Thought leadership isn’t just superficial influence—it builds your business’ reputation. Ready? This is how to be a thought leader.
According to recent research from Edelman and LinkedIn, more than half of respondents (55%) said they use thought leadership to vet organizations they may hire. But somehow, thought leadership is also an underrated avenue for building brand awareness and increasing sales.
As a thought leader, you position yourself as an influencer in your industry and gain the respect of potential clients before you’ve had your first conversation. Let’s go over how you can become a thought leader and boost your business.
What Are Thought Leaders?
Thought leaders identify and articulate trends before they start to take hold. They have the foresight to see where their industry is going, rather than getting stuck on the status quo. They blaze the trail to whatever comes next.
Need examples? Check out these 3 popular thought leaders: Entrepreneur extraordinaire Tim Feriss, Shannon Lee Simmons of the New School of Finance, and marketing guru Seth Godin.
Thought leadership content typically establishes an organization or business leader as a subject-matter expert. It often manifests as articles, guest posts for other publications, podcasts, conference talks, or interviews with media outlets.
Consider Lee Simmons, a certified financial planner who doesn’t believe in the traditional financial planning model. She wrote a web page that digs into her New School of Finance philosophy.
“The old school (or customary) financial planning model is to perform a comprehensive (and expensive) retirement financial plan and provide a 10- to 30-page printed document with beautiful graphs,” Lee Simmons writes. “This document usually ends up…sitting in a filing cabinet collecting dust. Plans don’t get implemented like this!”
This is a controversial opinion that insists on transforming traditional practices. Lee Simmons turned her unique insight into a new business model and writes, interviews, and appears at many public speaking engagements. As a result, she’s positioned herself as a well-known thought leader in her industry and has boosted her business in the process.
How to be a Thought Leader…Who Positively Impacts Their Business
There’s more to gain from thought leadership than basic notoriety or superficial influencer status. When you look at how to be a thought leader, it’s about the goals you’re setting yourself.
Here are 4 ways thought leadership can be a boon for your business:
1. Builds Brand Awareness and Increases Industry Presence
Thought leadership offers an opportunity to reach more potential customers and industry peers. Decision makers are reading more thought leadership than ever, with 58% of those surveyed reading one or more hours per week.
For B2B businesses, thought leadership can also help you gain access to the decision makers. Almost half (47%) of C-suite executives said they have shared their contact information after reading thought leadership.
You can also use thought leadership to engage with prospective B2C customers. For example, wedding photographers could run their own blog, grow a social media following, and write articles for wedding publications tackling topics like how to find and work with wedding photographers, how to create beautiful candid moments, or how to create photographer shot lists.
By becoming a central resource for their audiences, these thought leaders would gain their trust—and business.
2. Generate Leads for New Business
Thoughtful content can lead directly to more sales. Almost 60% of business decision makers said that thought leadership led directly to them awarding business to an organization.
Consider a web development agency: It can be hard to get non-designers and non-developers to understand what goes into a build. You can create any number of packages, but if your client doesn’t understand what the services actually are…does it matter?
By creating content about easily skimmable, highly converting, and beautiful websites, that web agency has an edge. Their clients know they aren’t just getting a web build. They’re getting clarity and expertise. As a result, they’ll get more form-fills and quote requests.
3. Drive Growth With Existing Customers
Thought leadership doesn’t just help bring in new customers—it can help you upsell (sell more) and cross-sell (sell other services) to your existing customer base.
More than 50% of decision makers have increased the amount of business done with an organization due to thought leadership. Another 60% bought a new product or service they didn’t previously consider due to thought leadership.
Thought leadership helps you stay top of mind with clients even after you complete their project. Let’s say an agency completes a small-scope project with a client and they enjoyed working together. If they send a customer newsletter out with excellent, original insights, they’re more likely to reach out when the next project comes down the pipeline.
4. More Influence During the Sales Process
If a prospective customer reads your thought leadership content when comparing you to a competitor, that expertise could be the deciding factor.
This could be because of trust that thought leadership fosters. When an organization earns its customers’ trust, they often earn their business as well. SurveyMonkey recently showed that 68% of adults in the U.S. say that trust in a brand has “a great deal” or “a lot” of influence on their decision when making a big purchase.
And it isn’t just whether or not a sale happens. It can also be about how much that sale is worth. More than 60% of C-suite executives said they were more willing to pay a premium to companies that create thought leadership with a clear vision.
