What is Thought Leadership? How do you use it for marketing?

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Thought leadership… if there was a ranking for buzzwords in marketing, this term would be high up. But what is thought leadership? How do you become a thought leader? Why is this important for marketing, and should you even be a thought leader?

This article will give you answers to these questions.

What is a thought leader?

Let’s start with a definition of what a thought leader is: 

A thought leader is a person (or business) with expertise in their niche, area of business, and around their specific topics. And at the same time, a person who strives to take the niche further with original thought and is widely recognized for it.

Wow, long definition. What exactly does that mean? 

It means that if you want to be a thought leader and want to be recognized as one, you need to have the following characteristics:

  • Knowledge about your area of business or your niche
  • The intellectual capability to take your niche further with original thought
  • The recognition by your colleagues and the other members in your niche

For example: As an online marketer, to achieve thought leadership, I need to be very knowledgable about online marketing (I am). And I need to put in original thought into my work. I need to regularly publish my thoughts and ideas (I try to do that frequently). And I need eyes on my content – and an audience that recognizes my opinions and content (I need to market my content as thought leadership content – that’s where this gets complicated).

What is the definition of thought leadership?

Similar to the definition of a thought leader, thought leadership can be defined as relying on your expertise and innovative thoughts to create content and solutions that take your industry or niche further.

For your personal brand or business, thought leadership is achieved by demonstrating your expertise and your capacity to create original solutions. 

This is often refined by also presenting a unique vision for your business or your personal brand.

As an example of this type of vision, we here at The Social Ms want to make online marketing available to everyone – without relying on advertising. (Not saying that we have achieved thought leadership for our industry … yet – but that is one of our goals.)

Why is thought leadership important for content marketing and online marketing?

Becoming a thought leader and branding yourself as one is very beneficial as a marketing tactic – but it can also be a tricky approach to marketing.

A thought leadership marketing approach is a particular case of content marketing, which strives to produce good (or excellent) content AND solve the industry’s most significant problems with this content.

A standard content marketing tactic will focus just on your target audience and producing valuable content for those in your target audience.

A thought leadership strategy is different. If you focus on becoming a thought leader with your content marketing activities, you need to focus on your target audience and your competitors. The additional benefit of thought leadership here comes from becoming an advocated goto source for your competitors and the community within your niche. 

Think about it: If you see someone referenced as an expert in his field wherever you go, you will most likely value his insights even more than just reading this person’s industry content.

As an example of a thought leader who has achieved this status in the online marketing niche, you can look at Neil Patel. His blog is referenced very often from other marketing blogs. His insights are valued by his clients, his own audience, and the marketing community in general. He even called his company: I’m Kind of a Big Deal LLC.

Neil Patel Big Deal LLCNeil Patel Big Deal LLCNeil Patel Big Deal LLC

What’s the difference between thought leaders and influencers?

Whenever someone talks about thought leadership, one question comes up: Isn’t thought leadership the same as being an influencer?

Spoiler alert: It’s not. A thought leader invests tremendous amounts of original thoughts and ideas into his content and social media activities. The goal of a thought leader is not to gain a massive number of followers but to acquire an audience of listeners that value their insights.  

An influencer’s primary goal is to become famous and increase the number of followers.

Influencers usually don’t invest much thought into their status. They don’t affect their industry or niche in the same way. Even if you have a food blog, posting great recipes and gaining an audience this way may make you an influencer, but it doesn’t make you a thought leader. However, if you advocate new and innovative types of cooking, come up with new recipes all the time, and change your audience’s mind, then you are a thought leader.

Thought Leader vs Influencer

Thought Leader vs InfluencerThought Leader vs Influencer

What this all comes down to, is that an influencer (or a celebrity in a specific niche) may also be a thought leader. A thought leader may also be an influencer. But they are not the same thing.

The Marketing and Sales Benefits of Thought Leadership

What are the benefits of thought leadership marketing?

There are serious marketing and sales benefits of being a thought leader in your niche or industry. 

  • Thought leaders demand the highest prices for services of any kind. (That is both a sales and a marketing benefit.) 
  • Thought leaders can count on other influencers and community members to do their marketing by mentioning them. (Think about all the SEO link power they get just from being mentioned on other high-value blogs.)
  • Thought leaders even get mentions from outside their own niche community – think about all the mentions and links that Neil Patel has from Techcrunch to even the New York Times.
Thought Leadership BenefitsThought Leadership BenefitsThought Leadership Benefits

Image Source: Geoff De Weaver

As you can see, thought leadership can be a massive advantage in marketing. But does that mean that everyone should try to become a thought leader? 

The answer to that is: It depends.

The Thought Leadership Trap: Should everybody become a thought leader online?

This is where marketing theory turned thought leadership from a relevant marketing approach into a buzzword: Telling everyone that they need to become a thought leader.

