Thought leadership is one of those buzzwords that gets bruited about without a lot of substance behind it.
What exactly does it mean?We'll answer that question and determine whether or not a thought leadership strategy is worthwhile for your brand.
We'll then touch on some key ways you can become a thought leader and share some thought leadership examples that you can emulate.
First, though, let's look at thought leadership defined by the experts..
What Is Thought Leadership?
While there are many ideas floating around about thought leadership, let's take a moment to get a clear, industry-supported thought leadership definition.
For a basic, well-rounded definition of thought leadership, let's look to Wikipedia, where we read,
"A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. Thought leaders are commonly asked to speak at public events, conferences or webinars to share their insight with a relevant audience."
Of course, the idea of thought leadership is nothing new. The term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used to refer to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was said to "manifest the wizard power of a thought leader." But as we move through the 21st century, the phrase has evolved, especially in the past five years with the rise of influencer marketing and influencer marketing platforms.
For this reason, let's consider an additional view on modern thought leadership. Michael Brenner, a recognized authority on leadership, culture and marketing, contributes to our modern thought leadership definition with this insight:
"I define thought leadership as a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience, on a particular topic."
Michael Brenner taps into a key component of B2B thought leadership: the use of content to prove expertise and reach audiences. That is a must for anyone who wants to achieve authentic thought leadership.
Unfortunately, however, some people have abused the concept, slapping a guru or expert or, yes, thought leader, label on themselves, despite little knowledge, to make it a laughable concept.
However, those sham thought leaders shouldn't ruin it for the rest of us.
True thought leadership is worth the effort.
Let's look into it.
Why Should You Be a Thought Leader?
Besides the title, what exactly does being a thought leader get you?
The answer? Done right, it can build your reputation and your company's brand, and grow your business. This doesn't mean just adding the title on your social profiles. But putting in real time and effort to achieve status as an industry thought leader.
Research (including this one from LinkedIn and Edelman) has shown us that there's real value to gain from investing in a thought leadership PR strategy. In fact, according to the LinkedIn-Edelman study:
"61% of C-suite executives are willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that has articulated a clear vision versus one that does not publish thought leadership."
58% of decision makers said "thought leadership led them to directly award business to an organization."
Benefits of thought leadership include:
- Clients that trust in your brand and are willing to pay a premium price to work with you.
- A wider variety of partner opportunities.
- More prospects that are interested in your brand.
- A richer, more complex company profile.
- A better selection of employee candidates.
Now that we see why thought leadership should matter, let's look at practical steps you can take to actually become an industry thought leader.
How to Become an Outstanding Industry Thought Leader
1. Define Your Expertise
At first, many people make the mistake of claiming expertise in everything. But realistically, it's just not possible. Especially in the beginning, it's important to focus on one main area.
And if you're an executive, you probably already have that expertise. It's just a matter of narrowing it down and shining it up.
How can you refine your area of expertise? Start by asking yourself some basic questions:
- What interests me most in the industry?
- What am I particularly good at in the industry?
- Why is thought leadership important to me?
- What am I known for right now?
- Where do I see this strategy taking me in 5 years?
- What differentiates me from others in the industry?
2. Build Credibility
Credibility doesn't happen over night, with a few carefully chosen posts on social media. It is build up over time -- just as a quality wall goes up brick by brick.
And as we mentioned before, credibility often starts with content. The key is to create content that naturally showcases your expertise and helps your audience. Remember, as a thought leader, you are there to benefit your audience -- not the other way around.
There are a variety of content forms to convey your credibility, so make sure that you mix it up. Create a quality content strategy that mixes in...
- How-to / Guides
- Industry trends
- Best practices
This kind of content should not read like a technical manual. Include some of yourself in it -- your personality, your experiences, and a healthy dose of well-chosen humor. Great content stimulates both the brain and the heart.
Remember, your audience is not made up of experts, so ditch the industry jargon and make your topics more approachable. Provide explanations and examples that engage even the most inexperienced member of your audience. And always include visuals in your content to make it more digestible.
3. Don't Push It
One of the worst things an executive can do is to call him or herself a thought leader. I see this time and again on LinkedIn, Twitter, and company bios -- Jane Smith, an industry thought leader.... It makes me cringe every time.
Because thought leadership is not a title that one can give oneself. It has become so overused that a self-titled thought leader immediately invites doubts.
The best route to becoming a thought leader is to become an expert, create consistent content that shows your thought leadership skills, and let others promote you as a thought leader. True, it will take more time, but it carries a lot more weight and is far more enduring than the alternative.
Note: Along the same lines, thought leadership should never be used as a platform to promote your brand or products. Self promotion tears down the credibility that you worked so hard to create. If your product or service is good and you continue to provide helpful insights and expertise, people's trust in you will naturally lead them to become a customer.
4. Nurture Your Audience
Thought leadership isn't built in a day, a week or a month. Just like nurturing a child to adulthood, thought leadership takes time and caring to reach its full potential. If you want to achieve a robust and supportive following, you need to take steps to get people to that point.
Look for opportunities outside of your content marketing efforts to engage your audience. These include options such as...
