Thought leadership is a relatively new philosophy in marketing, but its influence has been known throughout the ages. Why do you know the name Socrates? Marcus Aurelius? Descartes? Steve Jobs?
Whether you believe Jobs deserves to be in that kind of company or not, it can’t be denied that he, along with people like Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Daniel Kahneman, and more were the first generation of modern thought leaders. Most recently, Elon Musk has characterized himself as the futurist thought leader.
In essence, thought leadership is being a respected and valued authority within your field, able to influence how people consider the challenges occurring in a given industry, and how they affect both individuals and the world as a whole.
When it comes to marketing, the advantages of being a thought leader are many and significant. Traditional advertising methods are failing and consumers are becoming more cynical than ever.
The saturation of promotional content has overwhelmed us in the internet age. We have led the horse to water, then waterboarded it.
Thought leadership is about cultivating a rich stream with crystal clear water, burgeoning with life, so that the horses are desperate to come and spend time there.
Stripping away the metaphor, it means high quality insight and unique perspectives from experts, shared with those interested in learning without promoting the products or services themselves.
While the examples cited above are examples of individuals, brands do it too. Buffer and HubSpot have become thought leaders in online marketing by utilizing the knowledge, expertise, passion and communication skills of their team to create in-depth, valuable resources for people to take advantage of.
People grow to want the services they sell because those services solve the challenges of the industry they are leading. Respecting and trusting the brand comes first – interest in what they offer follows.
So, how do you become a thought leader in your industry? Today, I’ll walk you through a ten-step process that can help you begin that journey, with best-practice advice on how to nail it along the way.
1. Social Media Insights Unlock Your Audience
Social media is great for a lot of things, but one of the best functions it has for businesses is to provide high quality insights into your current audience. Understanding who your customers are, what they care about, their fears and goals will help you tailor your thought leadership to best address their concerns and provide them with real value.
On Facebook, hit Insights on your page and go to People. This will break down the demographics by age, gender, location, and first language. Immediately, you can use this information to begin breaking down who your audience is, and what they are likely to be interested in.
Remember, people who have liked your page are going to be both interested in and engaged with the challenges your products or services solve. In this way, you are identifying the core audience for your leadership programme.
2. Expand And Activate Your Network
In marketing, there is the influential concept of the “first followers” these impassioned customers who believe in, and champion, your product, can show you the way to become a thought leader for the future.
By activating your most engaged followers by surveying them for their thoughts, desires and interests, you can give yourself a strong initial direction for the kind of content you want to create as a thought leader.
Crowdsourcing also offers an interesting route into recruiting followers. Rather than simply launch a product onto the market and hope for the best, you can gauge passion for your new idea and story-tell the journey from its concept to execution. In doing so, you recruit highly engaged followers who, as well as helping promote and fund the product, will help steer the direction of your content by sharing the hopes and aspirations connected with your work.
Another important step in this direction is to identify and affiliate yourself with influencers. Gaining the respect of respected authorities is a short-cut to becoming a respected authority yourself. You’ll see many novels these days with a review of foreword from a celebrated author, championing the product. This is an example of influencer marketing – co-opting value from the influencer’s reputation and grafting it to your product.
If you can engage influencers in your realm to champion the content you’re about to create, you can springboard to a much higher level of authority much more quickly.
With these three things behind you, you have a method of exposure that works for the position you are trying to establish yourself in.
3. Hold Yourself To Higher Standards
Now comes the time for you to start creating. If you put a crappy product out there, it will reflect badly on your business. The same is true of your thought leadership campaign. Half-baked ideas, badly communicated ideas, sporadic posts, poor tone of voice… a sloppy campaign can critically undermine the very thing you’re trying to establish: respect for your expertise.
Based on the insights from your followers, put together a content calendar. Hire an editor to proofread and optimize your posts. Hire a writer to enrich them with clarity and storytelling. Use professional tools, and you create professional results. While you’re finding your feet, don’t be afraid to outsource and learn from expertise in fields that aren’t your speciality.
Thought leadership is all about communication – your product or service may have nothing to do with communication. As such, to become a successful thought leader, you have to get out of your comfort zone and master new tools and approaches. It’s sensible to enlist help as you get started.
Go the extra mile and focus on quality. Being a thought leader means going deep, not broad. People want to hear unique, specialist perspectives from people perfectly placed to offer them. Quality in thought leadership comes from detail, and how you thread those details to deliver a transformative effect in your audience.
4. Support Your Messaging With Social Media and Press Releases
It’s not enough to know how to demonstrate thought leadership. A thought leader can’t be a leader without people to lead. This means you need to maximize your audience, and that means you need to invest in exposure for your ideas.
The two best ways to do this right now are sponsored posts on social media, including both Facebook and Twitter, and with press releases. It’s simple and easy to distribute a press release to more than three hundred high quality news outlets using PRWire Asia.
In both cases, you need to outline the crux of each piece of content you release: what is its unique offer? How will it benefit the reader? Why do we care that you’re the one telling us?
Press releases are great for this, because you have to condense your whole angle into one line to create a compelling title.
“ABC CEO [NAME] Explains New Opportunities Of XYZ Based On Independent Research” tells us what we’ll learn, that the information is quality, and that the person sharing it matters.
Your campaigns should also story-tell. Announce that a development is forthcoming and talk about the process that went into it, and this will generate anticipation. Announce the launch of that same development to maximize new audiences. Then announce the wrap up from the development to talk about the impact it’s had and the implications for the future.
That’s three high quality press releases, all linking back to one piece of content. It extends the life and exposure of the piece immensely, and increases the chances of a feature. Think of it as telling the full story in chapters.
Your sponsored social media posts can do much the same, just in a more conversational tone.
The above leads us to our next point…
5. Support All Your Claims
Expertise needs to be based on something. The more your expertise is evidence-based, the more quickly and easily people will come to trust you. One of the most valuable tools you have at your disposal in the digital age is statistics.
Statistics are invaluable because they allow you to infer from something concrete. The scientific process has resulted in every major development since the Enlightenment, because it’s based on solid foundations. You need to make sure your claims stand up to these four facets: testable, repeatable, observable and falsifiable.
You need to be able to evidence your claims in a way that isn’t just “a blind guru on a mountain in Malaysia channelled the spirits and told me…”
That isn’t observable – was as the audience weren’t there to see it. It isn’t repeatable – we aren’t going to go there and talk to the same guru. It isn’t falsifiable – there’s no way to prove or disprove it happened. It isn’t testable, I simply believe you or not.
Instead “We have been working on this problem, and tested a few possible approaches. Our data showed that our second approach outperformed the rest, while being quicker and cheaper.”
Far more convincing, right? The difference is that when you use the second, you have to share research in a whitepaper to support it. You have to show us your process.
Provided you do, however, the benefits will be absolutely maximized. If people can trust that you are doing this work and sharing the results, your value as a thought leader will be obvious and irrefutable. Trust, respect, and income will follow.
This for me is what separates thought leadership marketing from opinion leader marketing, where simply being loud and brash is enough.
Ultimately, the “Carnegie Hall” of thought leaders might be the TED Talk, so consider how “TEDWorthy” your content is, and that will be a useful compass in steering your work.
6. Make Best Use Of Video
Recently we wrote about how video is taking over the internet and becoming a thought leader requires us to see you, hear you, and ultimately, like you.
Charisma is one of those nebulous, ill-defined terms for a magnetic personality, but I believe it boils down to simple things: competence, confidence and passion.
If you know what you’re talking about, you know you know what you’re talking about, and you’re excited to talk about it, then I’ll happily listen to you for an hour at a party. There’s a dumb scene in Mission Impossible 3 where Tom Cruise talks about traffic patterns that amply demonstrates this idea.
