You want to become a thought leader…
You just aren’t sure how.
It’s not that you don’t have things to say—it’s that you aren’t sure how to play the “game” of getting traffic and building an audience.
If you could solve that, you’d be golden because you have incredible insights to share with your industry.
Insights that could really help people.
But you don’t want to spend the time and money creating content that collects dust in remote corners of the internet.
You need a proven thought leadership framework that will help you amplify your content and become the thought leader you deserve to be.
That’s exactly what I’ll give you in this article.
I’ve helped thought leaders and brands reach millions of people with their content.
And the framework I’m about to show you is based on insights I’ve learned from 5+ years of these projects.
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Let’s dive in. 🙂
What Is Thought Leadership?
It may seem a bit elementary, but it’s worth exploring what thought leadership actually is before we talk about building your strategy.
Thought leadership is simply when an accomplished person or brand expresses unique ideas or perspectives about their field of expertise.
Think Steve Jobs in the realm of leadership and management, Dave Ramsey in the realm of personal finance, and Chip and Joanna Gaines in the realm of interior design/renovations.
The key thing to note here is that these brands have produced results, which is a requirement for thought leadership.
Because to become a thought leader, people have to respect your thoughts.
And for people to respect your thoughts, they have to trust that you know what you’re talking about.
Does this mean you have to be the best in the entire world at what you do?
Not at all.
But it does mean you need to be really good (as I’m sure you are).
Proven results and experience add weight to your insights.
How to Build a Rock-Solid Thought Leadership Strategy in 10 Steps
1. Collect Your Thoughts
Uniqueness is key with thought leadership.
So the very first step in creating your strategy is brainstorming your unique angle.
This is no different than any other form of marketing.
You need to clearly articulate your USP (Unique Selling Proposition)—in other words, why people should listen to your advice.
And the best way to get started is by listing your thoughts on key issues, beliefs, and practices in your industry.
Do you disagree with standard advice?
Do you think certain common beliefs actually sabotage you?
Do you think there’s a better way of doing something that no one is talking about?
List everything you can think of within every aspect of your industry…even if it’s in agreement with common beliefs.
This will be the foundation of your entire thought leadership strategy.
2. Define Your Brand
With your thoughts on your industry in hand, it’s time to create your brand guide.
This guide will determine how you communicate your thoughts.
Because as simple as it sounds, it’s way too easy to start drifting as you create your thought leadership content.
You’ll be focusing on creating and promoting content for so long that it can start feeling like a full-blown operation. It’s so easy to start going through the motions.
And this can lead to one of the deadliest thought leadership sins…
When you communicate inconsistent stances and beliefs, you’ll lose the respect that’s so critical to success with building a following.
That’s what this brand guide is here to prevent.
It’ll act as your North Star—keeping you moving in the same direction with all of your content.
This doesn’t have to be some crazy long word document or anything like that.
I recommend simply making a list of:
- Core values
- Key industry beliefs you won’t waver on
- Traits that describe your tone of voice
For example, let’s say I wanted to launch a campaign to be a marketing thought leader.
My brand guide might look like this:
- Core values – integrity, curious, data-driven, optimistic
- Key industry beliefs – great content is the backbone of top of funnel marketing
- Tone – lighthearted, experimental
And anytime I wrote content, I’d pull this little list up to make sure I wouldn’t accidentally compromise on anything and sabotage my consistency.
3. Set Clear Objectives
Goals and objectives have the power to make or break your whole campaign.
That’s why I recommend following something proven like the OKR format.
OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results.
It’s one of the best methods I’ve seen for setting and accomplishing a somewhat subjective and hard-to-measure goal.
I recommend starting by setting an OKR for your thought leadership that’s centered around gaining traction rather than something like “becoming a renowned thought leader”.
The latter is the ultimate goal, but there are tons of small victories you need to win along the way first.
You can put a number on “gaining traction? if you’d like (example: 500 followers on LinkedIn), but you don’t have to.
The beauty of OKRs is that the measurables are in the Key Results—the specific actions you’ll take to reach your objective.
Let’s keep rolling with this 500 followers on the LinkedIn objective as an example for an OKR for “gaining traction”.
