What is thought leadership?

Influencer.

Expert.

Thought Leader.

You would probably love to have these titles associated with your name. In fact, it seems like just about every business leader or entrepreneur on LinkedIn identifies with one of them. Today we’re focusing on what it means to be a thought leader. Harnessing the power of thought leadership also entails being an influencer and an expert in your space. Moreover, it carries a stronger connotation of positive impact and knowledge dissemination. After all, search trends for “how to be a thought leader” saw a significant increase about 5 years ago and have continued going up…clearly it’s more than a buzzword.

In this piece, we will cover what it means to be a thought leader, how to position yourself as an expert in your field, and how to leverage thought leadership for your business. Stick around to the end for some FAQs to summarize and get ready to make an impact!

What is thought leadership? 

The digital world is full of over-stimulating and noisy content. It seems that every screen, every app, and every social platform subjects us to unsolicited advertisements and sensationalist claims. Our inboxes are packed with gimmicky email subjects. Social media is full of perfectly staged sponsored posts. Nobody can escape the constant superficial demands for attention (and money). All the noise assails you and your potential customers every day.

If you’re an entrepreneur trying to get your product or message out there, the outlook seems pretty grim! This constant stream of marketing content does anything but incentivize trust on the part of the consumer. Is it even possible to make yourself heard amidst all the noise while maintaining sincerity and authenticity? Is pouring money into google ads and sponsored posts the only way to grow your following?

That’s where thought leadership comes in. Thought leadership means becoming a  trusted source within a particular niche for a community of fans, followers, and customers. As a thought leader, you become a go-to source for ideas, inspiration, and education. Your audience can comprise past customers, current customers, potential customers, or anyone who finds value in what you share. A thought leader does more than create content–they provide inspiration and solutions for the community they serve.

How to integrate thought leadership into your marketing strategy

Integrating thought leadership into your marketing strategy requires a long term vision and commitment. You have to have a well-defined niche to target. You have to stay abreast of the topics your target audience cares about while also being a resource for the topics they should care about.

Ideally there is already a great deal of overlap between your existing expertise and those topics. However, industry trends and world events outside your control will doubtless require you to learn a lot of new information along this journey too. And as we’ll cover shortly, that learning curve is an asset, not a disadvantage to your path to thought leadership.

Hopefully that leaves you with a better understanding of what thought leadership is. Now we’ll cover how to position yourself as an expert so your audience trusts you and your customers keep coming back!

Positioning yourself as an expert

While there is no single way to gain “expert status,” there are several key principles to keep in the back of your mind as you work your way there. No matter which strategies you pursue, having a strong big-picture foundation will help you keep your goals in focus.

Before you start creating content and engaging with your community, you need a healthy dose of self-awareness. Schedule out a couple hours for reflection and grab a piece of paper. On that piece of paper, you will write out two lists. One is of the things you are really good at. The stuff that all your friends would say “oh yeah, nobody can do it better.” Whatever activities fill you with confidence and make you feel flattered, put them on this list.

Now it’s time for the second list. Alongside that flattering, confidence-building list, it’s time to write out everything you’re mediocre at. This isn’t the place to write “olympic skiing” or something you’ve never even tried to do. Think of the stuff you’re not terrible at, but also not-so-great. Things that you do, but know someone who does it better. This list is especially challenging for entrepreneurs who rely on their confident personality to achieve their big dreams. It might be painful, but it’s worth it to get real with yourself. Self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses lays the groundwork for how to use thought leadership for achieving your goals.

How to succeed as a thought leader

To succeed as a thought leader, you have to spend a lot of time building trust with your audience. Self-awareness is a prerequisite for building trust. If you start by creating content on a topic that’s trendy but totally outside your wheelhouse, you can’t really add value. It will fall flat, causing you to lose trust with your audience. Understand what you’re good at so you can capitalize on it. And your audience really wants to hear about those things that were on your let’s-be-real list, stay honest and take them on a learning journey with you.

So how do you figure out what topics will add value to your audience anyway? What experts are they looking for? Collecting feedback from the moment you start creating thought leadership content will help you improve and pivot when necessary. This is true even if you already have regular customers, a substantial email list, or a lot of LinkedIn followers. The type of content they need is really just an educated guess on your part until you start producing it. Start conversations on social media. Track your metrics of which pieces, podcasts, or media appearances gain traction. Ask people what they like to hear! Ignoring the needs of your audience is the fastest way to fail as a thought leader. Creating content that directly responds to their needs and answers their questions is the fastest way to succeed.

At this stage of laying the foundations, imposter syndrome often rears its ugly head. You start researching your audience, tapping into their needs, and coming up with ideas. Maybe you follow people on LinkedIn who seem to have mastered how to be a thought leader.

You realize…somebody else already does what I want to do. The doubt creeps in…Why would anyone listen to me? How can I use thought leadership if someone else is already leading my audience’s thoughts to their business?

Here’s the thing. Being a thought leader doesn’t mean you are the only expert in your field. Being a thought leader means you are somebody’s favorite. How do you become somebody’s favorite? By being authentic, honest, and comfortable in your own skin. That way, people will be attracted not just to your content, but to you. And when you pivot your business, start talking about different topics, or pursue a new medium for content creation, those hardcore fans will stick with you.

You can listen to our podcast with Chris Ducker on positioning yourself as an expert that covers all these principles and more here.

How to use thought leadership for your business

So you’ve established the foundational principles of positioning yourself as an expert. It’s time to start leveraging your expertise for your business and your personal brand. While every set of goals and journey to achieving them will be different, here are a few implementation tips for the principles we just covered!

Remember, it’s essential to tap into the needs of your particular customers or audience. You can wax eloquent on whatever you want, but if it doesn’t establish your ability to address what your audience is looking for, it won’t get you business. One skill that can improve your impact is anticipating their needs beyond simply staying aware. That way, you can tailor your messaging such that you help customers become aware of what they need and offer them a solution at the same time. This cycle can include providing valuable information (e.g. market predictions), starting conversations about up-and-coming topics (on social media or at events), and selling your own products or promoting those you find useful (a great opportunity for partnerships).

Mastering the thought leadership learning curve

If you have only used social media and other marketing channels for advertising, announcements, and short-form content before, thought leadership will require another learning curve. Long-form content creation is a must. But if you’re not a writer, don’t sweat it! Many people associate thought leadership with blogging. In reality, while writing is a valuable skill to hone long term, you can use any method of communicating helpful, educational, and insightful content to an audience. Podcasts, media appearances, hosting events, speaking…the world is your oyster.

Depending on the nature of your business, creating this kind of content might feel awkward at first. If your role or your business model isn’t particularly “brainy,” won’t it be weird to suddenly wax eloquent about abstract concepts? Stop right there, because that’s imposter syndrome speaking. Becoming a thought leader is not limited to industries that are perceived as intellectually lofty! In fact, if your industry or niche doesn’t seem particularly content-heavy, that is a huge door of opportunity for you. Connecting practical concepts to big picture ideas will show your audience that you care about more than getting new customers. And when your impact expands beyond bringing in cash and starts transforming people’s minds and lives for the better, you can confidently call yourself a thought leader.

Conclusion 

Becoming a thought leader is a huge part of building a successful personal brand. Thought leadership helps you maintain a loyal community regardless of how you pivot your business ventures in the future. If you stay authentic and create content that is really valuable, you can grow an audience who trust you as their favorite “expert” within your niche. Yes, even if your industry is full of “noise.”

Hopefully, this piece helped you overcome any hesitations about diving into thought leadership. Remember, this is a long game, and establishing expertise and authority with your audience will take time! But it is totally worth it. Just look at Seth Godin, whose best-selling books have been translated into dozens of languages. And he still finds time to blog every day. He considers content creation just as much an exercise in self improvement as in impacting others!

Before you go, check out these common FAQs about thought leadership as a review!

FAQs

What is the meaning of thought leadership?

Thought leadership means becoming the trusted source within a particular niche for a community of fans, followers, and customers.

What is an example of thought leadership?

Seth Godin is an amazing example of thought leadership. Over the years, he has gradually pivoted from tech entrepreneur to author, speaker, and daily blogger. Building on his business expertise, his ideas have inspired and engaged global audiences.

What is the purpose of thought leadership?

Thought leadership amplifies your personal and business brands, allows you to impact people beyond the products or services you offer, and creates a loyal community of fans around you and your content.

Want to know exactly what to say to finally land paid speaking gigs?

We’ll send you the exact three emails you can send to conference planners and event organizers that Grant Baldwin (our founder) used to book over $2M in speaking gigs. 

Related Resources

Here are a few other resources you might find helpful. 

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