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What Exactly Is Thought Leadership? What is thought leadership supposed to be? What has it turned into? And can you really take advantage of it to improve your chances of success?

By Timothy Carter Edited by Jessica Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Jose Luis Pelaez | Getty Images

These days, most entrepreneurs are encouraged to try and turn themselves into "thought leaders" for their given industry. On the surface, it's good advice. But the term has become a buzzword, and it's saturated the entrepreneurial community. After all, how can you be a thought leader in an industry where everyone else is also a thought leader?

What is thought leadership supposed to be? What has it turned into? And can you really take advantage of it to improve your chances of success?

The basics of thought leadership

Let's start with the basics. A "thought leader" is someone who is seen as an expert in a specific field; they're capable of introducing new ideas and influencing other people in the industry to make certain decisions or take certain actions. Thought leadership, or thought leadership marketing, is the process of developing your expertise and leveraging that into leadership over others.

Related: 4 Questions to Ask When Thinking of Thought Leadership

There are several potential benefits for entrepreneurs here, including:

  • Improved respect and trust. People who see you as a thought leader are going to hold more respect for you, and they'll be more likely to trust you. This could help you close more sales and earn more trust in your brand.
  • Higher visibility. Being a thought leader naturally comes with higher visibility. If you have a blog that attracts significant traffic, a social media profile with thousands of followers and a wide circle of professional contacts, you'll find it much easier to develop an audience of paying customers.
  • Brand differentiation. Thought leadership is also a way to help your brand stand out in a crowded market. If there are dozens of companies like yours, but yours is the only one with a reputed expert at the helm, you'll stand a much better chance of winning a larger share of customers than your competitors.

The issues with thought leadership

However, there are some issues that make thought leadership a more challenging obstacle to overcome. For example:

  • Thought leader saturation. Run a search for "thought leader" on LinkedIn, and you'll see 306,531 (or more) results. That's a lot of people claiming to be unique visionaries in their respective fields. The truth is, there are an excessive number of people competing to be seen and thought of as thought leaders, and it makes it incredibly difficult to stand out from the crowd.
  • Building a base from scratch. How can you showcase yourself as an expert if no one has ever heard of you? Building a base of loyal followers and interested readers from scratch is exceedingly difficult.
  • Mixed definitions. The term "thought leader" used to be reserved for only the most authoritative and experienced people in a given industry. Today, it's a title handed out like Halloween candy; for some people, guest authoring a post on an external site and having 100 social media followers is enough to qualify someone as a thought leader. To really reap the benefits of thought leadership, it's important that everyone in your audience see you as a genuine thought leader, and not just someone with a bit of extra visibility.

Related: Why the World Needs More Entrepreneurial Women in Leadership

How to develop your thought leadership

So how can you overcome these issues and become a thought leader in your own right? The straightforward pieces of advice still apply here; it's important to create high-quality content, nurture your audience and differentiate yourself from others. But if you want to stand out and overcome the limitations of modern thought leaders, you'll also need to follow these tips:

  • Get granular. First, avoid writing generic pieces unless you're developing "pillar content" to build around. Instead, get granular; teach people about very specific topics, or instruct them on very niche subjects. Not only will you weed out most of your competitors, you'll also get a chance to show off your earned knowledge in the subject.
  • Focus on landmark pieces. Instead of bombarding your readers with new content on a constant basis, spend your energy creating landmark pieces; it's often better to have one high-quality piece than a dozen low-quality pieces.
  • Build your reputation by association. If you're struggling to gain momentum, try building your reputation by association. Partner with other industry leaders by writing content together, participating in interviews or even discussing topics on social media.
  • Consistently introduce truly new ideas. Be a genuine thought leader and introduce truly new ideas to the field. Don't be afraid to be controversial or come out with new opinions; it's much better than stating things people have already heard.
Even if you're the type of person who rolls their eyes when they hear the term "thought leader," the core principles behind thought leadership can help you succeed as an entrepreneur. Look past the buzzword-y nature of the concept and focus on the tenets that can make you stand out.
Timothy Carter

Chief Revenue Officer of SEO.co

Timothy Carter is the CRO of the Seattle digital marketing agency SEO.co. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & digital marketing leading, building & scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and driving growth from websites and sales teams.

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