Thought leadership has been around for a while, but the expression made a huge comeback over the past five years. But what is thought leadership? And more importantly, what does it mean today and how can it help your career? In this guide, we break this down by:
- Defining thought leadership
- Discussing thought leadership marketing
- Providing strong examples of thought leadership
- Sharing the most effective thought leadership strategies for students, job-seekers, freelancers and C-level executives
- How thought leadership fits into your brand
- Making thought leadership work for you
Part I: What is thought leadership? An ever-evolving definition
The origins of thought leadership
While the phrase has appeared in the written form since the late 19th century (in a description of Henry Ward Beecher from 1887), the meaning and connotations have evolved over time. Currently, there are a few definitions of “thought leader” and “thought leadership” that seem to be generally accepted.
So, what is thought leadership?
In its simplest form, thought leadership refers to, “intellectual influence and innovative or pioneering thinking” – according to the Oxford dictionary.
In 1994, Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Strategy & Business magazine, stated, “A thought leader is recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.” With this he coined the term in the context of a new era.
What is thought leadership today?
Wikipedia refines this concept even more. Its thought leadership definition is,“an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.”
According to Forbes contributors, Russ Alan Prince and Bruce Rogers, a thought leader is, “an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.” The second part of their definition claims that a thought leader is, “an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.”
“Thought Leadership” backlash
No matter your thought leadership definition, in some circles, this term may be overused. And an oversaturation of self-proclaimed “thought leaders” (with nothing to back up that title) means that many people are weary of the term.
While “thought leader” and “thought leadership” had a resurgence in the 20 teens, it’s no surprise that Forbes eventually bestowed the title of “most annoying business slang” in 2013.
But that is not the case here. We want to help you become a thought leader in the truest sense of the term.
At BrandYourself, we don’t use the term lightly. Because of that, we think it’s critical that our clients start from a place of honesty (about who they are) and humility, and examine what it is their audience is looking for. Our clients leverage their existing professional and personal successes and experiences into content online – sure. But the purpose should always be to tell your story and share insights in order to help others out there in a sincere way.
As you cultivate your personal brand, you’ll likely position yourself as a thought leader (regardless of your thought leadership definition), but in this guide we’ll also show you how to use thought leadership as a key element of your content marketing strategy.
What it takes to be a successful thought leader
Even with the evolving nature of the thought leadership definition, there are certain characteristics typically associated with “thought leaders”. Some of the most common are listed below:
- Expertise in a particular niche
- Ongoing involvement in (or awareness of) that niche
- A clearly identified point of view
- A supportive following
Remember, not everyone deemed by others as a “thought leader” will look the same. One of the important parts of successful thought leaders is their ability to distinguish themselves from others. However, the list below shows common traits among noteworthy thought leaders. This isn’t an exhaustive list of characteristics, but these are some of the easiest to identify.
- Expertise in a particular niche – People are much more likely to listen to whatever it is you’re talking about if you have direct experience and expertise in that area. Whether you’ve been working in a specific area professionally for two decades, or have faithfully pursued a hobby since you were a kid, experience and mastery in a particular area gives you a leg-up when positioning yourself as a thought leader.
- Ongoing involvement in (or awareness of) that niche – Even if you are currently retired, thought leaders keep up with the current conversation in their field. While your past experiences are valuable, it’s even more important to connect these to what’s currently happening in the industry.
- A clearly identified point of view – This is critical when it comes to setting yourself apart from others in your field. A clear point of view lets people know what it is they’re getting when they decide to follow you, read your content, share your videos, or request you as a speaker for a live event.
- Credibility – This is something that will be achieved through a combination of your past experiences, current standing and endorsements from your network. If you are consistently known for working with people who have a bad reputation, or have no examples of why you should be seen as a leader in your particular field, then no one will take you seriously. By building your professional experience, and working with other thought leaders, industry insiders and reputable professionals – you automatically enhance your credibility.
