Thought leadership is an aspiration for anyone who produces something for a specific audience, even if it is not always a conscious goal. But in today’s competitive media market – with its 24/7 news cycles and its numerous channels of content consumption – what does it take to stand out as a thought leader? Let’s start by looking at what exactly constitutes thought leadership.
The Three Pillars of Thought Leadership
A thought leader is seen by his or her audience as a go-to authority on the topic at hand. With so much content available online and offline, his or her work stands out from the pack by providing a provocative, educational, and authoritative perspective. Thought leadership builds awareness through several distinctive techniques
- Actionable and trusted advice: A Pew Research Center survey found that 46 percent of Americans felt that the institutions they interacted with (e.g, businesses and schools) overloaded them with too many information-seeking tasks. Thought leadership cuts through this confusion by putting forward well-researched and proven guidance, such as a product recommendation or a multi-step strategy for improving a college application. Such advice helps establish comfort and trust, and by extension a positive brand image.
- Informational rigor and depth: According to Mediashift, majorities of news consumers worry about missing out on either key information (57 percent) or challenging viewpoints (55 percent). Thought leaders particularly excel at delivering relevant viewpoints and data, which often reshape how their audiences approach a buying decision, career path, or personal goal. Thought leadership is always memorable and in many cases provocative, since it may challenge conventional wisdom or blaze a new trail in terms of what it recommends.
- A platform with reach and power: Thought leadership can be disseminated through a magazine, newspaper, blog, podcast, social network, website, or any other channel that is appropriate for its intended audience. The key is to have a relevant platform. For example, while Facebook is easily the most popular social media site in the U.S., the percentage of its users who come to it looking for news-like content is similar to the much smaller Twitter and Reddit. Thought leaders know where their particular points will have maximum reach and impact.
Through these mechanisms, thought leaders present content that reaches and resonates with its viewers. Successful thought leadership is self-reinforcing in how it builds a platform: As its content becomes more widely seen as definitive in its given field, it attracts a bigger audience, which spreads the word about its veracity and attracts further attention.
Deep, topic-specific experience is essential for differentiating thought leadership from other forms of content marketing. Unlike press releases or analytical news pieces, thought leadership typically aims to answer big questions, such as “How can I turn around my small business?” or “What steps can I take to improve my résumé for an IT job?” Thought leadership can be developed for any sector of knowledge. With the proper focus on advice, research, and platform, you can transform the content you already produce into something that will cement you as an authority in your field.
How Thought Leadership Comes to Life
Creating effective thought leadership is a multi-step process. At the most basic level, it entails identifying a subject that interests you, crafting content that helps others understand it the same way you do, and finally taking advantage of a reputable, scalable platform to spread your insights to a sufficient audience. Here’s how you can approach each step on this journey:
1. Discover and cultivate a passionate interest
Thought leadership is fundamentally rooted in attention to detail and subject matter expertise which determine the quality of the content you can produce. These competencies are easiest to cultivate in areas in which you already have experience or are eager to immerse yourself in. In multiple educational studies, sustained interest in a topic is highly correlated with exceptional academic and professional performance.
Identify one such field that you are passionate about. Then, apply principles that help you become an expert in it: namely, setting specific goals, engaging in deliberate practice, and learning from feedback. Practice could be anything from writing an article based on a research report to attending a conference and asking questions of presenters and other participants.
2. Produce content that reflects a distinctive personal brand.
Having a personal brand – i.e., a set of associations and values that audiences impart to your work – is a cornerstone of being a thought leader. For example, Nielsen studies have shown that certain celebrities have distinctive personal brands associated with causes such as eco-friendliness and credit card rewards programs. You can start your own brand right away by:
- Creating your own blog (through a service like Medium, LinkedIn Pulse, or WordPress) or writing for a company site.
- Syndicating what you write across multiple social networks, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- Maintain a regular posting schedule (e.g., 3 posts a week).
- Injecting personal experiences, as appropriate, to complement your well-researched perspective.
Effective storytelling is the “secret sauce” of personal branding. Some of the most popular TED talks are about personal struggles, illustrating the value of bringing a unique perspective to the table alongside hard facts and insights.
3. Build your network and platform
Just as it is essential for landing many jobs, networking is crucial for transforming your content into thought leadership. The bigger your network is, the better chance that your content will be shared both online and offline.
Attending in-person networking events is a good place to start on this front. Another great option is to seize as many opportunities as possible to be published, whether as a guest blogger, freelance article contributor, or in another capacity. Widespread publication increases both your authority and your audience size.
With a big platform, you are in an ideal position to produce bolder and more innovative work which can attract additional attention and further increase your reputation and reach. Your platform is the amplifier for the content you produce and, accordingly, the engine for your thought leadership. You can monitor its health by looking at metrics such as:
- Reader comments.
- Social media shares.
- Requests for interviews.
Exploring Specific Thought Leadership Options
Thought leadership comes in many flavors. What type you engage in will depend on the formats you are most comfortable with, as well as what you are trying to accomplish. A few possibilities include:
Product and service thought leadership
If you have ever written a how-to guide or a book/movie review, then you already have some grounding in this type of thought leadership. A thought leader in this realm helps his or her audience understand what to buy and avoid, or how to get the most out of a specific product or service. Such content can influence sales: Harvard Business Review once found that the average business-to-business customer completed more than 60 percent of a purchasing decision before ever contacting the prospective seller, illustrating the importance of preemptive collateral such as thought leadership.
Industry knowledge thought leadership
If you come from a background writing news stories and other highly topical pieces, then this segment could provide a natural segue. As an industry thought leader, you offer expert-level commentary on current trends and/or evergreen topics in your sector. You distinguish your content from your peers by offering novel and perhaps even counterintuitive perspectives that readers are unlikely to encounter elsewhere. Crafting such engaging perspectives boosts your profile and attracts return visitors.
Cultural thought leadership
Under this category are many content forms such as corporate memos, college graduation speeches, and conference presentation slide decks. These diverse formats share a common commitment to recommending an ideal culture to the audience, i.e., what principles they should follow in life and at work, often based on the thought leader’s own successes and failures. Companies such as GE (“Imagination at Work”) and Dollar Shave Club (“Shave Time. Shave Money.”) have successfully branded themselves through years of cultural thought leadership at the internal, organizational level.
Excelling as a Thought Leader
Regardless of what route you take in turning your content into thought leadership, you have an excellent opening to distinguish yourself or the firm you write for from everyone else. A Forrester Research study once discovered that more than 8 in 10 organizations did not connect their branded content to the value that they provided to their customers. In other words, there is a lot of missed opportunity in the content marketing space.
Effective thought leaders can make their content into a vehicle for delivering a valuable perspective to the reader: How Do I Do X?, What Are The Top 5 Things I Should I Know About Y?, Why Should I Switch From Product A to Product B? Becoming a thought leader can start with an action as simple as committing yourself to a blog post a week and then building your platform and expertise as you go. Establishing thought leadership is a powerful step in personal and career development, one that can make your friends, colleagues, and customers fully aware of your capabilities and interests.
Earning a master’s degree in strategic public relations sets you up to become a thought leader in the PR world. Learn more about your options by visiting our main program page for a Master’s in Strategic Public Relations online.
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