The 6 Keys To A Thought Leadership Strategy in 2016
“Thought Leadership” is a phrase I first heard only 3 years ago, and it seemed like a buzzword. While I assumed it meant something along the lines of using your thoughts to demonstrate leadership, I wasn’t sure how you could do such a thing. I mean, isn’t that something that just sort of happens if you’re an intellectual with an audience, such as a professor or an author?
It turns out that my early impressions of thought leadership weren’t far off – it is, essentially, the act of becoming well known because of your interesting ideas – but it took me years to understand how a person could actually implement thought leadership as a strategy.
I’ll spare you the learning process I went through to understand thought leadership and instead just explain what it means and how you can carry it out in practical reality.
The Six Elements of A Thought Leadership Strategy
As it turns out, thought leadership spans several disciplines, all of them to do with communication in some way. In fact, if you boil it down, there are exactly 6 areas that – if you could manage to master each one – would make you or your company famous for its ideas. Before I share the six elements, I just want to make clear what the benefits of thought leadership are, in case it’s not already obvious to you:
- Lots of people will want to work with you or your business
- You will be asked to give interviews to the press or industry journals
- People will ask you to write articles and books, and give speeches
- Potential business partners and acquirers will come out of the woodwork
- People will want to work for you
If those things sound desirable, read on. Here are the 6 elements of a successful thought leadership strategy:
Blogging. Every day, millions of people read blog entries and articles. If they enjoy them, they often follow the writer or subscribe to their feed so they can read their work in the future. Even those who don’t follow the writer remember them in some small way. A good article is like a good story: it makes a lasting impression on you. And people don’t just remember stories; they remember storytellers as well. Blogging is more popular than it’s ever been, largely because it can be consumed easily on any screen and doesn’t require much from the reader in terms of technology and time. A good blog can occasionally be the launchpad for a career (the movie Julie & Julia comes to mind) but more likely it’s a complement to an existing brand. In other words, it’s a way of building a deeper relationship with people who are already familiar with you. But the real power of blogging is activated when it is combined with a knowledge of search engine optimization (SEO), it becomes a powerful tool for people who are doing research on Google to stumble upon your site. For many companies (including my own), publishing high quality, thought leaderly blog articles is one of the largest sources of new clients.
Social Media. I think of social media as more of a conduit for content than an original source. Once you’ve created an excellent blog article, video, white paper, or really any form of content, you need some way of sharing it, and social media is a given (for B2B businesses, that means Linkedin and Twitter). Like any communication channel that involves real, live human beings, social media requires you to share interesting, relevant content in order for you to be successful with it. People will only want to hear more from you if they like the last few things you’ve shared with them. If you do manage to create genuinely interesting content, the sky’s the limit; your work can be shared by friends or colleagues on the social media platform itself, pasted into an e-mail, or shared amongst people sitting next to each other at a coffee shop or hotel lounge. Every day, content “goes viral,” meaning thousands of people share and talk about it, giving its creator a burst of temporary fame. If you put out truly great content and share it on a social network, you have a real chance of becoming known by thousands of new potential customers and employees.
Speaking. Perhaps the most powerful element of thought leadership, speaking is one of the few ways to make an impression that can change your fate in a few minutes. Speeches have an element that most other forms of thought leadership don’t have: the energy of being in-person. The power of a strong face-to-face impression is unmatched in business and in life (just ask Romeo and Juliet). But speaking is even more impactful when you are able to stay in touch with your audience after you’ve addressed them using the other 5 elements of thought leadership.
Networking. If you or someone on your team is a people person, it’s worth getting out in front of others as much as you feel comfortable doing so. While speaking has the efficiency of one-to-many communication, one-to-one and small group communication are far more intimate, giving you the opportunity to build real trust. Networking doesn’t require much more than an ability to enjoy other people’s company; it isn’t a sales pitch, it’s a human relationship. I find that if you’re passionate about what you do, I find that it doesn’t matter what you say – that passion will come across when you’re chatting with colleagues at a conference or even knocking back a few drinks at the bar afterwards.
PR. Public Relations is the act of paying someone to make other people have a favorable view of you. It sounds sort of lame when I put it that way, but there is tremendous power in inbound as opposed to outbound communication. In the first scenario, someone reaches out to you hoping to work with you. In the second, you’re cold calling someone trying to set up a sales meeting. The difference between the two is, of course, night and day. I’ve seen companies receive acquisition offers that are 20x higher than other offers received in the same month, simply because the higher offers came from companies that were genuinely interested in buying them and decided to pick up the phone. It’s all about the balance of power. PR can help stir up interest for your company by making it seem particularly desirable. And when PR is combined with an authoritative online presence, it creates an almost irresistible combination.
Original Research. Producing annual reports, white papers, surveys, and compendiums is a more advanced form of thought leadership – in fact, you could call it a next level of blogging. When written content has proprietary research in it, it is eligible to be picked up by media sources and just generally is perceived as being more valuable. Therefore, it ends up on the desks of CEOs and other decision makers inside organizations you care about. Some of the largest companies in the country – from Chase to Goldman Sachs to DuPont – put out original research each year as a way of demonstrating their industry leadership.
Master the six elements of thought leadership and your business will become unstoppable. Even better, understand how each one interrelates–how, for instance, the original research you publish should sync up with your social media strategy to achieve optimal distribution. Or how the person who speaks for your company should be aware of the latest articles published on your site so she can direct the audience to them for further reading.
I examine a lot of companies each year and I almost never come across one that is actively investing in all six areas while making sure that each area is integrated with the others. To me, that’s amazing, because for most established small businesses and mid-size firms, a thought leadership strategy is very affordable. I guess it’s just a matter of realizing how much it matters. You should be the one to make that realization before your competitors do.