5 steps (plus one bonus one) to becoming a thought leader in your industry

In a world enriched with free digital platforms, anyone can make a name for themselves, or in business speak become known as thought leaders. All aspirational thought leaders will have original, interesting and engaging ideas. The difficult part? Marketing them.

We should preface this article with a health warning: while becoming a thought leader can contribute to great professional success, it requires a lot of work!

If you think it’s an easy route to increased sales then you need to think again. ‘Thought leader’ should be thought of as an adverb, a description of something you have to constantly do. But if you’re up for the challenge then here’s how to get started…

  1. Lay the digital foundations

The quickest and easiest way of getting yourself out there is via digital platforms, such as social media and blogs. But notoriety doesn’t happen overnight – you need to lay the foundations early.

Optimise Social Media

The first step is to create your social media accounts or, if you already have active accounts across all major platforms, to optimise them. A key focus should be on LinkedIn – after all, it’s the business social network. Make sure that your description is interesting, engaging and contains the keywords you want to be found for. Join relevant industry groups. Switch the photo of you on holiday for a professional shot. Share useful content. Develop your personal brand. In fact, simply check out our piece on ten simple ways to optimise your LinkedIn profile here.

You should also apply the same process to your Twitter account. It might be harder to get found on Twitter, with the many voices all trying to get heard, but it is an excellent platform for finding and connecting with influencers. Traction on your original content will also accumulate over time. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get loads of clicks straight away, keep sharing useful content, posting your own content, and messaging key influencers in your industry.

Optimising your social media channels isn’t just a necessary step to becoming a thought leader, you can also gain large number of inbound leads. A survey recently found that 78% of businesses using social media marketing gained an increase in website traffic, with 64% reporting lead generation benefits.

Set up a Blog

The next step is to establish your blog or personal website. If you’ve not set one up already, do it now. WordPress is a great free blogging platform with plenty of functionality. Hosting a WordPress site on your own servers is fairly straightforward and won’t cost the earth – in fact, many server providers feature one-click installation of WordPress. Other good options include Blogger and Ghost.

If you’re wondering whether you can skip the blogging stage, the short answer is no. According to research, 9 out of 10 Chief Marketing Officers say that custom content has a positive effect on audience attitudes, while 90% of consumers find custom content useful.

Once it is set up with some nice imagery and an original logo, you need to get blogging. Longer content (over 1000 words) tends to be shared more often and ranks better with search engines. But it’s better to have a shorter piece of content at least once a week than to have one longer piece only once a month. The more prolific you are on your blog, the better the results will be.

Test different topics and styles

Being prolific also allows you to test different topics, styles, and media, such as videos and infographics, to see what sticks. Be prepared for most of your content to fall flat – at first, at least. Eventually you will find the mix of content that your audience responds to. Just make sure that every piece of content you create, whether it’s a blog, whitepaper or video, is of the highest possible quality. You don’t want to be known for the wrong reasons.

A good way of distinguishing yourself as a thought leader early on is to assess trends for topics that might come next. For example, you might find that mentions of ’cold calling’ are dropping right off while ‘social selling’ is rapidly rising – write about that. Then think of how else the same topic could be applied – will we have a completely social economy, for example, and what would that look like? After all, a thought leader’s thinking can change how other people think and lead!

Collect subscribers

Make sure that you are collecting a list of subscribers to your blog as you go, and get an email out to them at least once a month. In fact (cheeky self-promotion about to come your way) if you want to see our monthly newsletter in action, you can register right down at the bottom of this article. These are the people who will become your primary influencers – sharing your content on their own social networks to a potential audience of millions.

Once you have an archive of at least twenty posts you are ready to move on to the next stage…

  1. Develop your network

A key feature of any thought leader is the large network of people they know in and around the industry. To develop your own, start by making a list of everyone in your current network – friends, family, co-workers, people you’ve interacted with on Twitter, anyone who you think will want to hear what you have to say.

Once you have that list down, engage with those people. Mention them in your tweets, interview them for your blog, ask them to introduce you to other people on LinkedIn – these actions will slowly snowball into quite a large network. Interviewing people works particularly well as you then create regular content that others will share for you. And who doesn’t find it flattering to be asked to be interviewed?

Continue to grow your network by attending live events, tradeshows and networking breakfasts/lunches/dinners. You could even host one.

Your growing network is also an excellent opportunity to learn from others. What are thought leaders you respect doing to make themselves known? How do they position content on their blogs? Where do their speaking gigs come from?

Obviously you will want to adapt your approach to your personal brand, but by mimicking what works for them you’ll gain a leg-up to success.

