To truly understand thought leadership strategy, we need to begin by defining thought leadership in its simplest form. It is, essentially, the act of earning attention by publicly displaying useful knowledge. Like a bakery that pipes the smell of fresh scones into the street to attract customers, a thought leader releases her insights out into the world, and in turn receives the gift of new clients, employees, press, and partnerships.
Although thought leadership usually manifests itself as articles published on your website – blogs, white papers, authoritative guides – a comprehensive thought leadership strategy covers five other areas: public speaking, original research, social media, PR, and networking.
Below, I explain the six areas of thought leadership and then tie them together into one coherent strategy that you can use to significantly grow your business. I use my own experience as an example so you can witness first-hand how the execution of a thought leadership strategy can transform a brand. By the end of this article, you should fully understand thought leadership strategy. If you don’t, write to me and I’ll give you your money back.
Thought Leadership Area #1: Articles Published on Your Website
Take a look at the below screenshot. This is the website of Goldman Sachs, famed banking institution. Their primary online strategy is thought leadership, as exemplified by this page, which is linked right at the top of their main navigation bar. They call their thought leadership section “Insights.” That’s as good a name as any for a thought leadership landing page, and they subdivide their content further into daily reports, talks with prominent thought leaders and investors, white papers, case studies, infographics, and more. No matter what type of content you’re interested in, you can click on any of the articles and view it for free.
The reason Goldman Sachs invests so much time and effort into producing all of this content for no immediate gain is to further cement themselves as a premier source of financial information. Without even diving further into the other Insights, you can already be impressed by their access to high profile experts and the breadth of insight they have into every aspect of finance.
This is all meant to hit you, the visitor, within seconds of the moment you land on the page. Instantly, you are meant to gain the impression that Goldman Sachs is indeed a “thought leader” – a wise, trusted group of people. Keep in mind though, that all of this is being transmitted without regard to whether it’s true. Goldman’s objective worthiness of your respect is not important to them; what’s important is that you feel emotionally swayed, imputing them your respect enough to become a client.
All thought leadership is meant to reflect positively on your brand. But the most successful thought leadership earns its readers’ respect by delivering clear, actionable insights. Whereas Goldman chooses to display their wisdom mostly through videos, other similar institutions like Chase and KPMG use white papers, research reports, trend reports, and forecasts. In contrast, most small and mid-sized companies tend to use 500–1000 word blog posts. It seems that the larger the company, the more buttoned-up the thought leadership content is. The conclusion, of course, is that if you wish to be perceived as a large, global firm, publishing more “official-looking” reports is a good idea.
In my opinion, there is nothing quite as accessible as a good blog entry or landing page with lots of graphics, charts, and images. That’s why my company, a mid-sized SEO firm, uses a blog to convey our thought leadership. Looking at the screenshot below, you can see how different my company’s style of thought leadership is than Goldman Sachs.
To me, the more enjoyable the experience of learning is, the better for my readers. While the mediums we tend to use are fun, the seriousness of the subject matter is always evident.
Whatever form you publish your content in, a logical next question is “How do people find my content?” Well, there are three likely ways:
- They come across it while visiting your website
- They stumble upon it on a social site like Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook
- They found it on Google when they were researching something in your industry
The last bullet point, which is the behavior that the search engine optimization (SEO) industry is based on, is the most valuable and scalable way for potential customers to find your firm. Executed properly, it can lead to fantastic ROI for your business.
Below is an example of SEO leading a new potential customer to my company via an article I published. To understand this example, you need to know that I am a keynote speaker, and that giving speeches is one of the ways I earn my income. Therefore, I write articles on my professional website, evanbailyn.com, about keynote speaking. I aim these articles not at potential attendees or other speakers, but at the group that is most valuable to me: conference organizers. These are the people who hire keynote speakers like me.
To attract conference organizers, I begin by thinking about what they would search for on Google. One of the things I know conference organizers search for is “keynote speaker fees” because they are interested in what the latest rates are for people like me. You’ll notice that if you search for that phrase on Google, my article shows up at the very top.
