a week, for five years or more than 700 videos.

Consistency is an underrated character trait.

Want to become a sought after speaker and crush content marketing?

Spend the next five years mastering your craft by producing more than 700 pieces of content.

Amy Schmittauer sets herself apart by consistently producing high-quality work when others would have got bored and changed their focus.

Takeaway: Consistency wins.

Get a taste of Amy’s work: Super Easy Content Ideas that Build Authority Fast

15) Dave Chesson

There are a lot blog about self-publishing.

When it comes to Kindle eBook self-publishing, Dave Chesson’s blog is the best.

If you don’t already know Dave Chesson, get ready to. The dude is doing every right and building authority (fast) in an increasingly large niche.

The category of self-publishing is enormous. Taking on the topic as a whole would be a mistake. There are many authoritative voices in the space, who have big audiences and year’s experience.

So what do you do?

Carve out your niche from the larger topic. You’ve heard, “Riches are in the niches.”

Cliche, but true.

Self-publishing. Too big.

EBook self-publishing. Too big.

Kindle eBook self-publishing. Perfect.

Here’s what people forget. Once you’ve established yourself as a trusted expert in a niche, it becomes far less difficult to build authority in another niche. This is how you expand your brand and reach over time.

Takeaway: Quality + niche is a potent combo.

Get a taste of Dave’s work: Amazon Link Anatomy: What You Don’t Know Might Be Killing Your Reviews

Bonus Content Marketing Thought Leaders

bonus content marketing thought leaders

image credit:http://gph.is/1h8QKPM

Here’s the deal. I made a big mistake when I started writing this post. I made the original list of 15 content marketing thought leaders you see above

When I was mapping this post out, I made the original list of 15 content marketing thought leaders and then worked on the title. But as I worked on creating the post, I kept thinking of more people that should be included.

Here are six more thought leaders and the one detail I’ve pulled out of their work which helps them stand out.

In truth, this list could be twice as long, and there would still be more deserving people to add. I cut myself off at 21 for the purpose of getting this published in 2016.

16) Rand Fishkin

Marketing celebrities love to bloviate about authenticity, transparency and honesty. Unfortunately, in most cases these ideas are just words, used as placeholders, for the unavoidable narcissism popularity invites.

Except for Rand Fishkin.

In the SEO community, no it’s bigger than that. In the marketing industry, no it’s bigger than that too. Everyone who comes across Rand views him with a level of respect and trust, enviable by even the most successful in our space.

Not because he founded Moz (originally SEOMoz). Not because he’s an accomplished SEO. Not because he commands every stage he steps on.

No, Rand has earned trust by respecting those who look to him for guidance. How does one respect their audience?

Authenticity, transparency and honesty, even when it’s not convenient for your personal brand.

Especially when it’s not convenient. For it is these moments when respect evolves into trust.

This is the essence of Rand Fishkin’s work.

Takeaway: Authenticity, transparency and honesty win friends.

Get a taste of Rand’s work: How to Cheat at Creating Great Presentations for Tech & Marketing Audiences

17) Brian Clark

Brian Clark is the founder and president of Rainmaker Digital (formerly Copyblogger Media). Before that, Brian was a lawyer, a well-paid lawyer.

But Brian hated being a lawyer. It was the life he wanted to live.

So what did Brain do?

He built the business he wanted to work for. It started as a side-hustle, then became a job, and then a career and now a cultural icon in content marketing universe.

You can’t type a word in the content marketing industry without it being influenced in some way by the work of Brian or the company he’s built.

But there are a lot of companies that do great work in the content marketing space. What is it about Rainmaker Digital?

Its the culture.

They call themselves “Unemployable.”

A band of misfit master marketers proving that culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Build the business that brings out your best work.

Takeaway: Build the business you want to work for.

Get a taste of Brian’s work: Is Personal Branding Dead?

18) Donna Moritz

I met Donna Moritz for the first time at Social Media Marketing World 2015. I was a track leader, and she was the very first speaker I introduced.

Donna had one of the more bubbly and attractive personalities of anyone I’d meet during the conference, and it came through in her presentation. But Donna’s personality is just the vessel by which she delivers incredible value on visual marketing.

Here’s the deal, more than ever before, visuals matter.

Your visual marketing, the images, graphics, Slideshares, etc. sets you apart. In a scan first content world, visuals are what stop the scroll.

I learned this from Donna Moritz.

You should too.

Takeaway: Visual marketing stands out.

Get a taste of Donna’s work: How to Use SlideShare to Attract 450k Views of Your Content

19) Mark Schaefer

content shock mark schaefer

image credit: http://gph.is/15Gwq6O

Ever heard of Content Shock?

Yeah, that was Mark Schaefer.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with him or not. Mark Schaefer makes you think. He forces you to look at a world which doesn’t yet exist (at least not at the mainstream level) and question the common belief.

It’s easy to look at the world as it is today and describe what you see. It takes thought, practice and persistence to look out into the future and question what might be.

I call this thinking forward.

Thinking forward is one of the principal characteristics of a thought leader (as we examine in my podcast interview with Mark).

So few people are willing to accept the vulnerability which comes with questioning the status quo.

Mark Schaefer is, and it’s the defining detail which holds his work out above the rest.

Takeaway: Think forward.

Get a taste of Mark’s work: The business case for dwelling on dwell time

20) Tom Webster

In recent episode of the Marketing Companion Podcast, (which Tom co-hosts with Mark Schaefer), Tom shared a piece of wisdom he recently received from his boss at Edison Research:

We’re not often wrong, and we’re not often late, but I’d rather be late than wrong.”

A counterintuitive to the “Fail Fast” start-up philosophy working it’s way through today’s business culture. As sexy as failure theory may appear, there are more sinkholes than stairways to heaven with flirting with failure.

The reason?

Failure only works when it’s intentional.

It’s OK to fail only when a serious tactical and calculated decisions are made from deep, purposeful research yielding opportunity where upside potential warrants downside risk.

Follow Tom Webster’s work learn why its often better to be late than wrong.

Takeaway: Make educated decisions.

Get a taste of Tom’s work: The Marketing Companion Podcast

21) Sue B Zimmerman

Do you know Sue B Zimmerman?

If not, stop reading and click the link below to follow her on Instagram. Her work immediately stands out. She’s the Instagram marketing expert. Not “an” Instagram marketing expert, “THE” Instagram marketing expert.

Sue does not hold this distinction because she’s good at Instagram marketing.

There are a lot of people good at Instagram marketing.

Sue is the Instagram Expert because she lives her work. She uses Instagram to grow, not just her speaking and coaching business, but her retail store on Cape Cod, Sue B Do, as well.

It even goes beyond this. The enthusiasm you feel in Sue’s work is who she is. Spend 5 minutes with Sue and you’re infected by her energy.

People can sniff out a fraud.

To stand out, you must live your work.

Takeaway: Live your work.

Get a taste of Sue’s work: The Instagram Expert

The Rub

These are my content marketing mentors. A few of them I’ve never even met.

James Altucher says it all the time, “I earned his personal MBA one book at a time.”

The point of this article is to show that you don’t have to know someone personally to view them as a mentor. Find the people you trust and respect. Study their work. Find the one detail which separates their work from everyone else.

Here are couple more names I have to mention:

And I’m assuming Seth Godin and Gary Vaynerchuk go without saying.

If you want to become a better marketer, you must become a student of marketing. Who you learn from matters.

A lot.

Surround yourself with the ideas of people better at marketing than you are. Learn what makes them good. Then figure out how to apply those details to your own work.

What content marketing thought leaders would you add?

Thank you,

I am Ryan Hanley.

P.S. If you want the best marketing article published each week delivered directly your inbox, subscribe to the Sunday Seven.

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