It isn't easy to establish a recognized brand as a thought leader. 50% of B2C and 54% of B2B marketers state that creating "engaging" content is their single biggest challenge. In highly saturated or "boring" industries like energy, manufacturing, or technology, the struggle to win an audience can feel especially real.
A thought leader is most simply defined by Forbes as someone who is recognized as a "foremost authority" on a given topic. As their definition highlights, it's a pretty profitable place to be. Being recognized as a key expert can result in wondrous glory and improved inbound marketing metrics, but it also leads to an influx of customer acquisition and partnership opportunities.
The Characteristics of a True Thought Leader
It's important to note that thought leaders don't gain massive followings and industry-wide recognition because they get lucky. They work hard to earn recognition, and they're likely to engage in a certain set of effective behaviors. And yes, there is absolutely room for emerging thought leaders in saturated or boring industries. In this blog, you'll learn how Ann Handley, Marcus Sheridan, and other highly recognized experts have built a serious business brand, a massive following, and achieved thought leadership.
1. Select a Focus
The first step towards achieving thought leadership is selecting the right area of focus. For some business and individual brands, this is easier than others. A single focus area is much easier to "claim" as your expertise than a diverse or poorly-defined collection of concepts.
For example, you'll have a lot easier time building a reputation as the leading expert on growth-driven design (GDD) than to try and claim thought leadership over inbound marketing, advertising technology, pay-per-click marketing, growth hacking, and all of entrepreneurship. Focus is key here.
Most marketers are familiar with the term "unique value proposition" (UVP) or "unique selling proposition." This is a clear statement that includes:
- Your benefit
- How you help your customers
- What makes you different
One of the most famous examples of a well-defined UVP comes from Suze Orman. Even if you aren't a fan of this "personal finance guru," you're probably familiar with what she stands for. Practical financial advice for real people delivered in her signature, no-nonsense tone. Orman isn't the only personal finance expert, but her straight-to-the-point commitment to helping her audience distinguishes her from Dave Ramsey and other "competitors" in her space.
Another brand with a well-defined UVP in the marketing space is Unbounce. This optimization technology's blog delivers loads of data and real-life examples, almost every time. It's not the only conversion-focused blog, but it's one of the best at showing exactly why their messaging matters./
2. Define a Voice
Thought leaders are often remembered and identified by their unique voice. A distinct tone sets your company apart, building trust and facilitating memory among your readers. By understanding the tone that works for your customers and embracing it, you can develop a voice to unify your content and turn your company into a brand.
Organizations with multiple blog authors should create brand style guidelines, which include a thorough definition of tone and voice. According to Distilled, the following questions can assist in understanding your company's unique voice:
- Are you formal or informal?
- Do you use a lot of technical language?
- Does your writing include slang and contractions?
If you've ever seen entrepreneurship expert Gary Vaynerchuk speak at a marketing conference, you're well familiar with the salty language and profanity that helped launch his career into mega thought leadership territory.
Would Vaynerchuk's frequent F-bombs, pop culture-inspired jokes, and general irreverence work well if he was representing enterprise resources planning software? Probably not. But for his particular target audience of inbound marketers, it's sometimes just the ticket.
Another brand that manages to unify voice across content assets, despite a wide variety of blog contributors, is HubSpot. This can likely be attributed to stellar editing and style guidelines, but also the comprehensiveness of HubSpot's written culture code for employees. When a member of their sales team sits down to write some content, there's simply no question who they're representing.
3. Create High-Value Content
Thought leaders never look at their content calendar, sigh, and think "dang. It's Monday. I better slap something together in the next 15 minutes to publish tomorrow."
Thought leaders don't write thin, wan, 400-word blogs to fill a publishing quota. They always deliver some serious depth, originality, and value to their audience. Delivering thought-provoking content on a regular basis is key to earning subscribers and building community. To be clear, you don't need to publish daily. There's also not a specific word count that's a silver bullet.
