How to Become a Thought Leader in Your Industry

“Thought leader.” We’ve all heard the term. It’s pervasive and a little meta, if we’re being honest. But what exactly does it mean?

The term is often used interchangeably with “influencer” but don’t pigeonhole it as just a social media influencer. The concept has a broader scope, although it does equate to wielding influence over an audience.

But how is it attained? And why should anyone bother? Let’s take a closer look at the phenomenon.

Who or what is a thought leader?

Essentially, a thought leader is an expert within an industry, company, or other specific community. They inspire, guide, and influence the other members of that community.

They have a unique perspective and an authentic voice, one that resonates. Think of them as an EF Hutton—when they speak, other people listen. That’s because they have a reputation, a brand that commands an audience.

Being a thought leader means being a mix of a subject matter expert and a maverick. One should take a stand on debatable issues, without shying away from controversy.

They have insight and the ability to speculate, predicting a future via present analysis of past data—with accuracy and a point of view that isn’t available elsewhere.

What are the benefits?

Sixty-five percent of businesses include thought leadership in their content marketing, with nearly 30 percent planning to do the same. That’s because having a thought leader in a company is a boon to the company’s brand credibility.

This type of content builds and increases an audience. If someone is impressed by what they read, they are more likely to visit the URLs included in the content. They are also likely to share or mention the content, which will inspire new readers to visit those URLs. This also attracts customers and builds loyalty, which in turn creates leads and sales.

Being a thought leader is also a boon to one’s personal brand; it establishes and/or reinforces credibility and authority. This makes them more marketable, creating a mutually beneficial situation for them and their employer.

How does one become a thought leader?

Expertise and an innovative mind are the obvious qualities. Simple, huh? Become an expert, become a thought leader. Well…first you need some recognition. And to get that, it helps to repeatedly demonstrate five qualities:

  • Knowledge
  • Experience
  • Creativity
  • Transparency
  • Strong opinions

Knowledge and experience should be obvious; these are resume-fillers for everyone. Creativity refers to an entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to think outside the box and find unique solutions. Transparency is a must; if people don’t trust you, they won’t listen to what you have to say. And strong opinions make an impression—don’t be afraid to share even controversial opinions, but do avoid crossing the line into alienating your audience.

Of course, you can’t demonstrate those traits if you don’t have an audience. Building a following can take time, but these steps can help:

  • Know your area of expertise. Clarify it. Stick to it.
  • Ignore your business agenda; a thought leader wants to share their wisdom and help others.
  • Work with mentors and other influencers and observe their methods. Eventually become a mentor yourself.
  • Seek opportunities to speak, join podcasts, participate in round tables, etc.
  • Get published. Start by writing guest posts. Then write your own, starting on sites such as LinkedIn. Create a personal website, start a blog, and hire someone to audit them for SEO and brand.
  • Manage your reputation. Have a thoughtful attitude.
  • Keep listening and learning; business constantly evolves and it’s impossible to stay on top of everything without being willing to learn more.

How can content help position you as a thought leader?

Before you start creating content, treat thought leadership as a business strategy. As with any strategy, it is imperative to start by defining your goals. What do you hope to achieve? Tie this in with your marketing goals. Define your audience; know your customer personas.

Next, check out the competition. Take a look at the existing thought leaders who share your industry/niche. Explore related communications such as online forums, blogs, social media, trade pubs, and more. Analyze your stances as well as your competitors’. Build a strategy from this insight.

Identify the focus and leaders within your organization. What is your company’s area of expertise? Who best aligns with your brand? Look at the CEO and other C-level employees, subject matter experts, and writers. Who are the best choices to produce content?

Research potential topics. Generate ideas by considering your goals and audience. Content should explore trends, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest. Research trade publications, online forums, and other sources within your industry to learn what your audience wants to know.

Pull topics from your or other thought leaders’ unique experiences. Consider any of your company’s strong opinions that go against industry norms. Use apps to look at trending topics based on specific SEO keywords.

Choose the best form of content for sharing your expertise. Consider media such as:

  • Online articles
  • Blog posts
  • Video
  • Webinars or other events
  • White papers
  • Research
  • E-books
  • Podcasts
  • Data visualizations

Write your content to educate and inspire, and to drive change. Most importantly, content should be based on research; share facts, statistics, and other data that verify your claims and validate you as an expert.

Create, distribute, and promote the content. Share it internally and externally. Pitch it to journalists. Collaborate with partners and non-competing companies to co-author and co-share your content. Most importantly, follow through. When others engage with your content, reciprocate and engage with them. Start conversations to keep your content dynamic and give it a life of its own.

Lastly, measure your results. How did it affect your web traffic or social media engagement? Did leads and/or sales increase? Did you get new subscribers or backers? How about media mentions? Any invitations to provide content elsewhere?

Repeat these steps until you achieve the results you wanted. Then, continue to repeat them. Never rest on your laurels. This is an evolving concept, making it vital to continue confirming the reputation you’ve earned.


Want some more? Catch lots more on growing your leadership and managing your people during Leagues of Leadership.  

Now’s your chance to be a thought leader on this topic—share any tips and strategies below. Tell us what you thought of ours and enjoy conversation in the comments below!

Comments

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