A lot of people make the claim to be thought leaders these days and it’s not hard to see why. When you’re a service provider, being a thought leader often grants you access to the most interesting and most lucrative work. It also often means that you no longer have to go looking for clients, they come looking for you. Becoming a thought leader means more than simply proclaiming yourself a thought leader on your LinkedIn profile. It requires hard work, perseverance and, above all, knowledge of a particular area. That said, there are some simple steps anyone can take down the path to thought leadership - so long, of course, that they know their subject matter inside out.
1. Choose your niche
If you’re to become a thought leader, the first thing you need is mastery over one specific area. After all, no one can claim to be an expert on every topic: Stephen Hawking doesn’t write about entrepreneurship and Richard Branson doesn’t write about science. The more niche your area, generally the easier it will become to be the expert. But you also need to be sure that your area of expertise isn’t so obscure that it’s uncommercial. You also want to be sure that whatever niche you choose to focus on fits in with your overall business objectives and doesn’t take you away from the work you actually enjoy doing.
I could say something here about ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’ but so many other people have already said it that I won’t. Instead, I’ll just say that, without proper planning, it’s likely that any content you start producing in an attempt to position yourself as thought leader will send out a confused message, or worse, the wrong one altogether. Without going into too much detail, the best thought leadership - or content - strategies start with your business objectives and your positioning, then they map out the thought leadership materials you’ll need to produce to get there. This can then be turned into a ‘content calendar’ - a publishing schedule which lets you know what you’ll producing when, as well as how it fits into your plans for world domination.
3. Stand for something
You have your niche and you have a plan, but really that’s still not enough to engage people and show off your mighty intellect. You also need to have an opinion - one that’s based on evidence, insight and originality. You see, thought leaders don’t simply produce the same stuff that everyone else does. They speak their mind and stand apart from the crowd. So be prepared to ruffle feathers and challenge the status quo. The worst thing you can do is parrot whatever’s already out there on your topic.
Next, you may be writing the best stuff in your industry. But who cares, if no one’s reading it? To become a thought leader, you need to be prepared to share. In the old days, that meant getting a book deal or speaking at events. These days the barriers are much lower. We have social media. So get out there and spread your wings and your influence. Understand the role blogging, social media, eNewsletters and SEO will play in spreading the word – what we call the content marketing ecosystem. Here’s a visual demonstration of how they work together to bring people to your website and show off your expertise. And also be prepared to answer your critics when they contradict you on social media. Because we can guarantee there will be some.
5. Be accessible
Being accessible doesn’t just mean being available for interviews and speaking engagements. It also means presenting what you’re saying in a way people understand. There are a lot of people competing for people’s online attention so make sure you speak directly to them. Address your audience in their own language. Just don’t resort to cheap gimmicks. To paraphrase Forbes Magazine, there’s a difference between grabbing attention and holding attention. The former is the domain of the tabloid; the latter the territory of the thought leader. And remember, one thing that distinguishes thought leaders from technicians is their ability to translate their ideas into language that resonates with a wide audience. Think of the way Stephen Hawking makes astrophysics understandable or Malcolm Gadwell uses everyday situations and case studies to tackle complex sociological topics.
It’s a sad thought leader who presents the same material the same way, two years after they started. So you need to be prepared to watch what you’re doing, learn and refine. One of the most powerful things the internet gives us is data. So, when you’re using the internet to spread your influence as a thought leader, you’ll also be getting statistics on how many people are reading your articles, what’s driving people to your site, who is opening your emails and what they’re interested in, and a whole lot more. Use that information. If something doesn’t connect with your audience in the way it should, ask yourself why. Are you hitting the wrong people? Do you need to say something different? Is your message being lost behind jargon and technicalities? Give your work an honest appraisal to find out what’s happening and then change what you’re doing. Finally, many professionals attempt the path to thought leadership. Few complete it. It’s too onerous, too time consuming or they never really had what it took. But with the right approach, the right knowledge and realistic expectations, the world of thought leadership could be open to you… You just need to accept that thought leaders aren’t created overnight.