The key results could be:
- Publish 2 articles on LinkedIn Pulse per week for 2 months
- Promote my LinkedIn channel on all my social media accounts by next week (and promote new articles upon publication)
- Schedule a call with 1 thought leader in my space by the end of the month
If you accomplished all of your KRs on time, there’s almost no chance you wouldn’t hit your goal.
That’s the idea.
This goal-setting format, in my opinion, is much better than setting some arbitrary goal around your thought leadership.
4. Define Your Target Audience
The last highly strategic step of this process is doing some research to get a clear understanding of the people you’re trying to serve.
Don’t fall into the trap of saying “I create content for everyone in my industry”.
Because the truth is: there are hundreds of different sub-groups within your industry.
There are tons of entry-level people in different positions, managers, executives, freelancers, and more.
And targeting the whole neglects the personalization and context of specific sub-groups that you’re really going after (even if you aren’t aware of it).
For example, if you want to become a marketing thought leader to grow your business, you will likely want to talk almost exclusively to managers and executives.
Entry-level workers and freelancers will also benefit from your thoughts, but they aren’t your target audience.
And that’s okay.
You need to focus on really getting to know the daily lives, problems, and aspirations of the specific groups you’re writing to.
Because even if your main goal is to grow your own business, you will only succeed as a thought leader if you help them grow theirs.
How do you begin understanding their goals and problems?
I recommend starting by talking to colleagues and connections who are in your target audience.
The more you can talk to the better.
Ask them what their hopes are for their careers, teams, and business. Ask them what problems they run into frequently.
These insights will help you connect your thought leadership to real needs in the market.
5. Competitive Research
Before you go off writing content like a madperson, there are 3 more critical planning steps you need to take.
The first of which is finding thought leaders who are doing exactly what you plan to do (and who are killing it).
You probably have a few that come to mind already, but finding more simply takes some good old-fashioned Google and LinkedIn sleuthing (searching things like “best [INDSUTRY] blogs” or “best [INDUSTRY] thought leaders to follow”).
Some of the best insights you’ll discover will come from seeing what successful thought leaders are already doing.
It’ll give you ideas for:
- Unique angles
- And ways to gain followers
I recommend looking through their LinkedIn pages, websites, newsletters, and even products if they have them.
Take note of the things they say, how they say them, and the response from their audience.
6. Pick Your Channels
Next, you need to decide where you’ll start posting content.
This is a big decision.
There are tons of platforms out there—all with different pros and cons.
And you only have so much time on your hands.
How can you maximize your efforts?
I recommend a mixture of the following based on 5+ years of experience:
- Your blog (SEO-driven articles)
- Your LinkedIn or Medium (shorter, more personal articles using content from your blog)
- Other sites or media outlets your target audience follows (incredibly actionable or highly interesting content)
You own your blog and control what happens on there, you can amplify your content on LinkedIn or Medium (with less effort because you can repurpose your blog content), and you can build your brand through media outlets and niche blogs.
This formula has worked wonders for me and my clients.
7. Create a Content Calendar
In this last step before you finally start writing, I recommend creating a 3-6 month content calendar detailing what you’ll write and when.
This calendar will help you focus on the writing when it comes time to write.
I have an in-depth post that walks you through this process of creating your content calendar, but the key thing to remember is consistency.
This is a quality over quantity game.
It’s more important to focus on consistent, quality content than to churn out 3 articles a week.
Even if you only write a few articles per month, stick with your schedule and do what you can.
8. Create Killer Thought Leadership Content
Great thought leadership content is all about uniqueness and value.
You can do nothing else and still succeed as long as you do these two things well.
Problem is: what does unique and valuable content even mean?
It’s a question I get all the time…
The true answer is: it depends on what’s unique and valuable for your target audience.
I can’t tell you what they’ll find unique and valuable, but I can tell you how to create incredible content once you know what your audience is looking for.
All great content, no matter the industry or format, is:
Actionable – it gives clear instructions so people can implement your advice.
Clear – it’s easy to digest and understand (doesn’t use a bunch of jargon or complex sentences).
Empowering – it motivates people to take action because of your excitement about the topic and the results you’ve gotten.
Unique – it talks about a topic from a different or unique perspective (could be counter-intuitive, a personal story, or reference data from a project you did).