Because the truth is: Not everyone can be a thought leader. No industry has unlimited space for thought leaders, not online, not even when you consider the offline world. In fact, thought leaders are at the top of their industry. And there is only so much room for that many thought leaders. If everyone could be a thought leader, thought leadership would be meaningless.

Thought Leaders vs Community

Thought Leaders vs CommunityThought Leaders vs Community

This means that thought leadership is only an important marketing tactic in industries and niches that are not yet saturated with true thought leaders or need innovative thoughts desperately. As most industries are hungry for creative thoughts and ideas, that would be your entry ticket. But the question remains, whether you are one of the few people or companies that possess both the expertise and the creative thinking capabilities to achieve this status.

Now, before you get all frustrated and ditch the thought leadership marketing approach altogether, my intention is not to frustrate you. 

Quite the contrary…

Before you start: Can YOU achieve thought leadership?

Just like with anything else in marketing, whether you should strive for thought leadership or not depends on your situation and careful analysis. So before you decide for a thought leadership marketing strategy, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who are the thought leaders in your niche? (Do your research and make a list.)
  • What type of content are the current thought leaders publishing? Can you compete with their content? (And can you do it consistently? What do you need to invest in terms of work, time, and money to compete?)
  • How are those thought leaders promoting their content? (Social media, SEO, etc… Again, ask yourself whether you can compete and what investment you need to make to compete.)
  • What kind of benefit do you expect from being a thought leader, and is the investment you need to make to become one worth it?

Whether you want to make thought leadership part of your marketing strategy, depends on the answers you give to these questions.

How can you become and brand yourself as a thought leader?

If after careful analysis, you have decided that thought leadership should be part of your online marketing strategy, then, here is your guide to what you have to do.

1. Content is king in thought leadership:

Yes, to acquire the status of being a thought leader in your industry or niche, you need content. And with content, I mean content. As an influencer, posting pictures on Instagram may sometimes be enough, but thought leadership is a different monster. 

To be a thought leader, you need to communicate thoughts – and you need original thought and content that creates a wow effect. 

And for that, you have to work with content formats that allow you to communicate those thoughts. Examples of content formats that work well are: 

  • Blog posts and using your blog as a content hub for all your content (long-form blog content lends itself perfectly for thought leadership content)
  • Youtube videos – if you can produce quality content on your budget and the investment needed is worth it, of course
  • Podcasts – These are perfect for offering your readers a way of consuming your content in other situations then written content or videos (example: while driving)

2. Content distribution is queen for thought leadership

Like anything else in content marketing, when you create content, you also need to distribute it. Distributing content For distributing your content, you have three options online:

3. Your email list is at the heart of any thought leadership strategy (even when it isn’t)

Influencers sometimes have a single point of contact with their audience. They may run their influencer business just via their Instagram profile, via their Facebook feed, or their blog. 

And that may work for some influencers. (Probably less then you believe.)

But for thought leadership, you need to do more. A thought leader has to present himself as a constant source for great original thoughts and information. 

People may find you once via an excellent content piece – but at that point, you are just that: An unknown person, which had a great idea… Once!

To acquire a thought leader’s status, you need to build an audience that believes that you can present them with great original thoughts ALL THE TIME!

And that is what your email list is for: Contacting your subscribers again, and again, and again, delivering great information all the time and original thought consistently.

Check out this article on how to build an email list and this one for more information on how to connect with your subscribers.

These are the fundamental stepping stones for a thought leadership strategy – but in most industries, this won’t be enough anymore. That means you need to work with some advanced tactics.

Advanced Thought Leadership Tactics

Here I want to give you some advanced tactics of thought leadership tactics you can and should use:

Guest Blogging as a thought leadership tactic:

Guest blogging is when you publish articles on other blogs in your niche and make yourself known this way. This tactic is highly profitable as a linkbuilding tactic SEO. Still, it also allows you to publish to audiences that don’t know you yet. Therefore it will also allow you to build your status as a thought leader! This article will teach you more about how to use guest blogging!

Webinars as a thought leadership tactic

Another way of presenting yourself as a thought leader are webinars – but especially when you are starting out, you cannot rely on your own audience. 

An excellent way to do this is to connect with more prominent bloggers and offer them a unique webinar for their audience. 

Here is a post that will give you more information on how to market your webinars.

Never underestimate the power of offline networking

An often underestimated way of generating thought leadership buzz around your person is to use offline networking events. Conferences allow you to apply as a speaker, for instance. But even if you only attend offline industry events, this will enable you to build a community of people that listen to you simply because they know you and trust you. And they will recommend you to others because of it.

Take part in offline events and watch your online community grow as well.

Final words

Thought leadership is a marketing tactic that can help you make more money – if the investment you need isn’t too significant. Whether that is true for your niche can only be answered by careful analysis. But if the opportunity is available in your niche, and you can cope with the investment needed (which includes time, work, and possibly some money), then you should absolutely go for it!

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