So you want to be a thought leader. Well, it’s certainly a lofty aspiration, and something that can have real benefits for your business.
In this guide, I’ll look to dispel some of the mystery that surrounds thought leadership. I’ll also offer tips, based on my personal experiences, on how you can boost your profile.
What is thought leadership?
Now, some people have of an issue with the phrase “thought leadership”, and to be honest I sort of think they have a point. At its heart, thought leadership is a hard-to-define term that some people use to inflate their own egos. Some thought leaders like to see themselves not just as experts in a topic, but as somehow partly responsible for actually defining the terms of debate around a topic.
Of course, there are a handful of people who do have that kind of influence, but very few of them would call themselves thought leaders.
For me, this idea that thought leadership has to involve something absolutely ground-breaking is actually off-putting to people who have useful knowledge and experiences to share.
So for me, thought leadership is nothing more than someone who has extensive experience in a certain topic or topics, sharing that knowledge with others. And that’s what we’re going to focus on here.
Why become a thought leader?
As lovely and altruistic as it is to go about sharing expertise with other people, if you’re running a business then at some point you’ve got to think “what’s in it for me?”. The most obvious benefit of being a thought leader is increased exposure for you and your brand.
If you’re seen as an expert in a field that’s directly related to what your business is about, then not only will you be more familiar to potential customers, but they’ll also be more likely to want to become a customer.
You’ll also make contact with a range of people who can help your business in ways you probably haven’t even thought about yet.
So how do you become a thought leader?
Am I a thought leader? It’s not really for me to say. But I do have a lot of experience in the kinds of things that need to be done to become one. We’ll get into specifics soon, but one thing you’ll notice is that the common thread here is networking and publicity – things that some people just don’t feel confident doing.
If you’ve got a business partner, or a team, then it’s perfectly fine for one individual to take the strain here. If someone has a flair for this sort of thing, then let them use it. If you’re a one-man band, clearly your choice is very limited. Overcoming a fear of public speaking is hard, but it’s worthwhile and an achievement in itself.
So let’s look at the kinds of thing you’ll need to do to become a thought leader.
Connect your personal brand to your business brand
Ok, “personal brand” is another buzz phrase, but if you’re going to be the public face of your business, it’s something you’ll need to think about.
You can learn more about developing a personal brand in this guide, but perhaps the key thing to remember is that people pay attention to thought leaders because of what they say about their area of expertise, not because they’re interested in what you get up to in your spare time, or what you did on a night out. There’s room for you to get your personality across, of course, but stay focused on what your audience is really interested in.
So how do you connect your personal brand to your business brand? Well, if you’re running a one man band, you may actually decide to avoid a business brand all together and decide to build your personal brand on its own. This article by Tom Critchlow explains why he decided to take that option.
But if, like me, you’re working for a larger business, then you’ll need to work to integrate your personal brand and your business brand. Here’s what you can do.
Make sure your personal brand has a presence on your website – If you founded your business, then one of the best ways to do this is by telling your brand’s story on an “about us” page. You can also include short bios of you and your employees, and you can blog (like I’m doing here!).
Make sure your personal and business social media accounts are connected – If someone visits your personal social media account, how long would it take them to understand what it is you do and which business you do it for? Really, they should just need to read your Twitter bio. You can find mine here (and why not give me a follow while you’re there?).
That’s the basics. But you also need to let people looking at your business account know who you are. So retweet your personal account from your business account and vice versa. Also make sure you’re sharing articles you’ve written via your business social media accounts (and include your social handles!), along with details of any events you’ll be attending or speaking at (we’ll look at this below).
Write blog articles that help people
Yup, I’ve already mentioned this once, but I’m going to mention it again because it’s so important. Blogging is the quickest and easiest way to get started on the path to becoming a thought leader. If you’re sharing tips and experiences that are valuable to others, this will get people’s attention and can even help you grow as a business. Don’t believe me? Well, customer service software business Groove is so wedded to this idea, it blogged about pretty much everything it did on its way to clocking up $500k a month in revenue. And did this open and honest approach help get it more attention from potential customers? Of course it did!
Make sure you always blog under your name, and include a picture of yourself too. That way, people will know who has provided them with that little bit of advice they’d been hunting for.
Become a trusted source of knowledge, views and insights
Do you ever look at a piece of press coverage one of your rivals has got and think “how did they manage that?”? If so, the answer is probably simpler than you thought.
Every journalist has to uncover stories, all high-profile blogs have a need to publish content that their audience will love.
If you can help these people do their jobs, then that will translate into coverage for you and your business.
The common objection here is “but I don’t have any contacts!”. And the answer to that is “start building them”. If you’ve got something useful to share, then cold outreach will work. You might have to start off small – say with local press coverage – but once you start to build a track record as someone who provides the basis for top-notch content, you’ll find it gets easier and easier to be noticed by the major players.
Just make sure that when you get coverage, you get credit.
Provide unique stats and data
Really, this point ties into the previous two, but it’s important enough to stand on its own. Stats and data are the cornerstones that will back up everything you say as a thought leader. The more you’re willing to share, the better.
Now it’s possible to come up with great stats and data through independent research and it will certainly raise your profile. Just think about how many surveys you read about in news stories every day. But the real gold comes from stats and data about your own business. (The Groove example works here again).
Now, the reason why this kind of information gets so much attention is that businesses don’t tend to release sensitive data if they don’t have to. So it’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to do that. Just bear in mind that 100% transparency will get you extra attention.
Attending events can boost your profile. It’s not as simple as turning up and waiting for people to come and talk to you. If you’re just starting out, you’ll need to put the effort in when it comes to networking.
Planning is the key here. And not just planning which event to attend. If you know what you want to get out of an event, and who you want to speak to, before you attend, then you’re much more likely to achieve your goals.
Also make sure you know what unofficial events are going on around the event. If it’s a conference that lasts a number of days, then there’s likely to be meet ups in the evening. Social media is your friend. If you’re following other people who are attending the event, you should be able to get the lowdown on what’s going on.
Finally, it’s important that you follow up with any contacts you make. Interact with them on social media, reach out to them via email when you have something of value to share and, if possible, meet them again at a future event.
Speak at events
The big one. Event speaking can boost your profile massively and, if you do it well, will establish you as a thought leader. Again, this is an area where you’ll probably have to start small. Speaking at local events will help build your confidence and your profile, as well as bringing you to the attention of the people who organise a larger event.
Never be afraid to put forward an idea for a talk. I’ve been involved in some great events over the last couple of years, including the Business Show and a series of talks with Enterprise Nation. This simply wouldn’t have happened if I’d kept myself to myself.
If an event is accepting pitches, and you have a suitable idea as well as the speaking skills you’ll need, then go for it!
When speaking, make sure that you get a little plug in for yourself and your business. Don’t try and sell anyone a product, just mention your social media handles and let people know how to get in touch with you. You never know who’s watching.
And finally, as with attending events, make sure you follow up with any contacts you make. That way, you’ll be on the way to building a strong relationship that will help you spread your ideas, and your business, even further.
So there you go. It’s a far from comprehensive list, but hopefully I’ve managed to get across both how you can go about boosting your profile as a though leader and why it can benefit your business if you do.
Just remember – nothing we’ve talked about here will happen instantly. You’ll need to build up your reputation over time. But it’s worth it.