Your clients and prospects are inundated with information online to help them solve their problems. Some of the information is genuinely educational; most of it, though, is self-promotional or generic. How do you stand out and get noticed as the one they should turn to for help? One way to break through the clutter is to focus on thought leadership.
What is a thought leader, and why do you want to be one? There are lots of definitions, but I like this one from Forbes:
“A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise … [and thereby] significantly profit[ing] from being recognized as such. “
As the go-to expert, you’re likely to profit in many ways. Regardless of whether it directly brings in new business, thought leadership helps to differentiate you from competitors, expand your reach and build relationships and trust with your audience. You’re also educating people and promoting deeper and more informative discussions, which is a public service.
That all sounds great, but how can you be a thought leader?
1. Understand your sweet spot. In his book, Epic Content Marketing, Joe Pulizzi defines the sweet spot as “the intersection between your customers’ pain points and where you have the most authority with your stories.” Take the time to really research your audience’s needs and concerns. Then consider what expertise and insights you can offer to help them. Don’t spend time talking about areas where you are not well-informed and don’t have much value to add. Focus on what you know best that can assist your clients.
2. Differentiate your message. Your strongest competitors will be trying to do the same thing you are doing – providing valuable content. Know what they are saying and doing and look for ways to be even better or different. For example, focus on a narrow niche, survey the industry and share research, have an opinion, identify trends and provide insights. Give specific and actionable strategies taking into account whatever new developments are occurring. The point is to go beyond sending out a typical client alert that sounds just like the ones from every other firm. The Forbes article provides a great example, but we’ve all seen examples of thought leadership. We know who is going above and beyond.
3. Have a strategy and goals and align the two. Being a thought leader is a lot of work, and you want to be clear about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what you hope to get out of it. Seems pretty obvious, but the reality is that too many firms start down a path without thinking it through. For example, you have an attorney who happens to be a prolific writer and speaker in a specific area of the law. The problem is that area is not very profitable or high-priority for the law firm. How much effort do you want to put behind promoting expertise that isn’t a good fit for the firm? Or maybe the thought leadership is great and would be good for the firm, but it’s not being seen by the right niche audiences. Sometimes, firms focus on getting the content piece right but spend less time making sure the promotion and distribution is getting to their target market. You need to bring both parts together in a strategic way; otherwise, how are you going to profit from being a thought leader?
4. Write, speak and share information consistently. You can’t be a thought leader if you don’t put your thoughts out there. Write articles, blog posts, whitepapers and books. Curate and comment on other people’s content. Speak at online and live events. Create video. Use social media. You don’t have to do them all, but put out content in different formats to maximize your reach and appeal to different audiences. And do this regularly. Thought leadership is a long-term strategy. People have to hear from you on a consistent basis. An occasional article or speech isn’t enough, even if it’s really great. Of course, there are lots of ways to repackage that great content to get more life out of it, but make sure you’re doing that. You must be visible on a regular basis.
5. Cultivate relationships with other experts, influencers, industry professionals and media. As you develop your thought leadership, reach out to other authorities. Gather and share their insights with your audience, make introductions and give referrals and offer to help them with their content. By assisting others, you’re getting your name out to key contacts in your field and developing deeper relationships, and it’s likely at least some people will reciprocate by helping you. It will also make your thought leadership better-informed because you’re incorporating insights from others.
Becoming a thought leader is a long-term commitment and a lot of work. However, successful firms know the investment is worth it, to not only survive but thrive against the competition.