By creating a great, comprehensive thought leadership article, I earned my way to the top of the results. This page has remained at the top of the results for years, and my ROI on it has been about 500x.
Thought Leadership Area #2: Public Speaking
Speaking of speaking, it’s hard to overestimate the power of in-person communication, especially when you’re in a teaching role. I may be the founder of an SEO company, but I’ll freely admit that speaking is the most efficient form of thought leadership. The reason that the previous area we discussed – publishing articles and optimizing them to be found by your customers on Google – is a more valuable overall strategy is that it can scale to reach millions of people, whereas speaking probably cannot.
But if you’re in a B2B industry, or any industry where what you sell earns you more than, say, $1,000 per customer, speaking is something you need to learn more about. Before I get into the essential strategy of business speaking, you should know that not everybody was made to be a public speaker. If you get nervous in front of crowds, that’s OK; you simply need to find somebody that thrives on that energy and add them to your team.
So here’s the deal with speaking: like publishing articles, it’s a way for you to educate people and thereby increase the respect they feel for you. But like I said, it’s very efficient. A good speech to the right audience can immediately increase your network of customers, partners, and employees. If you have any doubt in your mind at the value of speaking, check out how much companies in the Bay Area pay to have the right to give a sponsored keynote speech at a conference, sometimes for as little as 3 minutes.
Hopefully that gives you a sense of how coveted speaking spots are. But why? There are 4 reasons I can think of:
It positions you as an expert.
It allows you to present what you do in a many-to-one context rather than the usual one-to-one context of a sales conversation.
It builds trust in a way that is only possible in person.
It helps grow your reputation towards the ultimate goal of being a well-known thought leader who pops into people’s minds as one of the “big names” in your industry.
Okay, so how do you start speaking? The first order of business is to figure out how to develop a presentation. Conceptually, that’s fairly easy – you just need a topic you can talk about for ~1 hour and the ability to create a basic Powerpoint. However, this kind of thinking will lead you straight to mediocrity. Having just a presentation is not enough; if you really want to make it as a speaker, you need to start with a stand-out presentation.
One of the organizations I currently speak for is the largest in-person CEO network in the world. After my first year there, I was given the award for the best new speaker of the year. If I achieved anything less, I would have known I wasn’t on the path to my goal. I may sound ambitious, but in the world of speaking, there are too many middle-of-the-road speakers reciting Powerpoints and talking about “going social” and “using the power of digital” and other clichés. While it’s better to be a 7 out of 10 speaker than a 3 out of 10 speaker, there isn’t much difference between them at the end of the day, because there are only enough premium speaking slots for the 9 out of 10 and 10 out of 10 speakers.
The way to start developing a fantastic presentation is to ask yourself “What would give my audience an unforgettable experience?” Is it, for example:
- A super-fancy Powerpoint with custom graphics, sound, and animations?
- A recitation of the best research out there on a given subject?
- Fascinating case studies on well-known brands that they haven’t heard before?
- An interactive exercise that makes my audience see things about themselves they hadn’t seen before?
- A riveting personal story that entertains and informs?
- All of the above?
A presentation is just time. You can do anything with it. Change your audience’s view on something and they’ll remember it for years.
So let’s say you’ve created a presentation you’re proud of. That’s hard enough; now, how do you get an audience to listen to it? Begin by determining your niche. You will never be asked to speak on a general topic like marketing or construction or interior design. Instead, conference organizers will want to hear something highly specific and timely. In the below diagram, I’ve taken the 3 example industries I just mentioned and come up with a niche within each of them that would be a better way to position yourself when applying for speaking engagements.
Next, prepare your bio. Every event you apply to speak at will require one. Remember to avoid clichés and get a level more specific than you originally thought you should. Do you have 10 years of experience in landscaping? Nope – you’ve got 10 years of experience in golf course landscaping.
Now let’s focus on how to write your bio. Check out the following example bio. What do you think of it?
Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Now check this other one out, which is drawn from the same career but worded differently:
I hope you’ll agree that the second bio feels more substantial. That’s because it gets more specific about Brent’s skills and the results he’s gotten for clients. (Oh, and if you’re wondering why he has a Hawaiian shirt in one bio, there’s no reason; I was just amusing myself.)
Armed with a niche expertise and a bio, you can start applying to speak. For brand new speakers, it’s best to practice by talking to Meetup groups, small trade organizations, or chambers of commerce. Low stakes and small crowds is what you’re going for as you hone your style and message. The next level up is small, grassroots conferences with total attendee numbers at 100 or less. A step up from that is specialized professional & networking organizations like Entrepreneurs Organization (an entrepreneur network). Above that are large conferences like Ad:Tech or CES. One rung higher are corporate engagements – especially if the corporation is a potential client. And the highest, elite level of speaking are gatherings of famous individuals, e.g. a party on Richard Branson’s private island. (It may sound like I’m kidding, but I’m not.) The higher you go in the speaking world, the more aggregate purchasing power the attendees will have.
As a final note on speaking, I have 4 tips for you on how to present. These are the rules I live by when I speak.
In other words, go into a speech as the expert you are, armed with your actual personality and not one you invented as your “public speaking image.” That may seem like a good route, but the truth is, in speaking as in life, nothing is more attractive than genuineness.
THOUGHT LEADERSHIP AREA #3: ORIGINAL RESEARCH
In both of the previous thought leadership areas – publishing articles on your website and public speaking – the interestingness of the content is a major factor. Interestingness comes in many forms. For example, insight, which I define as a deep, intuitive, and unique understanding of a subject, is interesting. Stories are interesting. And in the world of business, where hard numbers and facts are prized (as opposed to the world of art, where imagination and creativity are prized), original research is very interesting as well.
If I told you that Google searchers tend to click on search results that are higher up on the page, you’d be like “duh.” But if I told you that Google published a study where they closely observed the behavior of 2,000 participants, and only 18% of them clicked on anything below the top 3 results, my statement would sound more credible. Not only is it more specific, it’s backed up by real research.
In a world where facts are often made up (but I’ll get off the subject of politics), real, original research is prized by businesspeople. And nearly every form of thought leadership relies on it. To wit:
- In the first section, I advocated for creating authoritative articles and reports. That content is fueled by the research that’s behind it.
- In the second section, I advocated preparing a fantastic presentation. No presentation feels believable if there isn’t some research to back up your claims.
- In the next three sections, I discuss social media, PR, and networking. All three strategies frequently use research as a way of differentiating your company and as a jumping-off point for conversation.
So research isn’t just fascinating by itself – it’s an essential ingredient of all the pieces of the thought leadership puzzle.
Research, as I define it here, can take the form of:
Case studies, which you can develop yourself or borrow from someone else with their permission.
Surveys or questionnaires, which you can distribute to your customer base or mailing list using any of the online survey tools such as SurveyMonkey; or, you can ask random people to take using crowdsourcing services like Mechanical Turk or Fiverr.
Quotations from authoritative sources such as a newspaper, a research company, a government website, a trade organization, or a scientific journal, which you can find on the Internet.
None of the above methods are expensive. Some require a subscription or fee for access, but the dollar figures are a fraction of what it used to cost to develop your own original research back in the pre-Internet days. You’ll be amazed at how much more authoritative your content is when backed up with your own proprietary research.
THOUGHT LEADERSHIP AREA #4: SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media, when executed correctly, is a way of showering your target audience with favorable impressions of your company. The problem is, it’s often treated as a kind of chore, a “must-do” daily task that doesn’t have any real thinking behind it. But social media as chore is not thought leadership. On the other hand, social media as tool for disseminating fascinating information is thought leadership.
