10 Tips on How to Become a Thought Leader
Start with this question: How bad do you want it?
People often ask me how I became a contributor for a major platform like Entrepreneur. In fact, every time one of my articles get published, I get Facebook and Linkedin messages and emails asking, "How do I get published there?" I also get asked how I got to be a contributor on national TV news programs or how I get quoted in articles or interviews.
The simple answer is that I became a thought leader.
A thought leader is someone whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential, and it's not easy to get yourself in that position. However, through hard work, dedication and creativity, almost anyone can be a thought leader. It requires a powerful and visible personal brand and then taking one or more of the aspects of your personal brand to an even higher level.
Here's how I did it: In 1999, my company was one of the largest wholesalers of photographic supplies in the country. We had a five-share of the film market, meaning that we sold five percent of all the single rolls of film in the country. Our customers consisted of small and medium-size retail stores, including camera stores, located in all 50 states.
By 2006, though, my company was failing. Digital cameras had replaced film cameras at a meteoric rate and were being sold everywhere, driving margin to near zero. Film sales went to near zero. The small stores were being bought out by large chains or put out of business by them. People started buying on the internet and Amazon started taking over the photo business. The number of camera stores decreased from more than 10,000 to a few hundred, and almost none were still profitable. I had to do something, or my 60-year-old business would also be done.
So, in 2008, I opened a 5,000 square foot retail camera superstore in New Jersey. Everyone thought I was either crazy or a fool or both. But, I had a new idea -- a different concept than anyone had thought of for a camera store. My store's operation was based on an experiential-educational concept and on the power of photography itself.
Within five years, we became a recognized brand in New Jersey for camera equipment and photography supplies, and we became one of the largest, single-location camera stores in the country. In 2013, we were picked as the best camera store in the country by DIR Magazine. Our education program became the largest and most successful of its kind and is frequently copied by other stores across the country.
How did we make our camera store so successful so quickly? It was, in large part, the way I used social media to build my personal brand in conjunction with our business brand. And when I sold that business in 2015, I was able to focus my attention on bringing my powerful personal brand, which I had worked on for years to build, to an even higher level, and eventually into thought leadership.
So, here are the top 10 tips that I used to become a thought leader in social media, personal branding, photography, retail and parenting:
1. Love your topic.
In order to become a thought leader, you are going to have to write, speak, produce video, get interviewed and come up with original ideas about the topic you want to specialize in. You are going to have to do this for years, and you are going to have to repeat the same ideas over and over again.
If you don't love and believe in the topic you are talking about, you will surely not last long enough to become a thought leader. I have given similar speeches on social media and personal branding over 30 times, have been interviewed more than 50 times and have written numerous articles on this topic. There's no way I could do that if I didn't believe, with my all my heart, in what I am talking about.
2. Be authentic.
When you try to be something you are not or say things you don't believe in, trust me, the audience will know it. Thought leadership can only be achieved with authenticity. Period.
So be yourself.
3. Get experience.
To become a thought leader, you must establish yourself as an authority. That means you have to have life experience, produce valuable content and then promote it and yourself.
Do it repeatedly over an extended period. To become a thought leader on fatherhood and parenting, I had to raise five kids on my own for 20 years until they became successful adults, produce tons of articles, podcasts and videos and write book, a memoir, Leader of the Pack.
4. Write, write, write.
I said it three times for a reason. The process of taking your thoughts and transferring them to a blog so that others will see is transformational and necessary for you to develop your unique voice. Your voice will determine your success or failure at thought leadership.
When I decided to write about my journey as a single father, I had all sorts of ideas about what I wanted to discuss. It was only when I published my writings and saw my audience's response that I understood what I was actually trying to say and what was valuable to others.
Plus, the best way to get to be a contributor on a top publication is to have written many successful articles on your own. Over the past three years, I have written over 100 articles.
5. Ask for help.
I was a math major in college and grad school. I wasn't a writer and I didn't like it, but I knew I had to do it. So, I reached out to a branding expert to help me with my writing and formulating a voice that was powerful and avoided getting me into trouble by saying the wrong things -- something easy to do when writing about divorce and ex-wives, as I do. It wasn't until I got very good at writing that my articles were accepted into major publications.
Related: 10 Laws of Social Media Marketing
6. Be social.
Pick your best social media platforms (you don't need every one of them) and be social every day. Social media is not something you do in your free time -- it's a lifestyle. A great way to get recognized as a thought leader is to have continuous, high-engagement posts on your topic.
You should also interact with other influencers and thought leaders. It helps your engagement and you can learn things from them.
And make sure you regularly engage with your audience. Don't make being a thought leader all about you. Make sure to regularly like and comment on other people's posts on social media. Your audience will love you for being an active member of their community. Doing so enables you stay top of mind with your followers by being visible and making thoughtful contributions on posts from others.
7. Use live video.
It's possible to become a thought leader without live video, but you are putting yourself at a disadvantage and not using an amazing free tool that exists on Facebook, Instagram, Periscope and now on Linkedin. If I get an idea for something valuable to share with my audience, I can now do it instantaneously, even on the street.
And within a few minutes, I have content that can bee seen by thousands. Here are three examples I recently recorded that illustrate how an informal live video can get thousands of views:
- Has Amazon lowered Whole Foods pricing?
- My birthday thoughts inspired by a question my daughter asked me last night
- Live video has made LinkedIn and Social Media fun again . . . and more powerful.
8. Network in person.
This oft-neglected activity is very important to your ability to test your thought leadership in person. Collect new ideas, find people to interview (or to interview you) and build your confidence. Get off your butt, get dressed up professionally and network in-person.
9. Pitch yourself to media.
Even if you can't afford a publicist, you can pitch to media yourself. Write them, tweet at them and pitch a coherent and completely polished story (don't make the reporter or producer work), and you have a good chance -- assuming you have established yourself.
Be bold about it. I received a Linkedin connection from a TV host in England and immediately emailed her asking to be put on her TV show. She responded that I was "cheeky," looked at my social media and writings and immediately scheduled me.
10. How badly do you want it?
That's my personal slogan for a reason. The biggest complaint I hear when I speak about becoming a thought leader is how long it takes and how hard it is. My answer is simple: If you want the huge benefits of becoming a thought leader, you have to put in the time and effort. If it was easy, everyone would be a thought leader.
I know that doing and completing all 10 of these tips can be a daunting task -- especially if you are just starting out. But, if you want to be a thought leader badly enough, you can do it.