THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

How To Become A Thought Leader

Ryan Velez, Expert Content Specialist at Powerful Writing
10/9/18
Being a thought leader is a concept that is often unfairly maligned. A lot of people see thought leadership as hollow term perpetuated by large corporate names.
However, what you need to understand is that while the verbiage of thought leaders may come off as a little esoteric, the core benefits of it are completely grounded. Many companies, from massive corporations to small local businesses, put time, energy, and money to be seen as credible by their customer base. Becoming a thought leader is an extension of that same basic goal—here’s what goes into becoming a true thought leader.

What Is A Thought Leader?

One consequence of the esoteric nature of thought leadership is that you’re going to see a lot of competing opinions on what exactly it is. If it helps, try to define thought leaders less on how they reach their goal and more on what the goal is: to be seen as a credible expert in their field. As mentioned before, this is something that just about every business tries to do, but where thought leaders differ is the fact that they have a more specific set of goals—namely, to actually find a way to demonstrate that expertise by putting out regular content. Simply saying that you’re an expert in your ads isn’t going to be enough.

If it helps, let’s try and divide the components of thought leaders into two main areas: the thoughts and the leaders.

Thought

In general, on top of being seen as authoritative experts by their audiences, a good thought leader should also be seen as this by their peers and colleagues as well. As a result, your insights need to not only apply to the content you put out, but also other interactions. A good thought leader should be looking for appropriate moments in conversation or networking to try and add their insight. Remember, it’s not necessarily about promoting your content in moments like these, but more about letting people that matter know that you have said expertise. At that point, it’s a lot easier to promote your content.

Leader

A lot of the time, people forget the leader along with the thoughts. In many cases, though, this is the difference between thought leaders and simple companies/individuals trying to put together a content marketing program. An effective thought leader should also be invested in trying to help other people in their niche grow. This is why there should be an added emphasis on your content and interactions putting out actionable advice, not just showcasing how much you know.

The fact of the matter is that both of these two areas take time to build. For example, you may have years of experience in your niche, but may not be a writer by trade, and need time to learn how to effectively communicate your knowledge. On the other side of things, you may need to build up added research and expertise over time to be able to put out thought leadership content that hasn’t been covered many times before. For people who are willing to take this step, though, the benefits are well worth it.

Benefits Of Being A Thought Leader


Everyone loves statistics, so here are a few to get the conversation started.

Why are these figures important? Because they show that many people, both in the professional world as well as normal customers, already have an understanding of thought leaders and their value. In addition, the final statistic shows that thought leadership is born out of a response to a very real issue that the leaders of companies are having perception-wise. Due to a combination of outside economic forces as well as some high-profile blunders, a lot of business leaders are having a bit of a credibility issue. Thought leadership can help alleviate some of these issues by not only showing CEOs as competent, but helpful, trying to empower other people in their fields and beyond. This isn’t the only potential benefit that you can see as a thought leader, though.

Expanded PR reach

A lot of small business owners often understand the struggle that comes with trying to get publicity for their business, often with non-existent or minimal marketing budgets. This may mean potentially trying to reach out to publications for guest posts, or trying to work with local media to find some effective coverage. However, successful thought leaders don’t have to deal with this issue nearly as much. For example, if a person is putting together an article at a publication and needs a quote, the first person that they are going to go to is someone who they see as an industry source. This is essentially free PR for you.

Credibility for your brand

To be clear, a thought leader is always a single person at a company rather than the company itself. This is because it’s a lot easier for people to connect with a person giving them advice rather than a faceless brand, even if it’s a team working to put together thought leadership content. However, there is a trickle-down benefit for the brand.

For example, say that someone at a marketing agency regularly puts out advice on content marketing, and ascends to thought leadership status in that area. You’re going to have a combination of would-be content marketers and people at businesses who want to learn more about the process as your audience. If this second group decides they don’t have the manpower to try and put together their own content marketing imitative, they’re likely to go with the agency with an effective thought leader at the head their business.

Brand advocacy

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. Once a brand is credible with a customer, they are likely to spread the recommendation to their circle of friends and family. Word of mouth is placed at a higher premium than it’s ever been, so you want to get that positive word buzzing through thought leadership.

