As a brand consultant, I don’t just consult on companies, products and services. I also consult with people who want help with personal branding, often with the goal of becoming a thought leader within their chosen field or on a specific issue.
- Establish and maintain relevance in one’s field;
- Differentiate from competitors;
- Influence behavior, whether it’s stopping gun violence, securing legislation or convincing people to buy your books;
- Become a media expert and sought after for ongoing interviews;
- Secure clients; and
- Elevate the brand equity of your company or organization or that of your employer.
Thought leadership can be achieved by anyone with a passion and drive to do so. The formula is simple: you have to establish a presence in your chosen field, build a solid reputation and earn the status as an “authority.” Once you’re an authority, those you want to influence will find you. First you have to have a plan.
Quick example. An enthusiastic young man with a passion for fashion had a dream and a plan to become a thought leader on men’s clothing. His strategy? Produce a series of 200 informational videos which he shared on YouTube and other social platforms. When he started, the videos were amateurish. But the more he did, the better he got. By the 200th video, his audience was huge and had become a sought after thought leader in men’s fashion. He was persistent, consistent and did not give up.
Here are five major principles of achieving thought leadership:
1) Determine what you want to be known for. First and foremost, find an area in which you have a sustainable interest. If your passion is five-star travel, you may not be the best (or most believable) thought leader on off-trail camping. Ideally, it should be a niche where you’ll be uncontested. If you’re going into a crowded space, add an emotional component, which will add honesty to your message. Finally, Google it to determine how much interest there is in your chosen space. This helps determine how difficult or easy it will be to stake your claim on your issue.
Here’s a good example. Dr. Valda is an emergency room physician. She’s also an anti-gun violence expert advocating for stronger gun laws and giving more people, particularly middle and high schoolers, access more mental health services. Dr. Valda has a strong foundation for becoming a thought leader; she’s personally treated thousands of people with gunshot wounds, including victims of workplace violence. She’s also consulted with the NFL on the issue of violence. And because gun violence, school and work shootings are constantly in the headlines, she can easily ride the wave of trending news.This issue is made for her.
2) Be a source of rich content. Thought leaders must establish a voice of authority and do so by constantly presenting useful information to your target audience through blogs, vlogs, podcasts, social posts, and email marketing. As you’re pushing out content, remember to make your website the “mother ship” where people can not only access your blog and social platforms, but also take action such as buy your book, register for consulting sessions or group events, or book you as a speaker or for media interviews. Make sure YOU are on the website. Do not underestimate the importance of professional photography either.
One of the best content-producing thought leaders today is Susan Pierce Thompson, a neuroscientist and creator of Bright Line Eating, a science-backed approach to weight loss. Before you roll your eyes – how many science-backed diets are there, right? – understand that Susan has over a million subscribers to her blog, she’s sold thousands of books, 51,000 people in nearly 200 countries have participated in her program and lost 300,000 pounds. She’s done it with total transparency – she’s a former drug addict who turned her addictive personality to food before becoming a physician – supported by a highly orchestrated, constant output of compelling, believable content.
3) Build an actionable audience. This is the heavy lifting of thought leadership. Not only must people believe in you, they have to act on what you’re sharing with them. Here’s a little secret: you can’t beat around the bush. Tell your audience what you want them to do. Bright Line Eating’s Susan Pierce Thompson makes it really easy. She suggests buying her book, enrolling in her online boot camps and following her diet plan. The decision is made easier when people read the positive comments and reviews on social media from hundreds of people happy with their weight loss and improvements in overall health.
You don’t have to be a weight loss guru like Susan to build an actionable audience. My global pharma client David had a finite audience due to his highly specialized industry. We needed to identify those who might be interested in doing business with him in China. So we painstakingly build a database using past contacts at multinational drug companies, new contacts from national and international conferences and meetings, and the media. We then steadily cranked out rich content via blogs, email, LinkedIn, and traditional PR on trends in global pharma threatening profits, changing regulations in China favorable to the West (often translated from Chinese before hitting other global news sources) and ways to enter and navigate China’s complex pharmaceutical market. It did not take long for people to seek David out requesting interviews and speaking engagements. Which leads us to the fourth principle…
4) Get in front of people. Thought leaders can’t be shy. Get in front of people via video, a podcast or public speaking engagements. TED Talks are a great vehicle. You get a live audience the residual exposure (and searchable content) of video on their website and on Youtube as well as on your social channels. I’ve helped countless people book speaking engagements at national – and often niche – conferences. It’s a perfect way to get exposure, credibility and customers. But getting in front of people can be even simpler than that. Speak to a local Rotary Club, an arts group, a parent-teacher organization. Each step, no matter how small, is a step closer to becoming a thought leader.
5) Focus on doing it well for the long haul. Becoming a thought leader doesn’t happen overnight. On average it takes people 2.5 years to achieve their goals. A colleague of mine, Jeff, had a nice leadership training business, but he wasn’t commanding the fees of other folks on the speaking circuit. So he authored a book, launched a new website and focused on the message of being a “Black Sheep” – a metaphor for Best Self and also his personal back story. It took several years, but Jeff now has a stable of speakers who routinely are paid speakers for major corporations around the world. Pretty good for a small town Carolina guy!
Do you want to become a thought leader? Let me be the first to say you can do it! However, just like any other form of branding and marketing, you have to set goals and a plan for achieving them. To learn more, let’s connect over coffee or simply over the phone or email. It’s the best way to get started.