Be honest: how many times have you watched a TED Talk from the likes of Simon Sinek or Gary Vaynerchuk when you’re faced with motivational challenges at work on a rainy Monday morning?
Well, we can’t blame you. People like Sinek and Vaynerchuk are motivational masterminds and, perhaps more importantly, are viewed as important thought leaders within their respective fields of expertise.
So what makes them special? We’re glad you asked. Because there are characteristics that make them special. We’ll break down the characteristics that make them thought leaders so you can identify and support them in people at your own company.
What is a Thought Leader?
A thought leader is a recognized expert in their field of expertise and, as such, is often sought out for their input and knowledge on that particular subject.
Thought leaders are different from influencers — a term often lumped into the same category as thought leaders by the uninformed public. An influencer doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert in anything. You can look no further than reality television and socialites who are famous for being famous with Instagram followers in the tens or hundreds of millions. In some cases, however, a thought leader can be an influencer as well.
Source: TED Blog
For example, Neil Patel is often viewed as a digital marketing thought leader and is constantly sought out for different speaking engagements and interviews. Patel has built a name for himself by consistently delivering meaningful insights in the digital marketing space. He is also seen as an influencer in the space, but the reason people recognize and trust him is because of his status as a digital marketing expert. Patel’s identity as an influencer is directly linked to his success as a thought leader.
The trust and recognition that a thought leader has can also come with financial rewards. The 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study found that 58% of decision-makers at companies purchased a product or service because of thought leadership. In a B2B marketing context, company decision-makers not only recognize the value thought leadership content marketing can have but also buy products and services because of it.
Check out our list of content marketing thought leaders you should be following in 2020.
How Do You Become a Thought Leader?
There’s a common misconception that thought leaders can only be high-level company executives, which isn’t true. A thought leader can be anyone at a company who has a specialized area of expertise that they thrive in. That’s why you need to identify the people at your company who have the best thought leader qualities, not necessarily those who hold the highest position.
Remember, being a thought leader is not a title you can suddenly bestow upon yourself — it’s earned. The very best thought leaders in their space cultivate their reputation over time and through their actions. The more time and effort you put into mastering the nuances of your field of expertise, the better your chances of people recognizing you as a thought leader.
5 Traits Your Company’s Thought Leader Should Have
Being a thought leader comes with a lot of responsibility — that’s why you really need to dig deeper to determine who is best suited to take on that mantle at your company. Ideally, a thought leader should be:
A thought leader needs to be an expert in their field. Whether that’s marketing, sales, or IT, they need to have a specialized area of expertise that makes them the go-to person at your company for that subject matter. Constantly adding new and meaningful insights to greater industry conversations is what makes a real expert.
Expertise is what drives people to be viewed as thought leaders. It’s the same reason people trusted famous film critics like the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The duo consistently showed their level of expertise as film critics by doing it over a long period, to the point that people associated Siskel and Ebert with being the top authorities when it came to opinions on movies.
Thought leaders aren’t just out to prove how knowledgeable they are within their field of expertise — they want to actively share that knowledge with others. They can do that by helping people at their company or by reaching a wider audience through things like speaking engagements and interviews.
The primary goal of most thought leaders is to help people. That makes thought leaders problem-solvers at their core. If there’s a person at your company that other employees are consistently going to for help on a particular subject, that person may be a good thought leader candidate.
Thought leaders need to be able to take complex ideas and make them palatable for a wider audience that wants to learn about them.
We all know thought leaders are brilliant, but what does that brilliance mean if they can’t convey it to a wider audience? The simplification of industry-specific terminology and information needs to always be on a thought leader’s mind. That’s why the late Steve Jobs always broke down Apple’s latest innovations in layman’s terms — he wanted to make them easily digestible for the audience so everyone could clearly understand the benefits.
Thought leaders recognize that there is always room to learn and grow within their field of expertise. They are constantly looking to refine their skills and knowledge base so their expertise stays current.
Being a thought leader comes with the understanding that their days of learning are never over. As things change within their field of expertise, they’re always hungry for that new knowledge. They go out of their way to make sure they learn whatever new piece of information may be applicable to their field.
Above all, thought leaders are passionate about their area of expertise. They take great pride in it and view it more as a lifestyle than as work.
If you look at a famous thought leader like Simon Sinek, passion oozes out of him. Not only is he able to share his insights in a compelling way, but he also believes in it wholeheartedly. Audiences can sense a fake guru who only has a surface-level understanding of the subject matter. Real thought leaders have passion that projects onto their audience, which helps build trust.
Helping Support a Thought Leader at Your Company
Not every thought leader is going to be a world-class speaker or writer, but that doesn’t mean their insights aren’t as valuable as thought leaders who are. If you recognize a thought leader in a person at your company, make sure you give them the proper tools to succeed. Here are few thought leader strategy tips to create content centered on your thought leaders:
Tip #1: Record a Conversation with Them
Decide on a topic your thought leader would like to discuss, and record a conversation with them. When you’re done, help them produce a piece of content for your blog (or other company blogs), and ghostwrite it in their own voice. This will take the pressure of writing the piece away from your thought leader, so they can focus instead on offering detailed insights.
A great tool to take advantage of is the LinkedIn Publishing Platform. Once you’ve written the blog post, get your thought leader to post it through the LinkedIn Publishing Platform; it’s a great platform for thought leadership and reaching other industry professionals.
Tip #2: Create a Podcast Episode Centered On Them
Create a company-hosted podcast, and feature your thought leader. Make sure they’re not alone, though. Having a host who asks great questions will set your thought leader up for great answers. If your company doesn’t have the resources to host its own podcast, try to get your thought leader on other industry podcasts.
Tip #3: Host a Live Panel with Other Thought Leaders
Get your thought leader to participate in a live panel with other thought leaders within the same industry. That way, they have other thought leaders to interact with, and the audience gets more value and experiences a greater sense of community among these experts. You can broadcast this type of panel live on your site and make it gated content as an additional revenue stream as well.
Measure Your Thought Leadership Content
Always let your thought leaders focus on what they’re good at and find creative ways to relay that information to your audience. It’s up to your company to support your thought leader with great content.
Measuring your thought leadership content not only helps your company find valuable topics to cover but also helps you find the right channels to distribute that content, all while giving more time back to the thought leader to focus on the message they want to convey.
Alexa’s Content Exploration Tool can help your company understand how thought leadership content is performing by offering insight into what articles and topics people are sharing and talking about most from your site and sites in your industry.