Video is an incredibly trust-worthy medium. If you film yourself talking, we get a much richer experience of you than reading your writing. What’s more, there are far more simple tricks you can use to ingratiate yourself. You can smile in a blog post, but you can in a video.
There are many different types of video content you can produce, many of which we listed in the article above, so be sure to check it out and see what format would be best for communicating your ideas.
Video boosts engagement on social media and for press releases, and for published posts on your website.
Speaking of which…
7. A Picture Tells A Thousand Words
Video can be more labour intensive to produce than copy, so of course you need to include some text-based articles like this one. You need to use images in all your posts to compensate for the lack of audio or movement.
When it comes to imagery, I don’t think there’s a thought leader out there that uses schlocky stock imagery of people laughing at watercoolers.
Instead, you need to start establishing a library of yourself in action. Speaking at events, working at your desk, out adventuring, and more. Neil Patel has an inexhaustible supply of pictures of himself in different situations – even in his pyjamas, with cartoon likenesses and more. He has managed to maximize his personal brand.
8. Make Frequent Use Of Graphics
A personal brand is only as good as the brand identity it is tied to. You can establish your brand consistency using title cards, quotes, iconography and more. Graphics allow you to freshen up the presentation of your content. Whole articles can be replaced with infographics that visualise data instead of talking about it.
You can use Canva to create graphics, infographics and even animated titles, with plenty of templates to inspire you.
The reason we’ve talked about video, photography and graphics is more important than you might think. Leadership is about demonstrating the exceptional, and to do that, you need showmanship.
These multimedia tools are so important to creating an atmosphere of credibility, and help you to ‘show’ your authority before you prove it through your content.
All of this really folds under our next point…
9. Design Is The Future Of All Business
When we talk about strategizing your content, that’s design. When you create a structure for your website, that’s design. When you create a graphic, that’s design. When you create a video, that’s design. The famous designer Paul Rand said everything is design, and design is everything.
Becoming a thought lead means giving people something to follow. Why do you think flags are still a thing? They encompass a whole identity.
The design of your business can achieve this same thing. Through your content, your visuals, and a consistent tone across all of your touchpoints, you can create a compelling brand that represents an identity for your followers. GoPro is a great example of this – taking a niche product and turning it into a lifestyle brand with a unique culture surrounding it.
Design ultimately means having a governing perspective from which to work from, which expresses itself across everything you do, from the simplest image to the most complex product launch. This consistency creates identity, which creates the banner your people can rally behind.
10. Write As Much As You Can
With all this in mind, you now need to concentrate on producing the best possible results, as often as possible. One common thread between all successful thought leaders is turnover. Obviously, you have to scale your expectations to the capabilities of your resources, but always make sure you are making your contributions regular, high quality, and genuinely valuable.
People can only follow you if you stick around to be followed. The only way to stay visible online is by constantly reminding people of your value. No one’s position is safe, and the competition is so ferocious that if you miss updates, people will find someone else to provide consistent output when you can’t.
If you need help with this, consider hiring a writing team. You can devise brand guidelines that set the expectations for output and share the research with them, so they can create the output itself under your banner.
Thought Leadership Matters
Now you know how to do it, I want to remind you once again before you leave why you should do it. Our businesses are becoming churches for our ideas. We can no longer market in the way we used to, and thought leadership offers us the opportunity to reframe our profit-motivated business quests in the form a cause to improve the lot of our customers.
Thought leadership, precisely because it requires so much energy and effort to be dedicated to genuinely helpful content instead of mere advertising, is one of the most effective ways to reposition. Ads are only ever getting less effective. Thought leadership marketing is the solution that could replace it.
When you launch your thought leadership campaign, be sure to use press releases. The PRWire Asia press release service is affordable, easy to use and can offer you local, regional, national and international coverage with hundreds of high-traffic, high impact news outlets, from Reuters and Google News to the New York Times.
Annabelle is the head of marketing & branding. Other than generating sales, crunching calculation, and analyzing the market, another obsession of hers is the need to hunt for good food.