Updated: Jul 17, 2019
… and how can I become one?
Thought Leadership. The elusive unicorn in your industry that clients, partners, and competitors alike recognize and respect as a foremost authority on a topic. There are as many definitions of “thought leadership” as there are individuals claiming to be a thought leaders.
Some thought leaders are easy to identify: Satya Nadella, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Anthony Robbins. They are famous because they run massive organizations, and their products and services have become household names. But, you don’t have to be a mega-celebrity or CEO of one of the world’s largest companies to establish yourself as a thought leader in your industry or niche.
Becoming a thought leader is much more simple than that … it requires intimate knowledge of a product, solution, or service offering, yes. But, you don’t have to invent air to become an expert in breathing. You do have to establish experience with your select topic and the ability to share valuable insights that will resonate and benefit your target audience.
Identify your area of expertise
Once you have established a knowledge base in a particular area, you might develop a unique or innovative perspective on the topic. Every human breathes, but different breathing techniques can help us concentrate through pain, survive childbirth, focus our minds, and prepare our lungs to hold our breath for longer periods of time in the water. Doulas, yogis, and surfers all have different experiences with controlling breathing to achieve different results. None of them invented breathing, but each has developed thought leadership on the subject.
Consider your work … how do you streamline your tasks for maximum efficiency? Have you developed any tips or tricks to help you complete more tasks in less time? For less cost? To improve customer engagement? Or reduce time to market? Are you able to reach more customers than your colleagues? Are you able to provide better service? What is the secret to your success? If you can identify a problem that you can solve better, faster, or more effectively than others, you have developed a unique area of expertise.
Define your unique value proposition
Now that you are a subject matter expert in your niche, it is time to establish your unique value proposition. Start with one simple statement that describes the problem you have solved. For example, “I’ve discovered a breathing rhythm that helps novices learn to meditate quickly,” or “I’ve created a new algorithm that can predict the behavior of stock prices based on fluctuations in the market.”
Once you are clear on your solution offering, put yourself in your customers’ shoes … why should anyone care about your solution? How does it benefit them? If I am a novice who wants to learn to meditate quickly, perhaps I am short on time or patience and want to be able to meditate during my lunch break. How will you help me? If I am a stock broker, I need a competitive edge to win more business, please my current clients, and drive revenue across my portfolio, my firm, and myself. How will your algorithm help solve my specific pain points?
Having a creative idea or brainstorming an innovative solution is not enough to make you a thought leader. To establish credibility on your chosen topic, you will need to demonstrate your experience in this area. What experiences led you to understand the pain point that required this solution? How much time did you spend identifying the need for this solution? How many babies have you delivered, how many waves have you surfed, how many stocks have you accurately predicted?
Keep track of your successes (and failures). Develop a method to track and measure the impact of your solution. Document your outcomes and the results your customers, clients, or pilot participants have achieved. Capture quotes or testimonials from people who have applied your solution or recommendations.
Observe the impact of your solution. What impact does it have on your customers? On the market? How does it impact the ecosystem? Or the world? Highlight successes, be transparent about challenges. Identify key learnings. Determine insights you can share that will benefit your customer audience. Is there something that can help them implement an even better solution? Are there pitfalls to avoid? Are there barriers you can help them overcome? What have you learned that could help others?
Share your thoughts
The key to becoming a thought leader is not only having something compelling to say, but delivering it via a platform that resonates with your intended audience. Perhaps your content is book-worthy, or perhaps you will start with smaller white papers on key elements of your solution. Maybe you will start with blogs or short videos to capture your audience’s attention and drive them toward a deeper engagement with you—at an event, on a webinar, or in a direct conversation.
There are numerous social media platforms that target different demographics. Social media is a tricky form of communication, because you need to have enough content and time to engage your audience in a “social” conversation. Be careful not to set up too many platforms or neglect any of your channels. The key to social media is to develop a comprehensive strategy and execute against it in a consistent rhythm. While it’s fine to share articles by other thought leaders and industry influencers, you need to have the right mix of original content created by you and curated content developed by others.
Participate in active listening
On that note, social media is a great way to gather feedback from your intended audience. You can easily float an idea, test a concept, or conduct an informal focus group with nearly instantaneous response from your followers. It is important to read all the comments and consider all the opinions—to help you gain a deep understanding of your market. Positive and negative feedback can both help shape your strategy and refine your thinking … helping you to emerge as a true thought leader with insight, expertise, and evolution in your specialty area.
Establish thought leadership
Impactful thought leaders establish a respected reputation in their industry not because they are always the foremost authority on their subject, but because they can articulate a solid thought, solve a pain point, support their solution with evidence, and actively refine and improve their offering. Evolving a thought across time and experience requires the ability to learn from others, apply new guidance and direction, and impact change. These also happen to be the core qualities of leaders. Thought leadership isn’t just about having good ideas. It’s about being able to lead your audience through the thought process.
So, in marketing terms, becoming a thought leader is exactly like marketing yourself. In addition to defining a solution to creating a unique value proposition, defining benefits, features, proof points, case studies, and launching a campaign–gathering feedback, refining your messages, and continuously improving and establishing yourself as the solution is your personal go-to-market campaign.
And just like that, once you establish yourself as a thought leader, creating thought-proving content becomes a bit like breathing … automatic.