In the same way that the simple act of publishing articles, giving a speech, or conducting a survey are not necessarily thought leadership – it’s the quality of the content that makes it so – neither is updating your status on 2-3 social media channels each week a form of thought leadership. Here are the 3 rules that will ensure that you are using social media as a true thought leadership tool:
Know your medium. Ask yourself honestly what you use Facebook for. For most people, it’s to quickly catch up on the lives of people they don’t have time to communicate with regularly. The mood you’re in when you’re using Facebook is not conducive to buying most products and services. Instead, it’s sort of a vaguely social, I-wonder-what’s-new-in-so-and-so’s-life kind of mood. Now, that could be a mood that’s conducive to a deal on wine tasting, fine dining, or clothing … but outside the food, beverage, beauty, and lifestyle categories, Facebook is not the right medium to focus on.
The other social networks also have their own distinct personalities. Twitter is good for news junkies, celebrity followers, and techies. LinkedIn is good for job-hunters, consultants, and salespeople. Pinterest is good for visual artists, fashionistas, and moms. When deciding which channels to advertise on, make sure to choose the ones that feel right for your industry. When you feel like partying, you don’t go to a library. By the same token, a soda brand shouldn’t launch a social media campaign on LinkedIn.
Micro-target your audience. People only care about things they have a direct connection to. For that reason, you need to target your message to small groups of people. And the more narrow an interest, the more people tend to care about it. For example, I absolutely love playing Scrabble. But that doesn’t mean I love all games. If a company tried to sell me games on social media, I wouldn’t care. And even if they tried to sell me board games, I’d only care a little. But if they tried to sell me a special edition Scrabble set made for die-hard fans, I’d click on it.
Content matters. Social media is not the place where content is created. It’s the pipes through which great content is shared. For that reason, your social media posts are only as good as the content they contain. This is where some of the original research discussed in the last section comes into play, as well as knowing how to create true thought leadership content as opposed to generic “filler.”
When executed correctly, social media works in concert with your own website to get potential customers interested in what you sell. A few years ago, we got a new client through social media and I used Google Analytics to track the decision-maker’s path so that I could see what convinced her to work with us. Here’s how it happened:
1. On my 33rd birthday, I wrote an article about the life lessons I learned in my first 33 years of life and posted it on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Although not a piece of thought leadership in the sense of demonstrating my expertise in my profession, the piece is thought leadership in the sense of it engaging my audience, and getting them to remember me. The soon-to-be-client found the article while browsing her news feed and it led her back to my Facebook page.
2. While on the website, she became interested in what we do and began browsing around our main navigation menu. She eventually found our “Industry Specialties” page and clicked on that.
3. After reading a case study about how we revolutionized an automotive business similar to hers, she sought out our “About Us” section to learn more about the company in general.
4. Our “About Us” page convinced her that we were a company she could trust, so she clicked over to “Contact” to get in touch.
5. On our Contact page, she filled out our form and within a week, she was a client.
Most people use some form of social media. If they come across content that they find interesting enough, they’re willing to be influenced by it. And if you were the one who created that interesting content, well then you’ve just used social media as an effective thought leadership tool.
THOUGHT LEADERSHIP AREA #5: PRESS
While the previous four areas of thought leadership are ways for you to share your company’s brilliance with the world, PR is that particularly clever strategy that causes other people to talk about your brilliance. As we all know, it is more impressive to hear an objective third party endorse a company than to hear the company endorse itself.
Although I treat PR as a formal area of thought leadership, it is more of an echo of thought leadership, a reinforcement of all the writing, speaking, research, and online promotion that you’ve done. When Forbes profiled me several years ago, it was because I had already built a reputation as a thought leader through prolific speaking, blogging, and publishing books.
To earn this piece of press, I needed to have taken 3 important actions:
Figure out which mediums matter. The world of PR spans newspapers, journals, magazines, blogs, radio, television, and podcasting. Chances are, not every one of those channels is equally valuable to your company. To conduct a successful PR campaign, you need to begin by understanding your target press outlets. Is it the Business section of the New York Times? An editorial in the Wall Street Journal? A Good Morning America segment? Or perhaps you’re doing PR principally for the SEO benefits – i.e. the links. If that’s the case, you may only want to focus on online press. Once you know where you’d like your press to appear, you can figure out what you want to say.
