What we're talking about
A thought leader is someone recognized for their expertise and influence in a particular field or sector who shares their thoughts with the broader public. It requires a mentoring mindset: you're aiming to help others understand topics, advance their careers or make changes to their business. You might tackle big, broad topics (eg, managing employees) or cover something much more specific to the area you're working in – the key is to have an informed and original perspective and to share it in a digestible way. That can range from Twitter threads to podcasts, blog posts and press interviews.
Why it's important
In many ways, thought leadership is a form of marketing: whereby the content you put out as a founder (and representative of your brand) enhances your authority and visibility. That encourages new and existing customers to take notice of you and your business, while also demonstrating your character and expertise to future staff and the media. It's ultimately a way of giving your brand a human face and showing the ideas and concepts that have led to your success. But you have to go about things the right way.
And therein lies the rub – doing it well is difficult, otherwise everyone would be at it. Although a 2020 survey found that 89% of business decision-makers think it can be effective in enhancing their perceptions of an organization, only 15% said the stuff they were reading was very good or excellent.
Things to note
Quality is everything. Thought leadership is about creating content of a high quality that genuinely adds value and says something new, in an eloquent way. And that really depends on who you're hoping to help: it could be customers, employees, your peers, the media or governing bodies in your sector. It isn't just getting your thoughts in front of as many people as possible or banging the drum about how great your brand is. No one is going to take notice if what you say is rushed, vague, overly theoretical, or cliché. Ultimately, you'll need to make a call on whether you have a perspective worth sharing.
It needs to become a mindset. This is like developing a journaling habit: you'll need to start documenting your evolving thoughts and set regular sessions to explore your notes and put together narratives. You can use your team or peer group to workshop topics, too – shifting to an inquiring mind will help you find out what areas of knowledge people are looking to develop.
Pick your platforms wisely. It matters where you post your work, and that often depends on where your target audience spends their time. The usual suspects for thought leadership include online spaces like LinkedIn, Twitter, TikTok, Medium, your website, blogs and podcasts. Then there are IRL events, interviews and webinars. Having your work picked up as earned media (when you get press coverage at no cost to you) reinforces your position and is the best-case scenario. Read the titles you want to be published in and think of content gaps you can fill.
How to start your thought leadership journey
1. Work out what you want from the process. Consider why, and how, thought leadership can help you meet your broader aims and your short- and long-term business goals. List the pros it could bring, and any other potential ways you can use your time to advance those aims. If it still makes sense, zoom in on a couple of the most important pros (eg, growing your network) and make tangible ways as to how you'll measure this.
2. Clarify your expertise. Think about which areas you have good knowledge of and enjoy learning about, writing down all the topics that come to mind. (Keep it professional – football doesn't count.) You might consider the unique problem your business solves, whether you agree with the received truths of your industry, or your approach to management. Choose a few possible subject areas to interrogate further.
3. Touch base with your audience. Sketch out the kind of people you need to reach to achieve your goals. What are their general backgrounds, interests and motivations? And where can you find them: is it social media, public events or media titles? You want to land on one central space for thought leadership, but should stay active in a few.
4. See what others are doing. Before you firmly decide how you can contribute to the space, see what else is being put out there in your sector. This'll help you tap into emerging trends that are worth engaging with and expose yourself to other people's perspectives.
5. Allocate time, money and people. Plan your input and consider the resources you'll need (eg, editing, copywriting, video-editing…). It might be worth trying to allocate marketing spend to thought leadership for six months to a year. Think about your own time, too – carve out some space in your calendar that's appropriate for you to commit to content creation, depending on how often you plan to publish content.
6. Flesh out your ideas. By now, you should have a good sense of the kind of content you'll produce, but it's time to really hone in on some prospective angles. Publishing one piece without a bank of linked ideas would be a mistake; it adds pressure and might mean your thought leadership isn't coherent in its subject and messaging. You should think of individual topics as the elements of a longer story – you might even tell your audience where you're going to hook them in.
7. Research and create. Take a particularly compelling idea and create your first piece of content. If you're hoping to speak in person, this might just be in pitch format. If you're writing or recording something yourself, remember the key principles of good thought leadership: originality, honesty and generosity.
8. Ask for feedback. Get a second (and maybe third) opinion from someone you trust – whether it's someone from your team or a mentor figure. On top of this, you can ask them to share the piece around once you've taken their feedback on board.
9. Plan your promotion. Create a promotion plan before you publish or pitch. You need to post with some regularity, but don't make it so frequent that it forces you to share watered-down content. Depending on your chosen medium, this might be a case of listing the publications you want to appear in, or posting across your social channels when you have a new blogpost.
10. Get it out there. Publish your content, engaging with responses and being open to making any new connections that might arise. As you move forward, incorporate lessons about what formats and topics are most well received into your approach, along with sticking to the goals you set at the start.
• Thought leadership isn't for everyone – but if you have something genuinely original to say, and can say it well, it can have big benefits for you and your business.
• It's not about simply promoting your business – when landing on topics, consider your personal viewpoint, expertise, passions and audience.
• Quality content is essential – but you also need a comprehensive distribution strategy to get in front of the right people, and post with regularity.
Perspective. Here's a little thought leadership from marketing specialist Daniel Rosehill about why plenty of thought leadership misses the mark.
Example. An example of thought leadership in a B2C setting is Wicked Leeks, a magazine published by Riverford Organic (which sells veg boxes), on sustainable food, farming and business. A great B2B thought leader is Simeon Quarrie, founder of experiential learning provider VIVIDA and an advocate for what virtual reality can bring to the workplace.
Tool. Via Medium, here's an extra list of questions to ask yourself when coming up with ideas.