- A supportive following – As Forbes Contributor Shel Israel once wrote, “You cannot be a thought leader if others don’t follow.” And that’s true, without followers, you are someone with tightly held convictions. But that’s not enough. While you don’t need the whole world to put stock in your opinion (as a matter of fact, if you have strong opinions, people will definitely disagree with you), you do need some people to believe in you to further support your credibility.
Part II: Unsure about the thought leadership definition? Here are thought leadership examples
Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is thought leadership?” and have a sense of your thought leadership definition, let’s take a look at some current examples of thought leaders – across industries.
- Expertise in a particular niche: Kimberly Bryant is the founder of Black Girls Code, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of women of color innovators and leaders in STEM fields. Prior to her role as founder, Kimberly Bryant had a fruitful career as an electrical engineer at top companies like Genentech, Novartis Vaccines and Merck after graduating from Vanderbilt University. Kimberly Bryant’s expertise is undeniable when you look at the success of Black Girls Code and consider her professional wins in that industry and her own experience prior to founding Black Girls Code.
- Ongoing involvement in (or awareness of) that niche: Whether you follow Kimberly (or Black Girls Code) on LinkedIn, Twitter or another platform, you’ll find not only information about the organization, but you’ll find educational resources and other markers that show that this organization and entrepreneur are part of the current discussion surrounding developments in STEM fields and specifically information relevant to women and girls of color in those industries.
- A clearly identified point of view: Kimberly Bryant is very clear about her reasons for starting her organization and its objectives. This the mark of a great thought leader.
- Credibility: From awards and recognition that range from local organizations to the White House, this founder and her mission have been lauded time and time again.
- A supportive following: With thousands of followers between her personal accounts and organization’s web properties, it’s no surprise that she is considered a thought leader in the industry.
- Expertise in a particular niche: Cindy Gallop is a well-known advertising consultant, speaker and founder. She is the former chair of the US arm of the ad agency, BBH. While her career has blossomed to include more titles than “Former Ad-Exec”, her professional background lends itself to the expertise needed for her current roles. Her track record also makes it easy for people to take her seriously as a thought leader.
- Ongoing involvement in (or awareness of) that niche: As an active consultant, Cindy Gallop maintains an ongoing presence in the advertising world. And if you follow her online, you’ll find engaging content related to that field.
- A clearly identified point of view: Cindy Gallop does an excellent job of maintaining a brand online that reflects the opinions and persona that she’s known for.
- Credibility: BBH is a highly visible advertising agency, and Cindy Gallop led the American Branch – which is significant. While Gallop’s professional pedigree lends her an air of credibility, it’s the fact that she continues to actively engage in her industry with other recognizable talents that reinforces her status as a thought leader.
- A supportive following: A quick glance at Cindy Gallop’s presence on social media shows that she’s not only engaged in speaking about her industry, but that she connects and amplifies the voices of other people in her niche. She also turned to her following when she successfully crowd-sourced the funding for a $500,000 project.
- Expertise in a particular niche: Neil Patel is one of the most recognizable internet marketers in the world. He is the co-founder of 3 internet companies, and a New York Times best-selling author.
- Ongoing involvement in (or awareness of) that niche: While Neil has a variety of professional interests it all connects to marketing. His newsletter is a must-read for anyone in that industry.
- A clearly identified point of view: Neil Patel is focused on helping individuals, small businesses and huge companies better understand marketing so that they can generate more traffic and successfully convert leads into sales.
- Credibility: Neil Patel built his first website when he was 16 and was forced to learn marketing after a marketing firm took his money and left him with nothing. Since then he has founded or co-founded highly successful businesses, and been recognized from the Wall Street Journal to President Obama’s White House for the quality of his work and contributions to the industry.
- A supportive following: Because of the quality and accessibility of Patel’s content (blog, newsletters, podcasts, talks, social media presence), it’s no surprise that millions of people engage with him on a number of platforms. Not only that, but the loyalty of his following is even more impressive. Anyone can have a large audience, but a true thought leader has an army of devoted fans.
