3 Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader
If your goal is to position yourself as a thought leader, then you need to engage in a branding process to legitimately position yourself at that level. The following is a bird’s-eye view of each level.
Phase One: Platform Development—Brand Design and Strategy
Phase One is all about developing a solid platform on which you can build your brand and market your business. It requires defining, articulating, and declaring your brand and then translating that into places (online and off) where people can effectively engage with your business. That probably doesn’t come as news to you; however, if you’re like many of my clients, your tendency is to move quickly past this first phase and jump headlong into the more exciting work of spreading the word.
The problem is, I’ve seen far too many people haphazardly rush into building buzz for their brand (Phase Two), only to drive traffic back to a website and/or social media sites that don’t hit the mark. Whenever I speak at a conference, the most common statement I hear is “I’m spending all this money on PR and marketing, but I’m not getting the results I want for my efforts.” In many cases, a big part of the problem is a lack of clarity about the brand as well as web and social media sites that are:
- Sloppy (bad writing, grammar, and spelling)
- Poorly designed (ugly and/or not user-friendly)
- Badly branded or lacking any brand feel at all
- Inconsistent in message and look
- Unclear in their brand message (vague, confused, unclear)
- Not using marketing best practices
The path to thought and industry leadership must start with a solid platform. Before you begin any PR, marketing, or buzz-building campaigns, three critical actions, taken in a specific order, are required.
The first step is to clearly articulate your brand and messages. Building a website before determining the specifics of your brand message is always a mistake. Your brand is what drives the website design—not the other way around. My mantra is “Brand Before You Build.” The first thing to do when creating your platform—before you build a website or go all hot and heavy on any social media site—is establish a clearly articulated brand and messages.
Once your brand is solidly defined, you’re ready to move on to the next step in platform development—developing a modern, marketing-oriented, up-to-date website.
In my experience, many business people (especially entrepreneurs and small-business owners) grossly underestimate the impact and importance of their websites. I can tell you with absolute certainty that the quality of your website is critical to your customers, potential customers, and even members of the media. Here’s a story that illustrates this point.
One of my favorite examples of a poor website that can keep potential customers at bay involves a dentist who called me for assistance in marketing and branding his practice. His essential problem was that even though he was the only dentist within a 60-mile radius offering a specialized cosmetic dental procedure, a competing dentist 90 miles away was getting a greater percentage of his potential clients.
He couldn’t understand why, but one look at his website told me the whole story. His online presence was weak and his website sloppy. When I suggested this might be the problem, he retorted, “Oh, patients don’t care about a website. It doesn’t make any difference.”
I told him that I had strong doubts as to the accuracy of that statement and proposed we take a look at his competitor’s website. I asked him to pretend he was a potential patient shopping dentists for the high-end cosmetic procedure he specialized in. “What would your first impressions be of this dentist, landing on just the home page of this site?” I asked.
“This guy is a total professional, knows what he’s doing, and is worth the money,” he said.
“OK. Let’s go to the homepage of your website now,” I suggested. “Remember, you’re a patient looking for a dentist. First impressions?”
After a long pause, I met with a low grumbling. “This guy looks like a bit of a hack,” he said.
Although both of these dentists had roughly the same level of education, experience, and pricing, it was the one who looked more professional via his website who was converting online shoppers to paying patients.
I think you’ve got the point: The quality of your website matters.
The third action in Phase One of platform development is to create brand consistency on social media. As a starting point, your branded website should serve as the hub of your social media world, and all other sites should take their cue from it. The same logo, colors, design elements, keywords, messages, and brand voice should transfer over. I recommend using the same or a similar profile pic and a version of the same bio across all social media platforms.
Phase Two: Brand and Buzz Building—Brand Expansion and Acceleration
With your platform solidly in place, you’re ready to take on some serious buzz building. There are hundreds of significant tactics you can use to build brand and buzz, but unless you’re a Fortune 500 company, you likely won’t have the time or money to pursue them all. Most of the small businesses, entrepreneurs, and CEOs I encounter find that choosing three to five core strategic elements is both manageable and sufficient. The most common categories of tactics include:
- Traditional public relations (PR)
- Publishing/content marketing Social media
- Speaking (including podcasting, webcasting, conferences, and radio)
The trick is to sit down and carefully consider which of these tactics (based on your business, brand, personal preferences, time, money, and energy) you're going to include in your overall brand- and buzz-building strategy.
Too often people with a high FOMO (fear of missing out) quotient are afraid to exclude a tactic. “But everyone says we have to be on Facebook,” goes the refrain. In my experience, a “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach doesn’t work. I’d much rather see my clients pick just two tactics they can do wholeheartedly and well than six they implement poorly.
Phase Three: Thought/Industry Leadership—Brand Authority
You’ve carefully articulated your brand, built a stellar website, and created a ton of buzz. Your brand is steadily gaining ground, and the time has come to break out and become the “it” girl, guy, or company in your field. In other words, you’re ready to make the leap into thought leadership (for individuals) or industry leadership (for companies). Either way, making that leap generally requires the following three steps.
1. Adding something new. While thought and industry leaders have an in-depth knowledge of their area of expertise, they don’t rest on their laurels. They’re not just reporting on what’s happening in their field—they’re adding something new through academic research, clinical research, experimentation, field study, and sometimes just old-fashioned, deep, reflective thinking.
2. Being a trusted source of information. Thought leaders are a trusted source of information. Being a requested speaker at industry conferences, a go-to source for media interviews, and a contributor to blogs, leading websites, and publications are all indications that you’re poised for thought/industry leadership.
3. Consistently generating high-quality content. Thought/industry leaders generate high-quality content consistently. They create traditionally published books, ebooks, blogs, articles, podcasts, webinars, online products, and more. I don’t know anyone who’s achieved thought/industry leadership without having a major content-marketing strategy in place that shows his or her value, knowledge, expertise, and leadership.
Karen Leland is the founder of Sterling Marketing Group, where she helps entrepreneurs and executives build stronger personal, team and business brands. She is also the best-selling author of The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand.