Like “core competencies” and “best practices,” “thought leadership” is in danger of making Forbes’ list of most annoying business jargon.
The term is definitely overused and often misused, mostly because it’s so difficult to define. Many use it interchangeably with the term “expert”–but thought leaders are much more than that. True thought leaders are: people or companies that, through their content, exert influence, are recognized for that influence, and benefit from this recognition of expertise, are respected authorities that drive progress in their industries and deliver innovative answers to their audiences’ biggest questions.
Four Components of Genuine Thought Leadership
Original thought. You must provide fresh insights and practical ideas that readers can actually use.
Leadership. You may respond to the questions posed by your audience–but you can’t be constrained by them. To be a true leader, you must set your own agenda, develop an original voice and create content that addresses what’s around the next corner.
Transcendence. Your ideas have to go beyond the jargon-laced “speak” of your industry and educate/inform the general public. To be understood by the masses, you must package your content in your audience’s language.
Viral content. Your content has to go viral. It is one thing to publish/promote innovative ideas. It is quite another to have that insight spread beyond your circle of contacts.
To be a true thought leader, you must have an original voice, innovative thoughts and the ability and desire to lead. You must connect with readers in a way that inspires them enough to become your champions–and to share your message with others.
The Benefits Are Worth the Effort
Over time, thought leadership helps you build brands–personal, corporate and even employer. Used properly, brand creation and elevation can help you:
Attract/Retain/Engage Talent: Smart people like to work with the best minds in their industries. Like Thomas Edison’s assistants, they want to spend time in environments where they can learn, be challenged and be inspired.
Attract New Business: Approximately 57% of a typical B2B purchase decision is made before the customer even talks to you. Through your content, you can become part of the conversation early in the process. You allow your potential customers to get to know your brand as they begin their purchasing journey.
While important for all industries, branding is especially critical in the B2B environment. The complexity/length of the purchasing process, the large number of people involved in that process, and (quite honestly) the perceived dullness of most B2B industries are tough challenges that effective thought leadership (and its positive impact on branding) can overcome.
So You Want to Be a Thought Leader?
Here are some ideas you can implement today:
Focus on One Thing. You cannot be everything to everyone, and the field of wannabe thought leaders is huge. Do not try to tackle a subject that is too large; you will get swallowed in the sea of fish. General subjects such as HR or the Internet are simply too wide and overreaching. Focus on a small niche you can define and stick with it.
Focus on One Thing…That is Growing. If you specialize in a flat, stable industry–say small appliance manufacturing–there is not much room for you to grow as a thought leader. Thought leadership requires expansion, innovation and growth.
Define your audience. To do this, ask yourself these three questions:
Who cares about my knowledge base?
What can I offer them that they cannot get elsewhere?
Is what I offer valuable?
Develop a solid content strategy. Identify the issues and questions your audience has, and then answer those questions across multiple formats and channels (blogs, articles, webinars, podcasts, etc.) in a way that adds value. Do not focus solely on answering your audience’s questions; focus on the future–tomorrow’s challenges, new ideas. Be proactive, take the lead and set your own agenda.
Begin writing. Compelling, educational and easy-to-read content is the cornerstone of any thought leadership strategy. Create a voice for content that’s right for your audience and supports the brand you want to build. If you have great ideas, but struggle to put them into words, hire a ghost writer to transform your thoughts into readable, thought-provoking language.
Establish yourself on social media. Remember, thought leadership requires your content to reach and be shared by the masses. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and even Google+ are must-have tools for thought leaders. They are used to both push content out to your audience and to measure their reaction to it.
Promote your thought leadership brand. This can be done in several ways, including:
Contributing guest content via blogs, articles, etc.
Starting your own blog.
Answering journalistic queries and questions as well as those on LinkedIn, etc.
Writing a book.
Giving speeches that can be converted to webinars, podcasts.
Becoming a thought leader is a process, a journey. Use these ideas to start creating, publishing and promoting forward-facing content that engages and inspires your audience. Start building your base audience–your networked community–and soon the exposure will bring a much broader group of followers to you.