The concept of “thought leadership” tends to get thrown around a lot, especially in the realm of digital marketing. Depending on who you talk to, it could either be an objective to achieve, a reputation to aspire for, or a career-defining condition. Exactly how does one get there, though?
And is there really a proven process for attaining a reputation for thought leadership?
In his incredibly popular TEDtalk, “Start with Why,” Simon Sinek presents an interesting approach to doing business.
Sinek argues that people don’t actually buy what we do – rather, they buy why we do it. They’re more likely to follow the lead of those whose beliefs and principles they also hold dear. Based on this, leaders who don’t give their audience a clear idea of what motivates them are less likely to succeed.
It’s upon this alignment of beliefs that trust is built, and this, in turn, leads to the establishment of thought leadership.
To successfully build thought leadership, though, one must first understand what it truly means.
An article on LinkedIn defines thought leadership as “the process of becoming a leading authority in your chosen industry.” According to the article’s author, Jo Macdermott, some of the ways that this can be done are by providing updated information about the newest trends and developments in the industry, creating useful content for the audience based on verifiable sources, and presenting yourself as someone who’s truly knowledgeable about your field.
However, becoming a thought leader is a slow process that requires devotion and patience. You can’t become a true thought leader with just a couple of articles – and certainly not just by calling yourself one. Building authority takes time, and involves more than just one aspect of your personal branding.
Here are five simple but effective steps you can follow on your quest towards thought leadership.
1. Consistently publish quality content that can help you gain your target audience’s trust
Make sure to keep coming out with a steady stream of high-quality content. This will not only help you improve your discoverability on the internet, but it’ll also help you build your credibility.
When the subject of content gets brought up, blog posts are usually the first type of content that comes to mind, and for good reason – regular blogging has been shown to positively benefit your digital presence, in terms of overall traffic, search engine rankings, and growing your audience. You can also do guest blogging for other websites with whom you share the same audience demographics.
However, don’t feel limited to any single content format. You can work with creative professionals to produce branded content that fits your vision perfectly. From compelling videos to share-worthy infographics, from inspirational quotes to live streams, be sure to explore the possibilities of your content marketing strategy.
2. Gather and create original research to be seen as an authority in your industry
When we talk about original research, we mean informative pieces which include specific, quantifiable data. Some examples are case studies, special reports, surveys, and questionnaires.
You may even quote authoritative sources and share their insights with your audience, regardless of their industry. Make sure to add your own take on the issue, though. If there’s one thing that a thought leader should always have, it’s perspective with an opinion to share.
The reason why this works so well is because you’ll end up making your audience feel more intelligent after reading your content. When you’re a thought leader, people look to you to be able to teach them new things which they can apply in their life, career or business.
Through thought leadership, you can create experiences that facilitate learning, all while cementing your reputation as someone who uses credible sources and verifies information before sharing it – essentially, someone your target audience can trust.
3. Have professionally written social media profiles, as well as a great website, for personal branding purposes
Simply put, your online presence must rock. No exceptions if you want to be perceived as a thought leader.
Now, I don’t mean oversell yourself – you won’t be using social media to promote yourself constantly. However, you absolutely need to have a strong social media presence, simply because you need to have a platform upon which you can be seen and heard.
As noted, thought leadership doesn’t happen at the drop of a hat, that’s why it’s important for you to not only be on social media, but to also ensure that your initiatives on each platform are contributing to your greater goal.
This means being active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and any other social media sites where you can find your target audience. It also means a well-planned calendar of activities, instead of relying on one magical video or post to get shared and re-shared.
As awkward as it may sound, thought leadership becomes more feasible through bombardment than through virality. Present your thought leadership through campaigns that embrace and reflect your personal brand.
You also need a good, search engine-optimized website to call your digital home. Having a professional website increases your credibility, enabling your audience to see you as a figure they can trust and rely on for information.
4. Be ubiquitous, in a way that can be expected from a thought leader
A key component of thought leadership, as stated earlier, is visibility. But of course, visibility won’t help you much if you’re not doing anything about it.
As a thought leader, you need to be steadfast in your beliefs, consistent in your messaging, and diligent in creating and sharing your content. In other words, you must be committed. From the term “thought leader” itself, you need to be at the forefront of pushing concepts and ideas to your audience. Essentially you have to become ubiqitous.
There are a number of ways in which you can make your presence felt, whether offline or online. In addition to your content strategy, you can also organize events in your community, share your knowledge through talks and other public speaking engagements, and find other thought leaders in your industry to call your friends.
Remember, though, that you should avoid promising things you can’t deliver, or promoting what isn’t there. For instance, drumming up interest for a webinar that actually isn’t live yet will likely backfire on you. It will cause your credibility to decline, and will make the road towards becoming a respected thought leader even more difficult to traverse.
Lastly, you’re trying to be a thought leader, but not necessarily a hero. Not every campaign (or audience member) calls for a hero story from you, there’s really no need for you to build yourself up too much. Let your audience decide how they perceive you by providing content which shows them how much they need you.
5. Engage, engage, engage on social media to build a loyal community, trust, and credibility
“We follow those who lead, not for them but for ourselves,” argues Sinek. “And it’s those who start with “why?” that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.”
Earlier, I mentioned that developing your social media presence is an essential step towards thought leadership. Creating your account is only half the battle, though. Help people understand what makes you tick, and you’ll definitely start being perceived as someone they can talk to – someone they can click with.
The way to do this is through sharing content that might be interesting for your target market, as well as participating in lively online discussions. Make yourself known while you keep abreast of the latest in the industry – and always remember that you’re writing primarily for your defined audience.
This bears repeating: Hard-selling yourself is not the way to thought leadership. Learn humility and let your products and services become your strongest proof that you know your stuff. Instead, prioritize the audience: What do they want? What do they need?
At the end of the day, the most important prerequisite on your journey towards attaining thought leadership is trust. If you’re not perceived by your target audience as a figure or personality worthy of their trust, you will absolutely not be considered an authority on your subject of expertise, no matter how hard you try to market yourself as such.
It’s one thing to proclaim yourself to be important in your industry, and another thing entirely for other people to attest to the fact that you are important. And trust me, you want the latter, not the former.
With thought leadership comes not just improved credibility, but also the increased likelihood that people would want to listen to what you have to say or teach to them – even to the extent that they’d be willing to pay for your services. There’s no getting around it, experts get paid more.
And while money definitely shouldn’t be your primary motivation, if you want to establish yourself firmly in your industry and be able to sustain yourself while sharing your knowledge and expertise to your audience, thought leadership is an absolute must.
So start your journey towards becoming a thought leader today, and enjoy the benefits of a loyal fanbase and improved sales.
As mentioned earlier in this blog post, having a professionally written social media profile is an absolute must. It’s time to take a look at your professional social media profile and see if it matches up to the standards of your industry.