What Is A Thought Leader? The Basics Of An Expert Business

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Cece Payne

Marketing Coordinator at SpeakerFlow - Follow us on social media to stay in the flow!

Cece Payne

Marketing Coordinator at SpeakerFlow - Follow us on social media to stay in the flow!
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With the dramatic rise of digital business in recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that many of the long-accepted rules of marketing and sales no longer apply. Instead, now more than ever, content is king. And, whether you’re looking for fame and acclaim in a personal or professional sense, sharing your thoughts and skills is the first step to becoming a leader in your focus industry. This begs the question, for many, “What is a thought leader?”

Long story short, a thought leader is someone who expresses their insights and ideas in order to demonstrate their knowledge of a given subject, industry, or area of expertise. Many business professionals strive to become thought leaders in their field not only to make a living from their experience but also to drive positive change. 

Although thought leadership is essentially about sharing your ideas, there are many ways in which you can become a thought leader and a wide variety of benefits, both for you and the people in your ideal audience. Here, we’ll break down the most common of these pros and cons. We’ll also cover the five most important steps to becoming a thought leader. That way, if thought leadership is on your personal or professional “to do” list, you’ll be on your way in no time. 👍

What is a thought leader?

First and foremost, let’s tackle – in more detail – the question “What is a thought leader?” Generally speaking, thought leadership is an umbrella term and can apply to many different professions. If someone is a full-time keynote speaker, for example, that’s a form of thought leadership. Additional examples include workshop facilitators, consultants, educators, authors, and video or podcast presenters. 

Many well known public figures have also demonstrated thought leadership over the years, even if they don’t also fall into the categories above. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, for instance, could be considered thought leaders for their innovation in personal computing. After all, both Jobs and Gates shared ideas and business philosophies that changed the perception and accessibility of computers. Plus, they both accomplished the aforementioned goals of thought leaders, namely to become authorities in their industry and drive positive change. 

Considering this spectrum of thought leadership, answering, “What is a thought leader?” can be tricky. Even though few of us will reach the level of celebrity of Jobs or Gates, we all have the opportunity to be thought leaders in our personal and professional networks or within our local communities. 

Remember: Thought leadership is about sharing content that explains your insights and ideas. So, regardless of the size of your audience, as long as you’re (quite literally) sharing your thoughts through public media channels, you fit the bill. 

What are the pros of being a thought leader?

The next question to tackle after “What is a thought leader?” is “Why would you want to become a thought leader?” In the broadest sense, there are three main answers, starting with reputation. As mentioned before, successful thought leaders are considered authority figures in their industry. This makes them well-known in industry circles and highly sought after for industry content platforms and events, allowing them to charge a premium for their products and services.

That brings me to the second benefit of becoming a thought leader: revenue. While thought leadership starts with content, there are an infinite number of ways to segue followers from free content into paid offerings. These can include digital workbooks, copies of your book, online courses, or even in-person coaching sessions or speaking engagements. All of these offerings can add up to well over a million (US) dollars each year, when combined with strategic sales and marketing efforts.

Finally, the most wide-reaching – and arguably most important – benefit of becoming a thought leader is the impact you can have on the lives of those around you. From a business perspective, for example, it’s thanks to consistent thought leadership that many old-school, overly aggressive sales tactics (such as the idea of “ABC” or “Always Be Closing”) are finally starting to fade. Additionally, from a personal perspective, many ideas now common in American society – like feminism or body positivity – could never have reached such prevalence without the tenacity, dedication, and sacrifice of thought leaders sharing their passion. 

Likewise, as a thought leader yourself, you have the opportunity to reach fame and fortune – sure. But, above all, you also have the opportunity to make the world a better place. What’s not to love about that, right?

What are the cons of being a thought leader?

At this point, we’ve covered a lot of “pros” to thought leadership. However, on the flip side, when answering “What is a thought leader?” I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the “cons,” the first of which is time. As you’d expect, running a thought leadership business is a full time job. Between creating your own content, contributing to content in your focus industry, and distributing it all across the appropriate channels, being a thought leader means committing around 40 hours per week, sometimes more. Take it from our own team, having lived this experience ourselves: It’s worth it, but it’s also exhausting. 

On a similar note, the second con to keep in mind is the workload. In some cases, a thought leader may build their foundation as an executive or manager, working within their focus industry. That said, more often than not, thought leaders launch their business as a solopreneur, meaning they manage every aspect of their business – from sales outreach to contract fulfillment – completely on their own. If this sounds like you, be aware that, like the time commitment, this can be worthwhile but draining. 

Lastly, the third common challenge among thought leaders is differentiation. In any given area of expertise, there are hundreds if not thousands of existing thought leaders with which you have to compete for attention and recognition from the day you start your business. Again, although this is far from impossible, this requires constant vigilance and dedication. What types of content are your competitors creating, for instance? Where are they sharing it? How often? 

All of these questions – as well as the two previously mentioned cons – are important to consider before starting a thought leadership business. That way, when the time comes, you have realistic expectations and can meet the challenges head-on. 

How can I become a thought leader?