Come up with an “angle.” Like the discussion on determining your niche in the Speaking section, finding your angle means proving your interestingness. It means figuring out why journalists should spend their valuable time writing about your business. What is it doing that’s press-worthy? Where’s the story? Answering these questions is easiest when you put yourself in the shoes of the journalists themselves. They make their living from informing and entertaining the public. And what does the public care about? Recent events. Inspiring tales. Superlatives. Celebrities. Money. It’s your job to hook into the ecosystem of things that people want to read about (which is, of course, different for every publication). For example, let’s say you run a company that makes an automated truth verification product – the equivalent of a lie detector test. In 2016, an excellent angle would be to apply that product to politics, saying that you have run the test on thousands of statements made by both presidential candidates and are ready to share the results. Particularly if your technology has been scientifically proven, I can see this angle taking off and earning substantial press. The story would be timely, culturally relevant (2016 is an election year where people are particularly intolerant of corruption), credible, and entertaining. Journalists would welcome your pitch.
Find a good publicist. A good publicist is measured by the strength of her connections and her willingness to pitch, pitch, pitch. Once you have a press outreach list and know your angle, the rest is just getting in touch with journalists, following up diligently, and hopefully having the relationships that will actually get your pitches read. If you manage to find an individual publicist or PR firm that has relationships with the media outlets that matter to you, then you just need to trust that they will put in the hard work of sending out pitch e-mails every day. And you should hold them to that by asking for a regular report of which outlets they’ve pitched and what the current status is.
PR is a crap shoot in that sometimes you don’t get any hits for a few months; but when a good one comes, it can have an enormous effect on your business’ perceived value. Suddenly, in your target customers’ minds, people are talking about your company, and that means your company matters. And in the world of thought leadership, few things are more valuable.
THOUGHT LEADERSHIP AREA #6: NETWORKING
So far, the only in-person form of thought leadership we’ve discussed is public speaking. But there is another area we often take for granted which is, for many companies, the main way they gain new clients: networking. As with speaking, networking as thought leadership does not require you to be super charismatic. But it does require someone in your organization to be that way. And if they don’t exist yet, it may be time to bring them onboard. As the best businesspeople know, good hiring is the most important skill a company can possess.
Networking as thought leadership is less about content and more about feelings. When the person you’re interacting with feels good about you, you’re halfway there. In fact, I’ve often observed that, if you’re talking to someone who has any need at all for what you sell, you only need to pass 3 tests to gain them as a customer:
- Do they trust you?
- Is what you sell the answer to their needs?
- Can they afford it?
Let’s explore each test.
Trust is easier to earn online than it is in person. A thoughtfully-designed page, the appearance of press or award logos, or a compelling research study can quickly set a potential customer’s mind at ease. But in person, an entirely differently set of dynamics are at play. The way you hold yourself, the cadence of your speech, and the expertise you display are far more important than anything that can be viewed on a screen. Even more subtle factors like your perceived honesty and your similarity to the person you’re speaking with can determine whether the business relationship progresses. These qualities are way too complex to teach in a blog article. But I’ll put it this way: the person you have going out to events on behalf of your company should be the type of person that, when you first decided to work with them, there was not a single doubt in your mind about whether you wanted them on your team. You couldn’t send out that contract fast enough. That’s exactly the effect you want them to have on the people they meet.
Being the answer to their needs is another crucial interpersonal skill that the best networkers have. When striking up a business conversation, two considerations must always be lurking in the background: first, “Is this person a potential client, partner, or evangelist of my business?” and second, “If so, what are their biggest needs & desires, and can my company fulfill them?”
I was at a conference years ago and struck up a conversation up with the owner of a company that sold an energy-saving solution for commercial buildings – something so cutting-edge that property owners didn’t even realize they needed it yet.
“That’s the problem I have with marketing,” he lamented. “The product is so early that people don’t think it matters – but if they took a moment to see the financial and environmental cost of continuing using energy the way they are now, they’d get it right away.”