Greater influence

Remember, a thought leader isn’t just building influence with their customers, but also influence within their industry. As a result, the most powerful thought leaders actually have the capability to shape the directions their industry goes if they choose to speak out against or in favor of an industry topic. This also carries an element of risk, which we are going to get into later.

SEO benefits

All of the above benefits are things that the head of a business would love to have. However, these are things that can be a bit difficult to pinpoint at first. A higher SEO ranking is something a lot more concrete, and there’s a reason that thought leadership content is on the top of many searches. Backlinks are an essential factor in Google ranking, but in order to get qualified backlinks, someone needs to see your content as worth linking to, ideally in their own content. This is where thought leaders pull ahead. Other smaller names who are trying to find authentic sources for their blog posts and whitepapers are always drawn to credible names in their field. If this is you, you can literally turn your audience into a source of backlinks for all your content—with minimal effort on your part.

Risks of Becoming A Thought Leader


Any of the items that we mentioned before are things that a businessperson would dream of having for their business. While being a thought leader is a great way to work towards all those goals at once, there are some inherent risks of getting to this point that bear mentioning as well.

Unpopular Opinions

We mentioned before how thought leaders have the benefits of putting themselves as a person out there with their content, which is great for drawing in publicity opportunities for you and your business. But this can also go both ways. A good thought leader should always be thinking ahead when it comes to trends in their field, but what happens if they put out content espousing something that turns out to be wrong? Their credibility may be instantly shaken. In addition, there may be other thought leaders out there who have opinions that run counter to yours. A good thought leader needs to have thick skin in order to deal with these. You also need to measure what opinions you could put out there. Some thought leaders have accidentally divided their customer bases with their content.

As a side note, while we would love to keep things all business at all times, there is always the chance that something going on in your personal life may reflect on your content if it becomes public knowledge. Being a thought leader is a lot like being a celebrity in that you’re forfeiting an element of your privacy. Make sure you are comfortable with this.

ROI Issues

While the previous example may seem a bit dramatic, perhaps the most common issue people find when trying to become a thought leader is that they simply can’t make it happen. There’s a classic study out there that suggests you need 10,000 hours to become an expert in something, and while it’s come under fire in recent years, it belies a key point. Being a thought leader can be an arduous task, as not everyone is going to become a forward-thinking, highly-motivated expert overnight. This is why it’s important, if you are at a company thinking about getting into thought leadership, to try and find someone who already fits a lot of these traits to build the campaign around. Small businesses already have few hours to spare—imagine sinking even 1,000 hours into a thought leader campaign that doesn’t bear fruit.

Content Upkeep

Once you become a thought leader in your field, it’s not as simple as saying “mission accomplished” then going back to your daily duties. A thought leader is only effective as the last piece of info they put out, especially in fields like tech where things are constantly changing. In addition, you need to keep up the standard of quality that got you to this level in the first place. 49% of B2B buyers have reported actually thinking less of a company after reading poor thought leadership content. This ties into the ROI issue we just mentioned. You’re not just putting in a lot of work and potentially a lot of money into becoming a thought leader, but continuing that trend in order to stay a thought leader.

Other Thought Leader Outreach Methods


There is one greater issue when it comes to being a thought leader that may not qualify as a risk, but still needs to be mentioned: diminishing returns. If we looked back even 5 years, you wouldn’t see half as many of the small, 500-word-a piece, blog posts that you see now, because SEO experts hadn’t put it out there as common knowledge. Now, it’s everywhere, to the point that it’s really not impressive.

This is especially problematic for people trying to become thought leaders. In a book called Diffusion of Innovation, Professor Everett Rogers divides society into 5 major groups:

  1. Innovators – 2.5%
  2. Early Adopters – 13.5%
  3. Early Majority – 34%
  4. Late Majority – 34%
  5. Laggards – 16%

This poses an issue because the top thought leaders should be in those first two categories at minimum in order to truly be seen as forward-thinking leaders rather than simply recycling the content of others. This means that thought leaders can’t reach that point with your basic blog/email marketing content plan. There needs to be more, and here are a few key ways to do it.

E-books

People turn to thought leaders specifically because of the perception that they’re going to have more knowledge on a subject than you can get through something as simple as a 5-minute Google Search. E-books offer the best of both worlds in this regard. Not only are they an excellent way to get long-form insights out there, but they are also still extremely accessible for anyone who is drawn in via your own outreach or the work done by your PR firm.  

