When author Joel Kurtzman first coined the term ‘thought leader’ in 1994, chances are he didn’t imagine how deeply embedded it would become in the working world’s lexicon.
As described by Kurtzman, a thought leader is “recognized by peers, customers and industry experts as someone who deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of their customers and the broader marketplace in which they operate. They have distinctively original ideas, unique points of view and new insights.”
While the term is ubiquitous today, it has morphed into many things since its inception, leaving us with two general schools of thought on the subject. Those who buy into the concept and those who see it as nothing more than a buzzword. In 2016, as the newly appointed editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur magazine, Jason Feifer found himself in the cynical camp.
“I'll tell you a funny story,” he says. “When I became editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur, people started inviting me to go on their podcasts and to speak at their events, and they’d always introduce me as a thought leader in entrepreneurship. I was so uncomfortable with that phrase because it seems so presumptuous. So, I’d always try to reel them back in, telling them I didn't really have a specialty. But, I soon realized that by saying that, I was ruining the reason why these people had me on their shows in the first place.”
It was Feifer’s wife who offered him important advice: “If they want you to be a thought leader, then be a thought leader.” It was a wake-up call for Feifer about a need to nail down his niche area of expertise or, in other words, get his thought leadership strategy straight.
Feifer spent years working hard to refine it, and is now described as a thought leader on change, helping people and businesses become more resilient and adaptable in a constantly changing world. He shares his insights in his writings, on social media, on his Build For Tomorrow podcast and in his new book that goes by the same name. He’s seen significant results since, earning upwards of $1 million through his personal brand work alone.
There’s much for agencies to gain from having and implementing an effective thought leadership strategy. When successful, it not only helps you establish brand credibility, develop authority in your field and build a loyal audience, but it also enhances trust with existing clients and helps you attract new ones.
So, whether you’re a one-person business or an enterprise agency, if you’re interested in becoming the next great thought leader in your field, you too can reap these rewards by putting a powerful thought leadership strategy in place. Taking advice from Feifer on how he did it, here are six tactics to adopt.
1. Define your thought leadership goals
You can’t begin setting out any strategy without first identifying what you want to get out of it. Your thought leadership goals can be anything from becoming a trusted industry voice in the media to attracting higher-quality leads. Consult your existing marketing and PR goals to help you pin these down.
If your thought leadership strategy's key goal is to boost your brand's awareness and increase your influence, place a strong focus on your website traffic and social media following. If, for example, you’re keen to secure more speaker engagements, produce content that makes prospective clients aware of your speaking abilities – share snippets from webinars you’ve hosted or podcasts you’ve appeared on, as Feifer did here. If your goal is to highlight the solutions you offer, thought leadership blog posts about the pain points facing consumers in your industry can help you grab the right attention.
Defining your goals will also highlight what parts of your strategy are working and what are not, so you can rethink it as you see fit. Remember, developing and delivering a powerful thought leadership strategy is a long game. Don’t expect to see results right away, but regularly monitor your progress and refer back to your original goals to inform your gameplan.
2. Discover your ownable IP
For a person or brand to establish themselves as a thought leader, they must have what Feifer terms ‘ownable IP’. That means staking your claim to a place within a widely populated subject so that you can tell a particular story or have a specific way of framing a topic that is distinctively yours.
For Feifer, he took the populated subject of change and, with lots of research and hard graft, carved out a space for himself based on his original idea that change happens in four phases: panic, adaptation, new normal and wouldn't go back. Feifer began sharing this narrative with people, and it instantly struck a chord. He knew he had discovered his ownable IP. It laid a foundation for his eventual personal brand or thought leadership, which is helping people become more resilient and adaptable to change.
So, how do you find your ownable IP? Well, the likelihood is that it’s staring you in the face. If you're out there in any way, you already have authority on something to somebody. Understand what people trust you for and what they see you as an authority in. Then, figure out what unique thing you have to say within that space of trust. Understand your audience, what they need and what you can provide them with that others can't.
Take a full-service agency providing SEO services. Rather than trying to stand out in the crowded SEO space, identifying a niche subject within it where it has had success presents a much more tangible opportunity. For example, Wix Partner Hausman Graphics, which helped its client Tokyo Localized move from page six on Google to outranking all other travel sites for ‘Tokyo walking tours’, has already laid the groundwork to become a thought leader in building travel companies’ online presence should it wish to pursue it.