How to Be a Thought Leader, Starting Now
Learning how to be a thought leader requires deep insights into your industry, a way to clearly communicate those ideas, and spreading your message through networking. Simply put, it’s hard to be an overnight success.
To help you get started, we’ve compiled 5 steps to follow to become a thought leader in your niche:
1. Articulate Your Track Record
First, it’s crucial to identify why anyone should take your advice. How are you an expert? What qualifies you as a leader in your industry?
Clarify your industry and niche before you get started. Establish your credibility with details like your current and previous experiences, and relevant details from your resume.
For example, let’s say you’re a financial professional with a CPA designation and 20 years of experience. Those are ideal details to include if you’re writing a guest post about business bookkeeping. You can weave anecdotes from your lived experience or include details in your bio, reinforcing your reliability as a thought leader.
2. Find Your Distinct Voice
With the sheer volume of online articles published every day, you need to be distinctive to cut through the noise.
To find your own voice, test out different strategies to see what gets you traction and readership. Then lather, rinse, repeat. This kind of personal branding takes as much time and effort as branding a business, and it’s just as important.
Differentiate yourself from other influencers:
- Offer a unique and useful perspective about your industry. What’s working and what isn’t? What’s the solution?
- Be topical and timely: When news drops, immediately articulate your stance on industry trends and hot topics.
- Forecast trends and major shifts in your niche. Find actionable ways your readers can respond.
- Be authentic. While ultimately, good thought leadership should result in new business, being too promotional can feel disingenuous.
- Get comfortable with people disagreeing with you. Major thought leaders often have vehement detractors. You won’t always appeal to everyone all the time.
3. Publish and Promote
You’ve established your credibility and your unique voice. Now, it’s time to get out there.
That means you should regularly create content, like blogging, for your own business’ site, your LinkedIn and/or Medium. From there, you can eventually move into bigger publications like the industry vertical sections of Entrepreneur or Forbes.
Once you’re regularly publishing, you’ll need to promote it.
The simplest solution is social: The larger your audience is, the better your visibility gets. Your business may already have branded social channels, but that isn’t enough. You’ll need accounts for your personal brand.
Other promotion tactics include:
- Guest posting on other blogs (industry publications and other thought leader blogs)
- Republishing thought leadership content from your own site/Medium to LinkedIn
- Linking to your content in relevant subreddits (but watch out for that self-promo instinct!)
- Responding to relevant media requests (e.g., through HARO) and asking the writer to link back to your specific thought leadership content
4. Build Your Network
Promoting your thought leadership content goes hand in hand with building your network.
Some ways you can expand your network include:
- Joining multiple online groups (LinkedIn groups, private Facebook groups, relevant subreddits, community forums)
- Working with other influencers to create and share each other’s content
- Networking in-person by attending conferences and meetups
- Signing up to speak at events
- Pitching yourself to media outlets as a subject matter expert
That said, when you’re getting yourself out there, remember to do it ethically and responsibly. It isn’t just about getting your name on as many talks or events as possible. It’s also about bringing the most useful information to the most targeted audiences.
5. Aim for Constant Growth
One of the biggest mistakes a thought leader can make is thinking they have all the answers. No one has all the answers. Often, we learn the most from people who are open to failure. After all, mistakes and missteps actually help us grow.
In order to learn how to be a thought leader, you’ll need to be open about your failures and ready to listen to others. Learn from other experts, opposing viewpoints, clients, and employees. And then, be ready to share that learning with those around you.
To commit yourself to continuous growth, you’ll need to:
- Listen to other industry influencers. Read articles from other subject matter experts in your niche, listen to industry podcasts, and attend webinars and sessions hosted by other influencers.
- Learn more about your own industry. Take classes, read new research and explore every aspect of your business. The more you learn about your own industry, the more expertise you can share.
- Look toward the future. While it may be tempting to simply comment on current events in your industry, the thought leaders who have staying power often predict what’s coming next. Offer your insights on trends you see developing in your own business that could impact others.
Moving Forward With Thought Leadership
Thought leadership isn’t for everyone. It requires a significant and consistent investment of time. Odds are if you have the temperament of a thought leader, you can’t help but share ideas and opinions with the world!
Thought leaders articulate trends and make unique observations worth sharing. If you can follow these steps to compile your expert insights into useful content, you can increase brand awareness for your business and potentially bring in more leads as a result.
This post was updated in December 2019.