However, people who are trying to write e-books are going to be dealing with two major issues. First of all, the fact is that not everyone is going be a skilled writer, and creating an e-book that is captivating the whole way through is a lot harder than a blog post—even for a motivated reader. The second is that even e-books are subject to the diminishing returns issue. Here’s a one-two punch that can still turn your e-book into an effective thought leadership tool.

  1. Spend a lot of time working on the concept before you write. If you do a quick search of e-books in your niche, chances are that you’re going to see some common titles and topics. Use this and take some time to figure out how you can make your content stand apart. In some niches, there may be a new or undeveloped topic that there isn’t a lot of content on. In other cases, the topic may be the same, but you may have a unique viewpoint or opinion that stands out.
  2. Get outside writing help. Even people who write for a living generally have an editor they work through to make sure things look good, so don’t try to work on your e-book alone. In some cases, it may make sense for you to draft a basic outline of points you want and have a writer bring them to life with your input. In other cases, if you have some writing savvy, consider hiring some outside editors for a final quality check.

Other channels

An e-book isn’t the only way to boost your thought leadership. Ideally, you should be looking for data on your audience to try and see what means they use the most to digest information, and position your expertise in that area. For example, do you see that your audience uses podcasts a lot (perhaps during a morning commute)? Try and reach out to business podcasts and see if they are doing any upcoming topics you may be able to contribute on. In some cases, many thought leaders make appearances at conventions and trade shows for speaking engagement. In many ways, the classic test of a leader is their ability to command interest and respect through public speaking. Even social media may be relevant, like on LinkedIn, for example. In general, it’s going to be a multi-faceted approach that will make you a true thought leader in the end.

What Metrics To Measure For Thought Leadership


For this penultimate section, let’s hypothetically say that you’ve already started to put your foot into the thought-leadership realm. You’ve written an e-book to take your content plan to the next level, and got some PR support to promote it. It’s paid off, and you’ve managed to do a few guest posts/contributions at industry publications. This is the point where you start becoming a thought leader, but how do you actually figure out if it’s working for your bottom line? Because a thought leader is more than just a marketing campaign, you can’t put it in terms of making more or less money, but there are some metrics you can look out for.

Branded queries

Google’s Webmaster Tools are not only free to use, they are a great starter source for data on your thought leadership’s success. One good place to start is branded queries. If a person visits your site after searching for your company or a person by name through Google, it means that your name is getting more recognition, and people are looking for it specifically. For smaller companies, this is a major sign of success.

Backlinks

We already talked about the SEO benefits of backlinks, but for these, we’re going to put it in a different context. Don’t focus on your ranking for now, but where the backlinks are coming from. Is it from smaller-scale content, or bigger names in your field finding your content of interest? Both are good, but if you see sources that are credible in their own right linking to your content, then you know you’ve done a good job of creating something authoritative and useful for your niche. For the B2B field, this is especially important.

Your personal goals

Thought leadership isn’t the only marketing initiative with open-ended goals. Out of the benefits we mentioned before, which was most important to you when you first decided to become a thought leader? This will guide some of the metrics to look out for when your thought leadership hits full swing. For example, if you’re trying to build credibility for your brand, try and use something like Google Alerts and see what mentions of your company are looking like. Do you see a tone starting to change? Where are your conversions coming from? Is it people searching for your site directly or through links on your thought leadership content?

Thought Leadership In Review


Ultimately, thought leadership isn’t terribly different than what brands have been doing for decades to try and become more appealing to their audiences. Statistically speaking, customer bases have always responded well to companies that they perceive to be experts in their respective fields. However, where things differ is the fact that thought leadership:

  1. May be centered around a specific figure at your company rather than the customer itself.
  2. Takes things to the next level not just by using the “expert” label in marketing, but demonstrating it by providing actionable content and advice in your field.

The benefits of being a thought leader can be huge, but anyone who wants to make this a goal needs to understand that it takes both hard work and time to both gain the trust of your audience and put together the authoritative content that comes with being a thought leader. This guide provides the skeleton for your thought leadership strategy, but it still falls on you and your team to fill it all in.

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