Viewed simplistically, the road to becoming a thought leader seems to be straightforward. A simple Google search will give you a laundry list of strategies, teaching marketing professionals and brands sure-fire methods to become a thought leader – start a blog, launch a podcast, conduct regular webinars and voilaI you will be well on your way to establishing thought leadership.

However, as content and digital marketing become two sides of the same coin, companies have deployed their well-meaning content marketers and producers to flood the internet. What you end up with is a saturated digital environment – more clutter than substance; and as a result, a dwindling audience. So if you’re a company/individual seeking to establish thought leadership in an environment overwrought with content, how do you distinguish yourself?

This article seeks to give you a brief lowdown on some methods you can use to optimize your marketing strategies and give your organization the edge it needs.

WHAT IS THOUGHT LEADERSHIP, ANYWAY?

While any marketing professional worth their salt will tell you the critical value of being a thought leader and nearly everyone seems to consider themselves worthy of that moniker, the internet is rife with confusion about what a thought leader (and thought leadership, by extension) is. So, let’s clear the air.

The term thought leadership finds its provenance in 1994 in the words of Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the magazine, Strategy & Business, who said, “A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”

This definition seems clear but it needs to be updated for the social media era. While part of thought leadership certainly involves being at the forefront of your industry with ‘unique points of view’ and ‘distinctively original’ ideas, it cannot exist in a vacuum.

Once you push the envelope and distinguish yourself in your industry, you have to, as Lauren Hockenson says, “us[e] those ideas to leverage ubiquity on social or broadcast media.”

Unless the innovation you bring to the table transcends the four walls of your home or workplace, you haven’t made that critical step from being an innovative industry leader to being a thought leader.

To sum up and simplify, a thought leader can be thought of as an individual who is at the cutting edge of her industry, and who leverages her ideas and thoughts to gain prominence and prevalence on social and broadcast media. Thought leadership is about getting your target audience excited about an idea, inviting them to ‘start a relationship where none exists, and enhance existing relationships’.

HOW DO I ESTABLISH THOUGHT LEADERSHIP AND BECOME A THOUGHT LEADER?

It is a truism to state that there is no one fool-proof method to establish thought leadership – there is no series of steps that will automatically result in you being crowned a thought leader. Rather, it requires a combination of employing the right strategies, reading the evolving needs and interests of your target audience and always ensuring that you take steps to maintain your credibility.

So, how do you optimize your company or brand into a thought leader?

1. CONTENT IS IMPORTANT BUT SO IS DIGITAL REAL-ESTATE

Every article out there will repeat and reiterate the need to be consistent in your publication of content – blog posts, long-form content, white papers, e-mails, newsletters, podcasts, how-to-guides, webinars are all ways to spread the gospel, as it were. While there can be no denying the value of publishing content and ensuring that it is easily (and freely) accessible, due importance should be given to where you post your content.

It’s likely that you will start by establishing your own blog to plug your content. At this stage, it is critical to, as far as possible, be against the grain and display your chops as a unique thinker. As traction builds, it’s time to shop around and start guest-posting on other blogs in the same industry. As your following grows, opportunities will come knocking – the more multi-media exposure you can get the better. At the same time, make sure you weigh every opportunity that comes to you and think of it in the context of how you want your brand to be viewed.

As you expand your digital footprint and gain exposure, you will notice your target audience diversifying. Moreover, you will be interacting with more influencers who will indubitably prove to be great assets when it comes to growing the scope of your influence and the breadth of your business.

2. THERE ARE NO SUBSTITUTES FOR CONFIDENCE AND AUTHENTICITY

In his article on Forbes, Mike Templeman cites a 2012 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found that merely being or appearing confident boosted ones credibility. Sound authoritative and speak with confidence and people will automatically and unconsciously attach more credibility to what you say. That said if this is not balanced with an uncompromising emphasis on being honest in everything you do in the digital world, you are likely to suffer. Audiences today have exceptional digital street-smartness allowing them to very easily spot (and verify) exaggeration, misinformation and dissonance.

Be consistent, be confident and your authenticity and credibility will shine for your audience to see.

3. YOU’VE GOT TO NETWORK, TO GET WORK

As seemingly obvious as this is – content marketing professionals often operate in organic vacuums, trying to grow their brand without paying adequate attention to how – too use an often caricatured buzzword – synergies help you learn while simultaneously growing your brand. This isn’t some new-age marketing mumbo-jumbo, this is biblical stuff – ‘he that walketh with wise men shall be wise’. Remember when your mother told you that you’ll be judged by the company you keep? The same rule applies.

Use your platform to encourage and feature other experts from your industry. Interact with them on social media and other platforms. Their expertise becomes your expertise – you become part of a circle and your influence grows. This requires more than just keyboard interaction. Attend networking events, industry seminars and conferences. As your visibility grows, your influence will follow. Further, keeping thought leaders and industry leaders in your circle means that you have live resources at your disposal to hone your skills and expand your reach.

4. SCATTER-GUN APPROACHES NEVER GOT ANYBODY ANYWHERE

Too often the tendency in blogs is to try and hammer as many nails as possible on the head in one fell swoop. Now given how hammers and nails tend to work, this is likely to get you nowhere. Your content needs to be focused and dove-tail towards a larger objective. This is particularly true if you’re building your organization rather than just your personal brand. That said, the building of your personal brand and your company’s influence often go hand-in-hand.

Think Steve Jobs. The man had an unparalleled ability to build a larger-than-life brand that Apple as a company effectively harnessed.If your approach is to weigh in on every relevant or popular question and try and focus on quantity and breadth rather than quality and depth you are likely to get less purchase for your efforts. If you’re a brand with many fingers in many pies, it’s imperative to create focused and separate thought leadership campaigns. The information highway gives consumers incredible access – if you’re making a catch-all attempt at covering 5 different ideas, you are unlikely to optimize your influence and very likely to get lost in the ether.

As Daniel Rasmus says, “Go vertical, or go home.”

5. AUDIENCE SEE, AUDIENCE DO

You could follow every rule and suggestion under the sun and if your content receives no traction with your audience, your thought leadership won’t matter. Think of your target audience, profile them and think of their everyday. What are the questions they’re asking? What do they look for in an individual, brand or company like yours? In an internet world flooded with smoke and mirrors, how can you provide them the clarity they sorely need? Craft your message carefully based on the demographic you’re focusing on. While you should avoid seeking to monetize thought leadership, it is nevertheless a transaction. You have to respect your consumer and ensure she sees value in purchasing your product. Monitoring social media for industry-related questions and providing perspective on them is a great way to engage with, curate and cultivate your audience.

Once you’ve developed an audience, follow them back – ask questions and find out their views. At every point treat your online interactions as you would treat interactions in the offline world – be respectful, treat people as equals and always ask them more about what they think. Soon, they’ll be listening to you with rapt attention.

CONCLUSION

The strategies suggested above are broader, high-level decisions you should make and methods you should employ to stay ahead of the curve. Everywhere I look on the internet, I see content in every medium possible. It’s a sensory overload and it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that this is but a long and arduous road – so much of being a thought leader is being patient. If you don’t see results, clicks and purchases stacking up immediately, stay the course. Your audience is sussing you out and determining whether you’re worth their time. The more effort and care you put into establishing thought leadership, the more results you will see in the long-term.

Speaking about fashion, Coco Chanel famously said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky; in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

If anything, remember this – the idea you’re selling is more than the product it finds exposition in. Great thought leaders can convince their audiences to buy ideas first and products second.


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