Leadership doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a deliberate act. And there are deliberate steps you can take to establish yourself as a thought leader.
Here’s how to be a thought leader. But first, let’s define the term:
Definition of a Thought Leader
Here’s a general definition:
thought lead·er [thawt lee-der] noun
A person or organization that is recognized by others as a trusted authority on a select topic or area of expertise. This person or organization benefits from this reputation of expert knowledge and insight.
Notice, there are three parts to this definition, each with its own requirement:
Be an expert (talent and insight)
Be recognized as such (promotion and marketing)
Benefit from this recognition (the ability to turn awareness into business)
Sadly, this article won’t tell you how to be talented. Let’s assume that you are an expert in your field. Now we can focus on the second two requirements: building your reputation as an expert in your field and capitalizing on that reputation.
1. Your Website: The Home For Your Ideas
Having your own website is critical if you want to benefit from your new status as a thought leader. Without a site for your ideas to call home, how can you turn visitors into subscribers, followers and leads?
The site must include the basic features for content marketing:
Design that is search engine friendly and content that is search optimized
Design that is optimized to convert visitors into leads
Social media integration
A place to publish various types of content, from videos to whitepapers.
As a soon-to-be thought leader, you need a website with these features, to act as a platform for publishing the advice and opinions that will establish you as an expert. You’re at a big disadvantage.
The site is also the tool for profiting from the recognition you earn. It turns your audience into leads for your services and customers for your products. Some of your products, such as books and events, are ways to profit directly from the ideas you’ve been promoting.
2. Create Stellar Content
This is it. The number one, most important factor, hands down. It’s all about the content. Write. It’s your ideas that will make you a leader. And the content is the vehicle for those ideas.
Share your best advice, even when you feel you’re giving too much away. You’re not seen as an expert unless you share expert information.
Take a stand, even if your views aren’t popular. Strong opinions win respect. You’re not a leader unless you’re out in front, saying what you truly believe.
Write regularly, even when other priorities demand your time. You can’t be top-of-mind if you’re forgotten. You need to publish frequently to be remembered and relevant.
Be original, even if you’re writing on a well-covered topic. You’re not a leader if you just repeat things that have been said elsewhere. Add your own views and ideas. Write something more thoughtful or more thorough.
Blog regularly and use the SEO basics, but also think big. There’s more to thought leadership than blog posts. Publish original research, whitepapers, books, videos, guides, podcasts, etc. Create a series of content. Give your best effort to convey all that you know through as many channels as possible.
“People who lead companies are always looking for best practices from successful leaders to help grow. Everything else is just talking points.” -Ned Ward
Kuno Creative offers these content ideas to get you started:
Tips on how to do something more efficiently or effectively
Lessons learned from failed business strategy
Interview with a current industry thought leader
Review a new product or service
Short, educational “how to” video
3. Social Media
This is an invaluable tool. LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook are important channels for promoting your content and ideas. They also useful places to network with other influencers, bloggers and journalists.
Share your content An active social media presence is a fast, low-cost way to promote your new content. It’s also a place to interact with your readers and get feedback. Within social media, you can quickly see if that topic is resonating with your audience.
Establish “social proof” A large social following is a third-party endorsement of your expertise. This kind of social proof will make it easier to get press, guest blogging opportunities and speaking engagements. Details below.
Listen, then engage Find influencers in your industry and monitor what they’re saying in the social channels and on blogs. This may give you ideas for topics or chances to join the conversation with your own questions and comments.
Answer questions People are looking for your help in the social media channels. Networks like Quora.com, LinkedIn Groups and Twitter are full of people asking questions. Spend some time finding relevant questions and giving thoughtful answers.
Smaller, more focused social networks within your industry may be the best places to establish a presence. Association websites, industry blogs or niche social networks may be more targeted and more useful places to promote your ideas.
4. Impress the Press
Ideas delivered through media outlets have instant credibility, so PR is an important tool for thought leadership. There are effective, inexpensive ways to get the attention of reporters.
Response Campaign: When you comment on a reporter’s articles with thoughtful responses, even if you disagree. It may take months, but eventually, you’ll earn both the attention and trust of the journalist. (Thank you, Gini Dietrich for this tip!)
HARO: The “Help a Reporter Out” newsletter is a tool that connects the media (busy journalists) with sources (you). Thousands of journalists on deadlines post requests, which come to you as an email. Subscribe to the categories that are relevant to you, scan through looking for matches, then quickly write to the reporter with an offer to help.
Write Editorials: Thought leaders have strong opinions and newspapers are looking for Op/Ed content. If you’re passionate on a topic in the news, take the time to write and submit an opinion piece.
5. Guest Blogging
Demonstrating your expertise in the media is great. But a well-placed guest blog post can be almost as good. There is very little difference between guest blogging and PR. They’re both about putting your views in front of a new audience.
First, find the websites that your audience is likely to be reading. These may be familiar industry websites, association blogs or local online news sites. You can find a list of possible targets by searching Google. Just enter: [your topic] “write for us” and you’ll be looking at a giant list of relevant blogs looking for content.
Find a site that has an engaged readership. If there is lots of sharing and comments, that’s a good sign. Notice the style: topics, tone, length, formatting, links, images. Could you produce something in this style that these readers would value?
Next, connect with the writers or editors on social media. Ask if they’re considering guest posts. Pitch your idea. Be sensitive to their time and their interests. If you’re not able to connect with them, the last resort is submitting your pitch through their contact form.
Tip: Pitching is easier if you’ve already built a social media presence first, since they’re likely to notice the size of your following. This social proof makes you look credible. It also shows you may bring your own audience to this guest post.
Finally, submit a great piece of content. If they accept it, be ready to share it and respond to comments when it goes live. Also, be sure to maintain the relationship with the editor.
6. Public Speaking
Nothing beats in-person events for building trust. There is no better networking. Presenting at conferences and tradeshows let’s you show your passion as well as your expertise. Your style and your substance.
Start by finding and applying to smaller events in your industry with the goal of eventually presenting at bigger, more prestigious events. When you present, make sure your presentation is solid. It should be informative, entertaining and non-promotional. Don’t sell while you’re speaking or you’ll hurt your credibility.
Tip: If you’re speaking at an event, do your best to help fill the room. Use your own social media network to drive registrations. Read: How to Market an Event.
7. Be Yourself
No need for an expensive personal branding exercise. Don’t overthink things. Trust that you have information and insights that are relevant to thousands of people. When you talk about these things, speak with your own voice.
Thought leadership is an ambitious goal. You’re on the right track if you meet these criteria:
You have a unique perspective on your industry and original, innovative ideas
You have a passion for helping other by promoting your ideas
You can prove your expertise with an impressive track record
You create and share great content. This could be original research, proven advice or strong opinions.
Last Word: Be Patient. Be Persistent.
Establishing a reputation takes time. Name a true thought leader and look at their background. It likely took years or even a decade for them to establish themselves. Creating great content, courting the press and building a social media network all take time. I’ll leave you with this fantastic quote, from former US President Calvin Coolidge:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent...