Learn strategies to stand out from the crowd and position yourself or your brand as thought leaders. Here's where you can start...
‘Thought leader’ is a term as overused as ‘influencer’, and for good reason. The brands or people who achieve that status, seen to inject new ideas, perceptions, and expertise into the zeitgeist, can all but write their paychecks. An excellent example is Kim Kardashian - whose influence is so powerful that brands have happily paid up to a million dollars for a single Instagram post. Five-time New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell commands speaking fees of at least $100,000 a pop.
When you’re a trusted source, you can build a large following of people who will come to you for knowledge and advice – you don’t have to spend as much time and money convincing customers to give you a shot. If the content is done right, they’ll believe it and buy it.
But here’s the catch – positioning yourself or your brand as a thought leader isn’t just about repetition or huge budgets (although they help). Achieving actual thought-leader status requires a content strategy with these foundational elements.
The clue is there in the name. As a thought leader, you must lead the thinking – be genuinely expert – in your niche.
Authenticity is essential in any marketing effort, but it's imperative to stand out in your industry. According to LinkedIn's recipe for thought leadership, ‘authenticity should be the main ingredient’. Be real with people, be honest about struggles and how you overcame them, and use language that reflects your voice.
A thought leadership strategy is about giving away your time and your expertise. Your targets will see it, yes, but so will your competitors, and you need to be okay with that. It means you back yourself to still succeed.
If you tick the attitude boxes and are sure you can find a niche to own, here’s how to build your thought-leadership strategy.
It all starts with who you’re trying to attract. You need a clear understanding of your audience’s pain points, what they’ll find valuable and the kind of content they’ll respond to.
Fight the urge to target 'everyone' – the more focused you can be, the better your strategy will work. You will almost certainly be talking to just one subsection of your brand's wider target audience, and that's okay – deliver great things to these people, and you'll have more chance of connecting with others.
Once you’ve narrowed down who you’re talking to, push yourself beyond demographic markers – take steps to understand this audience’s humanity.
Finding your ‘own’ unique niche can take time. You can speak to many topics, but your niche needs to tick a few boxes. It should be one that:
To help clients define this niche, we start with an exploration phase, asking these questions and more:
We often reach out to your customers and broader team to explore these topics, map them out and overlay them with what your competitors are already doing. Doing this surfaces a few niches to test and measure.
Case study – Ethique builds its brand with purpose.
Ethique is an NZ beauty brand founded on a desire to rid the world of plastic bottles – a topic it was passionate about and was exciting and valuable to its intelligent, green-minded audience. It ticked all the boxes and was a niche Ethique has built its thought-leadership status on for years. Its founder, Brianne West, has also established herself as a thought leader in the purpose-led business space.
Getting the content sorted is one thing, but you also need to make sure people will see what you create. Thought leadership isn't to move people along the buying funnel –it's about building a following and prestige activated by other marketing tactics. However, the buying funnel is a good way of thinking about the different kinds of content people will need at different times – the only difference is that you're moving them not towards becoming buyers but becoming fans or followers.
Awareness, aka reaching out: go wide, be entertaining
Get out there in front of as many of your targets as you can – build your networks on LinkedIn, boost posts, give away content toother sites and speak for free at conferences. These people have never heard of you, and, in all honesty, you’re interrupting their day. This content is your chance to prove you’re worth paying attention to, but it can be light and entertaining.
Equally as important as what you say, is how you say it. Your tone should be consistent and likeable to your audience. That’s easier if you’re building the profile of an individual – it’s more complex for a brand. An easy way to do that is to make the most of your human genius for communicating with other humans – imagine your brand as a person, then ‘act’ like that person.
The fastest way to fail at building a thought-leader position is to start writing without planning. You’ll either run out of ideas and fall off the content writing wagon or write about something outside of your niche – and in many cases, you'll do both. Before you start creating, build a map of all the topic categories and sub-categories that go into your niche. For example, when Ecrotek wanted blogs to help dominate the hobby beekeeping market, it defined sub-categories like bee-keeping, equipment, regulations and more. You can easily define and test many topics, arrange them on a calendar, work ahead and never run out of ideas.
The foundation for any thought leadership strategy is written content on your social pages, email, website or all three. The goal of the writing isn’t just quantity (although that’s important) but also quality. Everything you write should add something new – a new angle, new expertise or an easier, more exciting way of explaining something.
While more great content is always better, what's most important is consistency – consistently excellent writing published regularly. Unless you have someone on your team who has the skill and the time to prioritise creating this, it is nearly always cheaper– and certainly more effective – to outsource it.
Every time you publish an article, get it out there – send it to your database, ask your teams to share it on LinkedIn, and consider spending money on boosting it to your followers.
As you build your reputation, you’re more likely to be invited to appear in other publications – mainstream media, trade mags or partners’ websites. It's a good idea to sponsor or speak at conferences and tradeshows, at networking events and comment on other social platforms. This creates a positive knock-on effect. As you get better known, you’ll bring more people toyour content and be more likely to be invited to contribute to more prestigious platforms.
This strategy can never be set-and-forget. As you bring your audience on the journey, you must stay ahead of them – this is where the leading part comes in. Read books, go to conferences, take courses – whatever it takes to help you hold your forward position.
While this strategy creates ripe ground for marketing tactics, you need to protect the trust you've built – your direct sales need to be carefully implemented and, better yet, done with a genuine desire to, again, add value.
While Kim Kardashian and Malcolm Gladwell’s success looks almost effortless from the outside, their positions have been built on decades of hard-won influence. Positioning yourself or your brand as a thought leader will take time, but with consistent focus and sound strategic thinking, you’ll get there.
The results are well worth it – lead the industry in your niche, and your competitors will spend their time playing catch-up. Meanwhile, you keep delivering value, and the business success will take care of itself.
Need help to master thought leadership? Talk to us about defining your niche, building your strategy and getting exceptional content streaming out to your audience.