I was honestly not trying to “network” at the moment; I just thought about his dilemma for a moment.
“Wow, that could be a serious issue” was the first thing I uttered.
“Yes! It’s no small thing!” he burst, seeing that I understood the profundity of his problem.
After a pause, I started thinking out loud. “Let me ask you something. Is there any situation that these property owners find themselves in where your product would be the perfect solution, even if they don’t know it yet?”
“Well I don’t know – I suppose cost saving in general. There are all manner of problems that can make running a commercial building a headache very quickly. But they’d never think of wasting energy as one of them – not yet, at least.” He seemed to have circled back to his frustration.
“But they’re highly motivated to solve all these other problems, right? They’d probably be open to reading about ingenious solutions to each of them, even though energy saving isn’t one of them?”
“Oh sure, the other problems? Yes, things like rental laws, control systems, water damage… all unrelated things.”
“Then why don’t you write about those?”
“But that wouldn’t get them to learn about our product.”
“Not immediately, but you’d be meeting them where they are. And once they begin to trust your website as a solver of commercial-building-related problems, you’d have an open floor to teach them about the enormous hidden costs in wasted energy.”
He seemed to change. “You think?”
“There are no guarantees, but I’ve seen this exact strategy work exceptionally well in other industries.”
I couldn’t tell what effect our conversation had had on him and we parted ways shortly thereafter, but later that day I ran into him again.
“Evan, can we set up a meeting? I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I’d like to try it.”
That was the start of a long, mutually-beneficial business relationship. And it all began with thinking about his needs.
Affordability is the simplest test of all. If what you sell is out of range for a person you’re speaking to, it may not be worth continuing the business conversation. I’d only caution you not to think of affordability too rigidly. If the first two factors are strong enough, people will find a way to buy what you sell even if it’s an unusually large expenditure for them.
Compared to the other 5 areas of thought leadership, networking is by far the most personal, and as such can be a key last step in developing new business relationships.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
By now, you should see that there is incredible value in mastering each of the six areas of thought leadership. But the individual areas themselves, impactful as they all are, have the potential to grow your company into the industry leader only when they work together. Your blog should contain original research. Your original research should be in your speaking presentation. Your speaking presentation should lead to networking after the event. You should add your new connections from the event to the appropriate social networks so you can disseminate more of your excellent blogs to them over time. And as your business grows, it should be heralded as the next great thing in your industry by the press. All these activities interrelate in the most organic and harmonious of ways when you have a company culture that prizes thought leadership.
If you’re just dipping your toes into the thought leadership world right now, I would start by publishing an excellent blog. And remember, plain old content marketing doesn’t work anymore; that blog has to be actually excellent – better than any other blog on the subject. Or else it’s not worth doing.
A great blog provides perfect fodder for sharing on social media. You likely have a base of business connections you can add on the social networks that house your target audience. If your content is strong enough, they will react to it and send you compliments; that’s one way you know you’re doing a good job.
In time, as you start seeing the impact your blog has on your business community, you’ll hopefully strive to dig deeper into the data that your industry is built on. By commissioning some of your own original research, you’ll find that your blogs become more cited and your conversations more interesting.
Speaking of conversations, your new status as a burgeoning online thought leader should inspire you to go out and talk to people – to customers, partners, employees, and members of the press.
The first time a member of the press becomes interested in an angle you’ve pitched them, you will begin to feel the adrenaline of widespread recognition. And as your business grows, you will see that interacting with people offline, in a many-to-one context, has far-reaching implications.
That’s about the time that you’ll begin developing a presentation to give at events and conferences. Becoming a successful speaker (whether it’s you or someone else at your company), builds your company’s reputation in a lasting way. Which, of course, feeds back into all your other thought leadership activities, and the cycle begins anew.
Thought leadership may seem like a lot of work, and it certainly is; but one thing it’s not is overly complex. I hope that in the space of this page I have shed light on what it means to develop your company’s thought leadership strategy. And if you ever need a helping hand, First Page Sage is here.
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