Thought leadership is becoming a buzzword among all kinds of people, not just entrepreneurs. But I do think that it can get a tad bit confusing for a self-made entrepreneur seeking to grow their brand by leveraging this concept.
Much of that confusion might be due to the fact that, while “thought leader” is a term that’s been around for a while, not many people were talking about it. And for a long time, we’ve only associated this term with intellectual knowledge and formal accreditation.
However, I believe this term is dynamic and runs deeper than just intellectual or formal education type of expertise. So in this article, we are going to give it a dynamic working definition and then help you clarify the five major steps you can take to brand yourself as a thought leader in your space as you grow your business.
What is a thought leader?
Wikipedia says a thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.
Kelsey Raymond from Influence & Co. has a slightly different take on this. She defines a thought leader as an industry expert who shares his or her expertise with a broader audience for the purpose of educating, improving, and adding value to the industry as a whole.
If we can combine the best parts of these two definitions and align them with your mission, vision, and experience as a self-made entrepreneur, the concept moves from being abstract to being a practical strategy.
It’s not about formal education or having a professional title.
Being a thought leader is about providing useful value that’s actionable and meaningful to the right audience. The mistake that so many entrepreneurs are making with thought leadership is this:
Most are either doing it wrong and see no rewards or struggle a lot with execution because they lack clarity, commitment, and consistency.
You cannot successfully establish yourself as a thought leader in your space at the snap of a finger. It takes clarity, a great strategy, implementation, and time. Stop seeking instant gratification if you want to do this right.
Do you really need to leverage thought leadership to build your brand authority?
The simple answer is yes. Absolutely.
As a startup, especially if you’re bootstrapping your business, there are a lot of limitations you’ll have to navigate. One of these is having an ample marketing and advertising budget.
Big brands that have built their authority online whether in the Software as a Service (SAAS), beauty, weight loss, or any other niche require a huge marketing budget. I’m guessing that’s something you don’t have? As such, the next best opportunity the Internet has given you to level out the playing field is to leverage the one thing that you have in abundance: your knowledge and expertise.
Both formal and experiential, you probably have valuable information, advice, and useful gems of knowledge that could help an audience in ways that could profoundly change their perception of you.
Showcase your authority and expertise. This builds trust and gives people a reason to engage with your products or services.
People don’t want to engage with brands, they want to engage with people.
A great example is Pat Flynn the self-made entrepreneur and thought leader behind smart passive income. In a Forbes interview, he shares how he simply started with the intention of sharing what he was learning with others.
Ten years later, he’s built a massive online business and a well-recognized brand. All because he figured out how to leverage thought leadership and content marketing. Whether you’re a one-man show or a handful of people, you can build brand authority and successfully grow your business through online thought leadership.
Here are five steps to help you hit the ground running.
1. Get into the right mindset
Before making the first move, get clarity on why you want to do this and what you hope to accomplish. If your intentions are purely self-serving, you won’t do very well building authority with your brand, because thought leadership isn’t about self-promotion.
So get your mind right, set clear intentions on whom you want to generously and genuinely help. As John Hall said in his interview, business is really all about helping other people. Assuming that you’ve chosen to become an entrepreneur to solve a problem others have, that same desire to help is what your thought leadership should demonstrate.
2. Choose a platform for sharing content
There are so many ways for you to establish yourself as a thought leader and so many content platforms to choose from. It can be totally overwhelming. Blogging, podcasting, video, magazine publications, and self-publishing sites are all great. They all work. And no one method is the end all be all.
Usually, it will require a combination of some of these, but you’ll need to start somewhere. Don’t spread yourself too thin at the beginning trying to be everywhere. Focus on one platform first that enables you to reach the right audience, connect with the right influencers, and share your expertise.
Being a writer, naturally, my advice would be: Start writing!
Set up a blog. Then combine that with guest blogging and magazine publications. I believe content marketing is the best way to connect with your audience and position yourself as the trusted resource. Research shows that 70% of your clients would rather learn about your company through an article as opposed to an advertisement.
For a bootstrapping entrepreneur, content marketing is priceless, and it’s also the most cost-effective way to build credibility and authority in your space.
Here’s a caveat:
If you’re not going to invest the time, money, resources, and effort of creating high-quality content for your platform, you might as well not get started.
There is so much noise on the web. People shooting videos, recording podcasts, and posting blogs that truly offer no value. Such people stand no chance of successfully leveraging this particular strategy.
They might succeed at grabbing someone’s attention in the first few minutes, but creating a loyal audience isn’t going to happen. Don’t fall into this category.
3. Get a content marketing plan
Planning your content and having a documented strategy will actually increase your chances of success. According to research done by content marketing institute, having a plan makes you more productive and effective at content marketing. It also reduces the challenges of coming up with engaging content.
If you’d like an in-depth guide on what to put on your content marketing document, here’s a great resource by Neil Patel that shows you how to plan out your entire content marketing strategy.
4. Create Content that is Highly Targeted And Helps You Demonstrate Your Expertise And What You Stand For.
At the core of this, what you want is to share super relevant content that earns the trust of your audience. You won’t be able to do that unless you actually know your audience as much as possible.
The more you can get into the mind of your ideal audience, speak their language, and solve pressing problems, the easier it becomes for them to perceive you as a trustworthy source of knowledge and advice. And as we all know, people always buy from those they know, like, and trust.
5. Get more active on relevant social media platforms
Social media isn’t going away anytime soon. Even for someone like me who spends minimum time on social, I can acknowledge the importance of remaining active and providing value on these social sites.
However, don’t feel hard pressed to be everywhere making the loudest noise. It does not authentically align with my personality, and quite frankly, I don’t believe it’s the only way to build authority. There are always many ways to reach a destination.
And yes, indeed, sex does sell. Controversy and twisted sarcasm will grab attention. Being half naked will get more eyeballs on your videos and Instagram pics. But does it really align with the brand and image you’re trying to grow for your business?
Be sure to remain authentic and consistent with your brand voice. Your online presence matters a lot. Share and post regularly on social platforms that you believe the majority of your ideal audience hangs out at. But do it from a place of genuinely wanting to share a bit of your personality and your heart with the world. Most importantly, play the long game.
Thought leadership does work but it won’t just fall into place overnight. While some are already enjoying the benefits of being viewed as thought leaders, the only way you’ll get to reap the same rich rewards is by consistently implementing the plan you create for yourself.
The steps above have given you a starting point. Now it’s up to you to distinguish yourself from others, build a loyal audience, nurture them, and establish that trust. Be sure to leverage the opportunities that present themselves.
Lead with generosity when sharing your expertise and focus more on collaboration than competition, especially in the early stages of building your brand. These five steps when properly executed will gradually propel you into the status of a thought leader.