Seth Godin is a frequently-cited example of a thought leader whose blogs are often incredibly short, often in the 100-200 word range. However, research by Neil Patel indicates that 2,000-2,400 word blogs often out-perform any other length range.
Credibility is an important part of delivering value. Research carefully, double-check your facts and cite your sources correctly by linking to the source whenever possible. Mistakes happen. If you make one, despite your carefulness, publicly apologize and move on.
Marcus Sheridan is a powerful example of an individual-driven brand that consistently delivers high-value content. Sheridan's highly-popular inbound and content marketing blog doesn't publish fresh content daily, or even several times a week. However, every time Sheridan launches a new post, it's well worth the wait. His articles are typically long, well thought-out, and packed with fascinating case studies and data.
Ann Handley, the founder of MarketingProfs, is another brilliant thought leader who's committed to consistently high-value content. Not only is Handley a leading resource for fresh data and advanced-level marketing blogs, but she's also pretty prolific in her personal life.
Handley has published two full-length, best-selling books on content marketing, which has certainly helped secure her position as a leading authority.
4. Always Be Learning
Thought leaders must take an active role in their niche. This means a public commitment to continual education and learning. Tirelessly consume other people's content. Don't just "lurk" on your favorite blogs. Join communities, post thought-provoking conversation-starters, and become a part of communities.
Ways to educate yourself, while becoming a visible presence in your field's content can include:
- Becoming an active presence in industry LinkedIn groups
- Commenting on at least two blogs daily
- Engaging in Tweet chats, Google Hangouts, and other social media meetups
- Joining at least one forum or education-driven site (i.e. Inbound.org)
Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder and chief technical officer (CTO) of HubSpot is a highly visible example of a thought leader who's publicly committed to continuing education and community-building. As his software company grew quickly and achieved it's current position as a publicly-traded entity, Shah established Inbound.org, a side project dedicated to continuing education and community among inbound marketing professionals.
Another thought leader who's commitment to continual self-improvement is clear is Guy Kawasaki. Kawasaki became an early-adopter and vocal promoter of easy-to-use graphic design tool Canva, which lead to a position with the company as an evangelist. Kawasaki's status as continual early-adopter is an inspiration to other marketers, setting a benchmark for learning and improvement.
5. Propose Ideas or Perform Research
Thought leaders can't build a following or credibility by regurgitating other people's content. Actively developing original thought and concepts is key to success. This doesn't mean you need to drop your marketing job and pursue graduate education in data science. There's room at the top for both qualitative and quantitative thought leadership.
Even small brands can establish a position as a leading expert by launching an industry-wide survey, filling in existing knowledge gaps. By designing, promoting, and publishing an original research project, you can earn recognition, links, and become a leading authority on a topic of your choosing. Observing cultural trends and developing unique ideas about where your industry is headed is also a fantastic place to start.
David Meerman Scott's observation that real-time publishing was leading to increased demand for highly relevant content lead to the development of "newsjacking." Essentially, newsjacking is the idea that real-time publishing around breaking trends is an extremely effective mode of content marketing. Meerman Scott was right, and his approach helped launch his career as a thought leader and keynote speaker.
Adele Revella is a leading authority on buyer persona profiles. Her original research on the "five rings of buying insight" offered new clarity for marketers into the elements of a buyer's decision, securing her position as a top expert on buyer profiling.
Becoming a Real Thought Leader
The most important action any aspiring thought leader can take is to adopt an attitude of persistence. Thought leadership isn't won overnight. By developing a unique value proposition and tone and committing to quality, you can begin to develop the groundwork for a career as a leading authority. Use multiple platforms to spread your message. Remember, the average content marketer uses 12 different platforms. Be above average!
With the right tools and a persistent mindset, commit to working every day towards becoming a thought leader. Build relationships tirelessly. Most importantly, don't give up. Authority is well within your reach.