The term “thought leader” is one of the most misunderstood titles in business. Tied for first is the term “influencer.”
But the truth is, most people are neither.
They’re not influential, and they aren’t a Thought Leader.
And the reason is because they don’t understand what game they’re actually playing.
Being a Thought Leader in your industry has very little to do with the accolades you give yourself. Some people think being a CEO (whether the company houses 500 people or 5 people) means they are a Thought Leader. Others think having someone else write a piece about them is what makes them a Thought Leader — “Look, someone else says I’m smart.”
The Internet has disrupted all of this.
True leadership, especially when it comes to commanding the attention of your target audience and industry, has so much more to do with the quality of your own message — rather than the fluffy words of accomplishment other people say about you.
Which means, if you want to be a true Thought Leader, if you actually want to have a meaningful impact (on both your industry and those who follow it), then these are the 5 things you need to be doing:
1. Keep your profiles up to date.
Professional photos. Bios without grammar errors and outdated accolades.
No blurry header images. No personal website that looks like it was made in 2003.
Part of remaining at the forefront of your industry is ensuring that you, as an individual, continue to stay at the forefront as well.
Whether we like it or not, what we see on the Internet is how we base our decisions: as consumers, as potential clients, as connections and even friends. So, make sure what people see is the best possible reflection of yourself as possible.
2. Regularly create content somewhere.
Do you know why Gary Vaynerchuk is the staple for what a “successful Personal Brand” looks like on the executive level?
It’s not because he put out one piece of content and then sat back and reaped his rewards.
It’s because he puts out something new every single day.
The foundation of thought leadership on the Internet is consistency. Without consistency, nothing else matters. Seriously. You could write the greatest blog post the world has ever read, create the most incredible video the world has ever seen, but eventually that piece will die off and fade away — and everyone will move on to the next thing.
Which means, if you want to stay top of mind, you have to be putting out new content on a regular basis.
3. Don’t start with a blog.
This is something I tell everyone — people who email me asking how they can get more people to read their writing online, all the way up to the CEOs and award-winning entrepreneurs that are clients of my agency, Digital Press.
If you want to share your insights in written form online, don’t start with a blog.
The vast majority of company blogs have close to no traffic — and the traffic they do have doesn’t come from eager readers.
If you want people to read your work, you are far better off writing in social ecosystems and already established platforms. The ones I suggest to everyone are Quora, Medium, and LinkedIn.
These are the places where people (your target readers, potential clients, and ideal connections) are actively subscribing to certain topics and reading what appears in their feeds.
Why would you share what you know on a lonely website?
Write here instead.
4. Answer your target customer’s questions with your own personal story.
Want to know how I became one of the Internet’s most viral writers?
I learned, very early on, that what makes something resonate online is how vulnerable it is. The more of yourself you put in a piece of content, the more people will see that, relate to it, and then share it.
This is the irony of the content game: everybody wants to go viral, yet 99% of people are afraid to be vulnerable.
What happens, then, is people write a whole bunch of words trying to sound “professional,” trying to sound “smart” and “like a thought leader,” never realizing that its their personal experiences that will ultimately make them stand out.
People don’t need another “5 Ways To Manage Your Employees” article, unless you can provide something different to the conversation. And what’s inherently different is you. Your experiences. Those moments in time when you, the manager, the CEO, the leader, had to make a decision. What was going through your head? What did you decide to do? Did it solve the problem, or result in conflict?
Each of us has a story worth sharing. And how you establish yourself as different is by telling your unique story.
5. Say something of value.
I’m competitive. Always have been, always will be.
When I first got interested in entrepreneurship, I didn’t even know to call it that. I was just a kid with a degree in creative writing who wanted to learn how to market myself so I wouldn’t have to give 70% of my work to a publishing house.
So, I taught myself digital marketing. I worked in advertising.
I built my personal brand. And I became a Thought Leader in the world of content writing.
When I look at an industry, any industry, I treat it like a competition. I treat writing online like a competition (this is the former professional World of Warcraft player in me).
I look around at what everyone else in that particular space is saying, and then I ask myself, “What can I say that’s different? What can I say that provides more depth? What can I say that makes a difficult subject easy to understand?”
I have racked up over 50 million views on my work by asking myself these questions.
If you want to become a Thought Leader, you have to ask yourself the same. Instead of writing the same things as everyone else, instead of adding to the noise, what can you say that’s different? What’s going to make someone sit back in their chair, stretch their arms behind their head and say out loud, “Wow, I never thought about it like that.”
People mistake press for Thought Leadership. The two couldn’t be more opposite.
Being someone that large audiences look to for insight is a craft. It’s an art. It takes practice, it takes refinement, it requires you to question your own ideas — and then ask how you can best deliver your message to the world.
Anyone who thinks there is a shortcut to become a true Thought Leader is aiming for the wrong thing.
Thought leadership isn’t about badges or logos or titles.
It’s about saying something compelling — and having a platform where people are actively paying attention.