If you’re wondering, “what is thought leadership in relationship to my situation”, consider the cases below. These are a few thought leadership examples from clients who have transitioned into successful thought leaders in their industry with help from our branding teams.
About Allen: After devoting himself to a career he was proud of in the world of pharmaceuticals, Allen realized it was time to build a business of his own. He turned to BrandYourself to help him create an online brand that also made him proud and one of our thought leadership examples.
- Expertise in a particular niche and ongoing involvement in that niche:
Allen came to BrandYourself with expertise in his industry rooted in years of a successful career in pharmaceuticals. However, it was difficult for colleagues and potential clients to find relevant information about his new endeavor – because he was just launching.
- A clearly identified point of view: Allen’s team at BrandYourself positioned him as an authority in his industry by sharing his knowledge with the right people and laying a strong foundation for his professional transition.
- Credibility & a supportive following:
By focusing on developing Allen’s existing networks, sharing his professional successes and engaging in relevant communities online, presenting Allen as a credible thought leader was achieved during his campaign.
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About Aviva: To showcase her company’s competitive edge and cement her credibility as a 2nd-generation CEO, our client Aviva realized that focusing on her personal brand was the best way to achieve these goals. By enlisting the help of BrandYourself, we were able to position Aviva as a thought leader by:
- Showcasing her expertise in the steel industry
- Helping her engage in her industry’s conversation online by building a branded website and social profiles
- Translating her voice and perspective into her online brand
- Ensuring that her credibility in the real world is echoed online
- Finding and building a supportive online following
Before working with BrandYourself, Aviva’s search results were filled with irrelevant and low-quality profiles. Because of this, potential partners and clients weren’t seeing an accurate representation of Aviva. That’s all changed after she was positioned as a thought leader, and now they find positive press we secured for her and her company, along with her branded website and social media profiles.
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Part III: Is Thought Leadership Marketing Right for You?
What is thought leadership marketing?
“Thought leadership marketing” is terminology that refers explicitly to the marketing strategies associated with thought leadership.
As mentioned earlier, the term, “thought leadership” has changed over time and can have different connotations based on who is using the term. So the question remains, what is thought leadership marketing?
One comprehensive definition describes thought leadership marketing as, “the art of positioning your company as a leader in its field through best-in-class content. By publishing articles, videos, research, or any other form of original content regularly, potential clients and members of your industry may begin associating your brand with insight and authority.”
This is very similar to the definition of thought leadership that we’ve been using, but remember that “thought leadership” (without “marketing”) can mean different things to different people.
“Thought leadership marketing” refers to the process of using thought leadership as a part of a comprehensive content marketing strategy with quantifiable results for you and/or your business.
How is thought leadership marketing different from regular thought leadership?
Thought leadership marketing refers to the proactive strategy of using thought leadership to attract clients and grow your business or brand. Thought leadership marketing is useful as part of a broader strategy for Business to Business or Business to Consumer. And remember, whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a freelancer – you can benefit from thought leadership marketing. And remember, some people use the term, “thought leadership marketing” interchangeably with “thought leadership”. So always pay attention to the context and who is saying it to get a better sense of what it means.
How can this help your career?
By thinking strategically about your personal brand, sharing valuable insights from your own experience and engaging with relevant communities you can drive traffic to your properties, increase your professional opportunities and even increase your earning potential.
How can this help your product/service?
By investing time in becoming a thought leader, you lend even more credibility to your product or service. By connecting with your personal brand, potential customers and clients will have an easier time trusting the products and services associated with your name. You will also be able to create more awareness of your product or service through your audience. Regularly refer to our thought leadership examples, for inspiration on how thought leadership can help you achieve your professional goals. But most importantly, start to hone in on your thought leadership strategy.
What’s the best way to get started with thought leadership marketing?
Unfortunately, you can’t just snap your fingers or push a button and all of the sudden have an effective thought leadership marketing campaign under your belt. Instead you’ll have to do a bit of thought leade