Thought leaders: what they do and how you can become one
“Thought leaders” – whether it’s individuals or brands as a collective – are more than just experts in their industry. Becoming well-known in a given field means that the individuals and/or brands have established themselves as the go-to place for insightful commentary and opinion over an extended length of time. In doing so, thought leaders have garnered trust and gained respect within their industry and amongst their peers.
A word of warning: being seen as a thought leader doesn’t happen overnight. It requires commitment and dedication. That’s where we can help. We’ve pulled together some top advice to set you on your path and keep in mind along the way.
Why should you be a thought leader?
Quite simply because it will benefit your business and/or your own career progression. Being the go-to person within your industry for certain subject areas will gain you and your business plenty of attention from the media, your peers, competitors, and potential new customers.
Once you’re established you can also drive forward trends, or even gestate new industry ideas and trends of your own. This gives you an element of control over what your industry is discussing, placing you and your business front and centre of people’s attention.
Four things to consider before becoming a thought leader
Before you jump in, there are a few fundamental things to consider.
What will you lead on?
Before embarking on your journey, establish exactly what you’ll lead on. It needs to be something you’re committed to and interested in. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an entire field and/or industry. Carve out your niche and commit to specialising in it. For instance, within the automotive industry there are thought leaders specialising in EVs, hydro-fuels and vehicles. There’ll be plenty of similar niches in your field, too.
Do your research
Before jumping into your specialism, map your profile-raising strategy and research what those around you are doing – your peers, competitors etc. – and how best to reach your audience. For example, is your audience most likely to read longer-form print articles, online blogs, social posts, or listen to podcasts? Wherever your audience is, that’s where you need to be. Sometimes you’ll find that a particular channel is over-saturated with other thought leaders who have been known for far longer. That’s fine. Understand where else your audience is and set about owning that space.
You don’t have to be an expert
Think of the thought leaders you most admire… None of them started at the top. Each one had to learn along the way and build up their personal brand step-by-step. Often, years of hard work are mistaken for innate talent. You might assume that being a thought leader isn’t attainable because you’re not the best at something. That’s not true. The thought leaders you most admire didn’t start as natural experts in anything. They became known through commitment, constancy, and repeated practice.
Realise it’s not about you
What you say and how you say it needs to come from a place of purpose. The best thought leaders aren’t just selling themselves or a product – they communicate with a deep sense of making a positive contribution to their industry. In the modern world, we’re saturated with self-promotion, every day, everywhere. But to be a great thought leader, you and/or your business have to have purpose. And to make it long-term, you must realise it’s not about you. It’s about them: your audience.
Finding your voice
To become a thought leader, you need to find and use your voice. This means being active. Attend events, have conversations, message peers on social media. This gets your name and opinions out there while also providing invaluable first-hand audience research, allowing you to understand what’s hot in your industry, how people think, what they like or dislike about your business and industry, and what changes they’d like to see.
Find a distinctive voice. Thought leaders don’t merely regurgitate information – they form new opinions and drive conversations and trends. Analyse, interrogate, and understand what you truly believe and get your message out there.
Plan your strategy
It’s all well and good finding your voice and having something to say, but it counts for little if you’re not saying it in all the right places. And that’s key to being a thought leader: getting your message in front of the right people repeatedly. This means understanding where your target audience is and how to reach them.
Below we’ve listed a number of channels that successful thought leaders typically exploit well. High-quality content from at least one of these sources will provide the fuel you need to stand out and become known.
Using trade, local and national press outlets to your advantage can be a great way to reach your target audience and establish new audiences. Reputable trade publications are always on the lookout for high-quality, impartial content, so reach out to editors and volunteer an article or regular column in which you discuss trending topics and/or ideas for driving your industry forward. Once you’ve established yourself as a reliable source of quality content, publications will come back to you time and again for insightful commentary.
Blogs can be relatively easy and low-cost to start but time-consuming to maintain. They’re a primary contributor to search engine ranking success and an excellent way to build thought leadership and community. Consistency is key – consistent posting and consistent quality. Regular updates that are high in quality will build loyalty, improve your reputation, and increase the likelihood that your existing audience will spread the word about your blog.
Whether it’s hosting your own or making guest appearances, having a presence within the podcasting world is quickly becoming an essential weapon in any thought leader’s arsenal. Listening to a podcast is a conscious decision. Rarely is a podcast simply background noise. This is proven by the fact that there is no other media channel where dwell time or engagement comes close to that of podcasts. Podcasts can provide you with an invaluable platform on which to speak directly to a highly engaged audience. As with press, contact relevant podcasts, volunteer your services, and let them know what your unique take would be.
And if you’re looking for tips on how to create and host your own podcast, check out our latest article: Why you should consider podcasting and how to launch one.
Your social media feeds don’t need to be overloaded with content on a daily basis. Like blogging, consistency in quality and posting is everything. Before you post, ask yourself: is what I’m saying new or interesting? Does it offer a unique company perspective? If it doesn’t, then you shouldn’t be posting it.
Mass email distributions to your target audience can provide a happy medium between short, sharp, instantaneous social media posts and longer-form content, like articles, blogs, and podcasts. Keep emails succinct and to the point but include enough detail to ensure they’re of real value. Encourage engagement from your audience, too. Ask them to email their own thoughts and questions and engage with them. This personal touch is a great way to ensure your email’s read when it drops in someone’s inbox.
Weekly reviews of your industry, the latest trends and, importantly, your take on them, is a good way of building a loyal audience. Emails can also be a great way of promoting your other content, so include links to your blogs and podcasts, share coverage you’ve secured in trade publications, and encourage your audience to follow you across your social channels.
Being invited to speak at an event is an opportunity that usually arises once your reputation as a thought leader is already well established. But not always. Either way, it’s not something you should ever shy away from. Speaking events are a brilliant opportunity to address a room full of your peers. And, in doing so, network with new people, learn new ideas and build more of a following in the process.
Your participation in a speaking event is, essentially, no different from any other piece of content. The audience still wants insight, and they still want to hear your unique voice, so prepare your speech accordingly. Key point to remember: a speech is a performative act. What you’re saying may be ground-breaking, but if you’re not saying it in the right way, you’ll still turn your audience away, so rehearse your performance as well as your words.
What kind of content is right for you?
You need to choose one or two of these forms of rich content and stick with it for a sustained period. You may look around and see competitors trying to do everything – podcasts, eBooks, Facebook, Twitter and on and on. That’s unsustainable. Pick a couple of platforms, do them really well, and build your audience there for at least a year or so. Resist the temptation to do everything and be everywhere.
Don’t know what to say? In every waking hour of your day, ideas are streaming over you. You’re just not conditioned to notice them. If fact, you probably tune them out. Becoming a consistent content creator means being alert and considering the entire world as a source of inspiration. Once you tune in, an idea might grab you in an article you read, a podcast you listen to, or something you hear on the news. Creating content takes discipline – not just in producing in, but in constantly collecting ideas. The way to always stay fresh is to view your daily life through the lens of possible new content.
Quite simply, the person or brand that’s known gets the business. Being known will help you remain relevant and respected within your industry, open more doors, create more opportunities, and attract customers. Getting there is a commitment. You don’t have to begin your journey as a subject matter expert to become a thought leader. But you must have the determination and patience to become one. Passion is common. Endurance is rare.
If you're looking to raise your profile and enter the thought leadership circle, then we can help. Contact Principal Director, Rachel Arquati: firstname.lastname@example.org / 01285 626000.