Are You Ready to Become a Thought Leader?

Become an influencer in your business, profession or community by concentrating on three key steps.

July/August 2016

Thought leadership is a relatively vague term. In general, a thought leader is someone whose ideas shake up the status quo, advance better practices or advocate for new ideas for the sake of the larger community, not for self-serving purposes. On the other hand, thought leadership can be seen as a way to grow your brand for the sake of your business.

Denise Brosseau, CEO of Thought Leadership Lab and author of the book Ready To Be A Thought Leader?, defines thought leaders as “the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success … not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.”

To lay the groundwork for establishing yourself as a thought leader, try these four steps.

1. Narrow your focus

What issue or cause will energize you when you’re asked to speak at an evening event after a full day of work? What mission is important enough to sustain you for months or years as you create a following for the change you’d like to see? And just as importantly, how does that issue relate back to your business?

This question might not require a second thought, but if your passion isn’t obvious, ask yourself which parts of your business you find most fulfilling. For example, a CPA who owned a firm serving small business clients found a common theme among his new clients referrals. Many people were coming to him after they were notified that their business was to be audited by the IRS. Many of these clients had either been doing their own tax returns or just had a bookkeeper. The CPA found a lot of satisfaction helping business owners prepare for an audit and guiding them through the process. As a result, he began blogging about what small business owners can do to avoid or beat an IRS audit. As his readership grew, so did his clientele.

The CPA was able to win more clients because he not only touched on a major pain point for his target market, but also because of his passion for helping people through an audit. He was able to energize people around a topic many people would prefer to avoid.

When you are clear on the issue you want to write and speak about, determine how original your perspective is. Research your area of focus to determine how crowded that space is and how different what you have to say is from what is already out there.

2. Lead by example

The adage “live your brand” is trite, but effective.

“To me, leadership is about helping others follow in your footsteps,” Brosseau says. Once you set that goal, the path under your feet might turn in unexpected ways. David Fields, founder and managing director of The Ascendant Consortium, is an example.

Because of his success as a consultant, Fields wrote a book to help companies hire consultants. The credibility it earned him among decision makers at major corporations helped him expand his book of business significantly.

3. Leverage technology to promote yourself

After you have established your niche and you are focusing your activities to model your mission, it is time to grow your audience.

According to an article by Will Fleiss of the online content marketing platform Outbrain, the first step in promoting your thought leadership content is to find out what related topics your target audience is searching for. There are plenty of online tools that can help you identify what questions your target audience most frequently searches. These sites include QuoraYahoo AnswersTwitterGoogle Keyword Planner and Übersuggest. For social media promotion, use BuzzSumo to find out what topics are trending for your audience.

4. Give Yourself Enough Time

Because thought leadership positions you as an expert and can raise awareness of you and your business, it can be considered a part of your overall marketing strategy. However, do not confuse thought leadership with more traditional marketing, because short-term indicators of success, such as store traffic, sales leads or website visits are not effective metrics of thought leadership.

“You want to measure the reach and resonance of your ideas,” Brosseau explains. It will probably take time before you see concrete results, such as interview requests from a newspaper or magazine, invitations to speak at industry or community events, or opportunities to join influential groups. Once that starts to happen, though, momentum can increase quickly, building your business or career incrementally.

Being a thought leader can provide you and your business with advantages that are especially valuable to businesses that cannot afford big-ticket PR firms or marketing agencies. It can lead to visibility in the media, good will with those who share your ideas—which includes customers and potential customers—and opportunities to engage with leaders in your industry or community that you might not otherwise meet.

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