See our Top 50 Social Sellers to Follow on Twitter for a good place to start.

  1. Get your name out there (webinars and speaking at industry events)

Getting published on third-party sites is a hallmark of a thought leader. Start by getting some of your content published in an industry magazine. This is relatively straightforward and just requires a little luck and a lot of patience.

If you can focus your article on a trending topic or write with authority on a niche topic, then you have a good chance of being published. The trick is to find an interesting spin on the topic – particularly if it is well-trodden ground.

For example, an article on sales strategies might not be that interesting, but if you used the Rugby World Cup as inspiration then you could end up with something refreshingly original as well as topical.

Once your article is written, send it far and wide. Go to the sites you read the most and get the editor’s contact information. This is where the little bit of luck comes in. If they have space in their issue, find your spin interesting and original, and think that their readers are interested in a topical take on sales strategies, then you might be in luck. Editors are busy people so highlight the key points your article addresses in your cover letter – and don’t give up if you don’t get a response the first time. Persistence pays off.

You can help things along by hosting your own webinars, training workshops and by getting speaking gigs at industry events. These activities give you more visibility and position you as an expert on your topic – if people are willing to spend their time listening to you at a trade show then they are much more likely to read your weekly blog post!

  1. Develop compelling concepts

As Mark Twain once wrote “There is no such thing as a new idea.”

There is, however, such a thing as a new concept, new ways of understanding and presenting information. Concepts are a lot more ‘sticky’ than ideas – you can picture them, understand their dynamics and talk about them in everyday conversation.

We could talk about the process of gathering information from around the web, social media and other sources so that you know all about the person you are pitching to, their likes and dislikes, what is going on with their business, and so on. You would probably even understand what we’re talking about. But it doesn’t encapsulate the concept very well, and you’d have difficulty explaining it in a lift to a colleague.

Talk about ‘social selling’, however, and people can grasp what we’re talking about pretty much instantly. It is a nice neat little concept which helps people visualise what we mean.

There are lots of examples where conceptualisation works wonderfully, from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (neatly displayed in a pyramid) to Daniel Pink’s theory of motivation (if you haven’t yet read his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it’s worth doing).

By creating a simply a way to visualise your thinking to make it easily understood, you are creating a concept and if you can begin to develop your own concepts and language then you will begin to take control of the narrative in your industry.

  1. Enter awards

Becoming a thought leader is not a journey for people who are overly modest or shy. If you don’t act like your ideas are worth talking about then neither will anyone else. So get on and nominate yourself for some industry awards, or sweet-talk a colleague or customer to nominate you.

Why not start with our current search for the rising stars of social selling? It’s free to enter and the winners will be announced at Connections 15 – the leading B2B conference dedicated to sales excellence. A great way to be recognised in front of the leading industry names!

It’s hard to deny the prestige and allure an award lends, so keep applying and keep winning – there’s no such thing as too many!

Bonus step! Write a book

You’ll often find that respected thought leaders have written a book, usually expounding their original concept. By pushing it onto the Amazon bestseller list in a niche category for a day and mentioning it in every LinkedIn update from that day forward – as a strategy it really works.

Finding the time is the trickiest part of the process and you may simply not have enough of it. A good tip is to review your blog content. You might find particular themes that link together to form an overall concept. All you need to do is lift that content, put it into a logical order, and edit it together. If you’re writing a 1000 word blog every week anyway, you’ll have enough content to fill a book by the end of a year.

Some useful tips for writing a book:

  • Write for a layperson – your book should be easy to read and digest regardless of previous knowledge.
  • Ask someone outside your industry to review the book – if they can grasp it, so should people within your industry.
  • Get one of your clients to review and provide some honest feedback – these are the people you need to reach.
  • Cut the jargon – prove yourself an expert by writing simply and clearly.
  • Give yourself enough time – writing a book is no quick task.
  • Draft in a pro – you might know your topic, but a professional copywriter can save time getting the phrasing right.

Once your book is written and you’ve made it to the lofty heights of Amazon’s bestseller list, you need to preach the gospel of [insert your original concept here] to everyone you meet. Stick it on your LinkedIn profile, mention it in commentary, publish excerpts on Twitter, add it to your bio – anything and everything you can do to spread the word.

And with that congratulations are in order! You’ve gained the revered status of ‘Thought leader’. In fact, drop us an email and we’ll add you to our next roundup of top social sellers.

Come hear the best in sales thought leaders at Connections 15, the leading conference dedicated to B2B sales excellence on 2 December. Find out more and book your early bird tickets here.