Figuring out how to infuse these elements in your content can take time, but I’ve made a framework you can follow that makes it much easier.
9. Promote Your Content
Creating great content is only half the battle.
You also have to promote it (like…a lot).
If you don’t (or don’t do so successfully), it’s as if you didn’t write a great thought leadership piece at all.
That’s why promotion is so critical and deserves its own time slot on your calendar.
The question is: how do you promote your content effectively?
I’ve tested just about every content promotion strategy under the sun over the years, and here’s the process I recommend:
Step 1: Do the Obvious Things
Share your blog post on your social channels, send a promo to your email list, and create micro-versions to post on your LinkedIn or Medium.
You want the people already in your audience to share and link to your new post.
Step 2: Influencer Outreach and Link Building
The real results come from something no one wants to do…
- Takes a ton of time
- Is uncomfortable
- And seems like it won’t work
But here’s the truth: it’s the best way to 1) get your blog posts ranking in Google and 2) build long-term referral traffic.
I recommend focusing your outreach on three main areas:
1. Finding (And Joining) Conversations on Social Media
One of the best ways to utilize social media for blog promotion is by joining conversations happening around your post’s topic.
If you can provide great value to that community, they’ll not only be interested in checking out your post (which is great referral traffic), but they might even share it.
But be careful…
It’s really easy to annoy these people by being overly self-promoting.
Be sure to be an active member of the community and/or provide value before mentioning your content.
2. Influencer Outreach for Shares
Do you know who the main influencers are in your industry?
If not, you need to.
I recommend making a master Google Sheet with names, URLs, and emails and reaching out to a select few for each new blog post you write.
Get them to share it with their audience.
Just like with social conversations, though, you need to give them great value before asking them to do anything.
That means joining their list, reading and sharing their content, and offering them something valuable for free (like access to your course, products, etc).
Start with smaller fish and move to bigger players as you grow your following.
Step 3. Link Building Outreach
Links are one of the most important ranking signals in Google’s algorithm, so if you want to rank, you need to spend the majority of your outreach time trying to get links.
The issue is: links are really hard to get.
There are hundreds of tactics out there and people give links way less often than they used to.
But there’s good news…
After running link building experiments over the last 3+ years, I found 5 tactics that work for me time and time again.
Step 4. Paid Content Promotion
I recommend having at least a small budget set aside for promoting your content to your target audiences via Twitter and Facebook ads.
Based on tests I’ve run with clients, even $100 for a single blog post can lead to 100s of shares, several qualified leads, and even (sometimes) better rankings.
The best part is…it’s easy. All it takes is money.
I’ve found that the “80/20” of paid content promotion is using a tool called Quuu Promote.
For as little as $50/month, it lets you promote 10 pieces of content to people looking to promote relevant content.
I ran a test for one month and ended up getting 200+ visitors from social channels, 5 leads, and tons of shares for $50.
10. Measure and Optimize
This may be the last step in this initial process, but it’s one of the key ongoing steps you’ll be focusing on.
Success with thought leadership, like everything, requires a curious mindset.
You have to be okay with testing new things, letting ineffective things die, and getting out of your comfort zone.
Keep an eye on your Google Analytics, Google Search Console, social analytics, and Medium analytics to see what’s working and what isn’t.
Always run experiments, improve things based on your findings, and persist if things aren’t working as expected.
8 Thought Leadership Examples to Help You Get Started
Here are a few of my favorite examples of thought leaders that can help you brainstorm unique angles for your brand:
- Jerry Jenkins (writing)
- Magnetic Memory Method (learning)
- Nathan Gotch (SEO)
- Verne Harnish (business)
- Seth Godin (marketing)
- Simon Sinek (leadership)
- James Clear (personal development)
It’s Time to Create Your Thought Leadership Strategy
You have unique insights that your industry needs to hear.
You have the tools you need to create and implement your strategy.
The question is: when will you get started?
Besides yesterday, the best answer is today.
Becoming a recognized thought leader takes time, and now is the best time to start the process.
The benefits are life-changing—you’ll create new opportunities, new connections, and grow your business beyond what you ever could have imagined.
And I’m cheering you on. 🙂