Now that we’ve answered “What is a thought leader?” and “Why would you want (or not want) to become a thought leader?” let’s talk strategy. All in all, there are many paths to successful thought leadership. And, depending on your depth of expertise and experience, you may already have a foothold for launching your business. With that in mind, the following five steps are some of the most vital to include on your path forward. 

Pinpoint your audience and how you serve them. 

First, narrow your focus to a single ideal audience. This group should be chosen based on your depth of personal and professional experience as well as where you can provide the most service. Within our own team, for example, our founding members all had experience in the speaking industry and, consequently, spent the first two years in business writing specifically for speakers. As a result, we successfully navigated the coronavirus pandemic and grew our monthly website traffic to more than 500K visitors. Win, win!

In the same way, although you can always expand your focus later, identifying a single group allows you to easily tailor your content to their needs and concerns and gain experience – as a thought leader, specifically – as efficiently as possible. It also prevents you from trying to appeal to too many audiences at once and diluting your content in the process. 

Create and share a variety of content for that audience.

Second, once you’ve identified your ideal audience, develop a consistent cadence for creating and sharing content for members of that audience. This can include blog articles on your own website, guest blog posts for other leaders in your industry, guest appearances on industry podcasts, and regular videos shared on your social media profiles. 

Whatever your preferred form of content may be, build your content strategy with the four “C”s in mind. 

  • Customized: Everything should be unique and written specifically for your audience. If you constantly reshare the same things, your audience will get bored. New is always best.
  • Clear: Include distinct action steps in your article, episode, or post. Every reader/listener/viewer should leave knowing how to put your thought leadership into action in their own lives.
  • Consistent: Post regularly to your content channels in order to build a following. I recommend 2-4 blogs or podcasts per month and near daily social media posts, if possible.
  • Conscious: Base your content’s topics on what your audience is looking for. Even if you’re excited about a topic, no one will read your content about it if they’re not already interested. Always write about what they want, not what you want.

Book bigger thought leadership gigs by providing exceptional value.

Third, after establishing a consistent content schedule, leverage that content’s value into paid opportunities. In recent years, the most popular – and consistently successful – way to do this is through inbound marketing. As HubSpot describes, “Inbound marketing is a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them. While outbound marketing interrupts your audience with content they don’t always want, inbound marketing forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have.”

Simply put, your thought leadership content can and should guide readers/listeners/viewers towards paid offerings. But, more than anything, your content should provide insightful guidance for your audience. That way, their interest is genuine and, when they do purchase your products or hire your services, they’re already excited and confident that you’re invested in their success.

Maximize technology to share and promote your thought leadership. 

Next, when creating content and managing your sales processes, make the most of technology. It’s no secret that using digital apps and systems can make running a business more efficient and less stressful, especially as a solopreneur.

Admittedly, there are countless technological tools to choose from. So, to help you get started, we’ve narrowed down our top three. 

  • CRM: If you don’t already have a customer relationship management system (CRM), you need one. Not only will it help you systematize client information for later reference. It’ll also keep all of your contacts and sales information organized so no sales opportunities fall through the cracks.
  • Project Manager: Like a CRM, a project management system helps you track your progress for ongoing projects (like content production) or contract deals. Our team favorite is Asana but other examples include Trello and Monday
  • Social Scheduler: Social scheduling apps like Buffer, SproutSocial, and Hootsuite allow you to schedule social posts when it’s convenient. Even if you’re on the road or unable to post manually, you can plan ahead and direct your app of choice to post on your behalf.

Besides these three, there’s a host of other tools that can help you effectively manage your workload. These include: 

  • Digital Calendar: Apps like Calendly allow potential or existing clients to book time on your calendar based on your pre-defined availability. No more emails or calls to narrow down a convenient meeting time! 
  • Podcast Scheduler: Share your podcast to all of the most common podcasting platforms in a single click, thanks to podcast editing and publication tools (our top pick is Libsyn Studio).
  • Automation: Connect multiple apps and predetermine their interactions with each other using automation apps like Zapier. Trust me – it will save you hundreds of hours and be worth every penny.

Always treat your personal brand like a business.

Last but not least, always remember that your thought leadership business is just that: a business. Even though, by definition, it’s your personal brand and should include aspects of your authentic personality, it also should operate as any other business does. This means adjusting your sales processes when they’re pushing potential clients away, collecting feedback from audience members to see how you can improve your content, and taking responsibility for failed marketing strategies or sales launches. 

In other words, thought leadership is undeniably personal, to some degree. However, to make a living, you have to structure your business around the questions and concerns your audience already has. Remember: the best thought leaders don’t try to drag people to them, condescendingly suggesting, “I know better than you. Do what I say.” They meet their audience in the middle and build their content around what they want. 

Hopefully, as you build your thought leadership business, this quick and easy guide helps you conquer the first stages. For more information about becoming a thought leader, check out our weekly podcast, Technically Speaking. Additionally, if you’re already a professional speaker, looking now to expand your brand, visit our previous guide: “Thought Leadership 101: Building Your Brand Beyond The Stage.” 👍

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