- Speaking engagements
- Guest posting
At the beginning of your thought leadership strategy, these might seem out of reach. But now is the time to lay the groundwork to reach out for such opportunities in the future. For instance, take time now to network and make contacts that can help you in the future. Create valuable content that encourages link building, which will win you recognition among your peers. Give credit to thought leaders in your own content. They may return the favor -- or a least have you on their radar.
5. Continue to Develop It
You know that old expression, "If you don't use it, you lose it"? It also applies to thought leadership. In today's digital age, industry trends are on the move, with the ability to change in the blink of an eye. If you don't update your expertise, you risk becoming the dinosaur of your industry and losing your credibility.
Continue to research and implement emerging trends. Create content that reflects your knowledge of such trends and places you as a leading authority whenever new technology and techniques emerge.
Be consistent with your efforts. Always look for new opportunities to flex your expertise. It takes time and effort, but it will be rewarded if you keep at it.
6. Be Different
A lot of people, when they hear this, assumes it means that they must always be fresh, with completely new ideas and content. But this is not what we mean.
The internet is full of content and it's impossible to offer a new point of view all the time. Instead, focus on what you have. Create content that makes you the most accessible, knowledgeable, and fresh brand in your industry.
Look for new and exciting ways to engage your audience. This could be by looking for new, easier ways to explain concepts to your audience, or through the latest content formats that engage your audience more fully. Always keep your eye out for new technology to accomplish this.
For instance, AR (augmented reality) has recently become a more accessible technology. Brands, including in the B2B space, have made the effort to incorporate this exciting tool in their strategy, with much success. This sets them apart and makes their audience experience truly unique and different from their competitors.
7. Make It Brand-Wide
Thought leadership strategy should not be limited to C-suite executives. The more thought leaders associated with your brand, the more it will power your success.
Encourage all in your brand who have expertise -- including product managers, customer service reps, and designers -- to develop their reputation as a thought leader. Motivate them to engage with your audience, create new and exciting content, and advocate for your brand in the process.
In the end, this is not something you can force. But you can be on the lookout for rising brand stars that fit this description and encourage those ones to further develop their personal brand.
8. Work With Others
A solid thought leader works well with others and gains their respect. This means that you need to put yourself out there and network with others in your industry.
Start with attending industry events. These events allow you to put your best foot forward. If you can land a speaking gig at one of these events, it will further plant you as a person to know in the industry.
Influencers are others who have the power to promote your thought leadership strategy. Reach out to an industry influencer that you admire and respect and inquire about a collaboration. Talk to them about your big ideas and what you would like to see for the future of the industry.
9. Be Social
There's no doubt about it -- social media is the place where a lot of thought leadership happens. The more social you are and the more you can present your thought leadership content to your social media audience,
Don't forget that the majority of people on social media are not just looking for content. They want to see the kind of person you are -- not just how much content you can produce. Be authentic -- interact with them, joke, and show a genuine interest in them.
10. Be Humble
You're not super human and you don't have all the answers. And that's OK. It's actually a good thing. People want to follow and engage with a human being -- not an all-knowing automaton.
Whether it's in an interview or online, don't be afraid to tell people you don't know. In fact, this can be a protection. It's better to tell someone you're not sure about something than to make it up and deal with the blowback. And, in the end, people respect honesty.
3 Exceptional Thought Leadership Examples to Follow
1. Neil Patel
Neil Patel has become one of the most recognizable names in the internet marketing field -- and not by chance. He has been busy at crafting and honing his personal brand over a decade with highly consistent, quality content. Along way he's managed to found three successful companies: Crazy Egg, Hello Bar and KISSmetrics. He has received accolades from everyone from The Wall Street Journal to The White House -- yes, that White House.
When it comes to content, Patel has done almost everything under the sun. And done it all well. From blogging up a storm, to podcasting, to newsletters, to webinars, to videos -- and he has developed such a relationship with his audience that they are hungry for any content that he creates. Why? Because they trust him and know that he will always give them the helpful, up-to-date information they crave.
2. Seth Godin
Seth Godin has not only commented on but impacted how most of us view modern marketing. Whether it's been through one of his 19 books, some 8,000 blogs posts, or thousands of speeches -- including TED talks -- he has reached hundreds of thousands of people.
He has been in the thick of internet marketing since its infancy, but continues to maintain his reputation as a leading authority on modern marketing practices. He consistently delivers engaging content, whether it's from his podcast, his blog, or his YouTube channel.
While GE is a brand and not an individual, it carries all of the hallmarks of thought leadership and is a great example of any brand to follow.
GE has done a wonderful job of remaining relevant, despite being founded over 100 years ago. And even though it was a household name 50 years ago, it has persisted in blazing trails in the fields of technology and healthcare -- but admitted, it's more than this that makes this brand thought leadership material.
Throughout recent years, GE has adapted their strategy to the needs of its audience. Whether it's on its main site, a microsite, or on its social media profiles, you can always find helpful and informative articles on developments in technology and how it impacts the lives of millions.
Thought leadership continue to grow in value across industries and brands. If you want to grow your brand, reach a wider audience, and build trust, then thought leadership needs to be in your strategy wheelhouse.
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