3. Be original, authentic and take a strong view (but never for the sake of it)
Just over 70% of professionals surveyed say less than half of the thought leadership content they consume provides any valuable insight, according to the 2021 LinkedIn Edelman B2B Thought Leadership Impact Report. Ouch. That’s because many brands out there may not fully grasp the essence of thought leadership, and consequently, often produce content for oversaturated spaces that doesn’t tell their audience anything new.
To avoid being one of those brands, aim to say something original that is valuable to your audience. Feifer says: “If you're getting into this simply because you think you have to have a blog and you have to produce content, you're not adding value for anybody, and it’s a waste of your resources. People need to stop worrying about content and start thinking about helping people.”
If you know your subject inside out, you’ll have strong opinions on it. Be honest and transparent and take a stance on your industry’s burning issues, offering your audience help with challenges and opportunities. Challenging your customers’ beliefs is a great way to create catchy content, but you must do it for good reason. Some brands and individuals opt to be controversial or contrary for clicks, but that’s a short-game tactic that won’t pay off in the long term.
“People are busy,” advises Feifer. “If they're going to fit you into their lives, there had better be a damn good reason for it. Everything you do has to be really value-forward.”
Never go for the hard sell when communicating with your audience. Instead, always be useful. If you’re not, you’re building a thought leadership strategy for the wrong reason.
4. Turn your insights into understandable and actionable packages
It’s all well and good throwing your ideas and wisdom out into the world, but they have to be packaged and delivered proficiently enough to make the content understandable and actionable for your audience.
A great thought leader communicates with clarity, knows their topic inside out and makes their content super engaging. Storytelling is a great way to communicate contextual knowledge and connect with your audience.
In his podcast, Feifer packages ideas in a way that both engages and creates meaning for listeners. In one recent episode, he looks at how we can address the problem with work today by exploring the common phrase “nobody wants to work anymore.” Speaking to a historian, Feifer turns it into a fascinating 44-minute history lesson that helps illustrate how the idea is, in fact, ‘BS’.
There are lots of other ways to package your insights neatly. Short Twitter threads offer engaging and actionable micro-content that demands little effort to consume. Here, the Wix Engineering team shares examples of potent threads that demonstrate in-depth ideas for engineers and developers.
Cheat sheets and explainer videos also speak to an audience with less time on their hands, while e-books and white papers are conveniently packaged formats that support long-form content for deeper dives on subjects.
5. Choose the platforms and channels best suited to your brand
Once you’ve pinned down your thought leadership topics, figure out the most impactful places to share them. The list of communications channels at your disposal is extensive. You’ve got forums, online and offline news resources, trade publications and journals, company blogs, social media, personal brand platforms like Medium, podcasts, webinars, conferences and seminars.
Of course, where your target audience spends most of their time will determine your choice, so do plenty of research on your audience personas. But also consider what channels best suit your brand and your content.
For Feifer, LinkedIn is a powerful platform for developing thought leadership due to its highly engaged users and affirmative-driven nature. You just need to make sure you’re using it the right way. “If you post a link, nobody can agree or add to it because it's just a thing that you wrote,” he says. “But if you post an idea, people will tend to agree and add to it, and it'll start an interesting conversation. I’ve also found that the discoverability on LinkedIn is exceptional.”
Short-form video should be taken seriously because it’s the type of content performing best on social. Feifer says TikTok's discoverability is second to none if you can post something that people care about, while Instagram has put all of its chips on Reels, so if you know the rules of its game, you can garner strong results. He also highlights podcast appearances as a powerful way to reach people, but warns that launching your own is an extremely slow build, so know what you’re in for before you start.
6. Experiment and evolve on the fly
Feifer says a big part of becoming a great thought leader is learning as you go. That is, don’t wait until you’ve got all the answers because then you’ll never start.
“Experiment and put things out into the world,” he advises. “Test. Be totally okay with something bombing and something doing really well. Just refine it on the fly.”
As Feifer sees it, the best thought leaders are not afraid to work things out in public. “The more you can do that, the more you're going to ultimately create a positive feedback loop and understand what your audience wants,” he says. “You’ll then be able to deliver it to them over and over again.”
The individual versus company approach
These thought leadership tactics will be relevant to you whether you’re applying them to your individual brand or that of your company. However, there are some differences to consider.
For a start, 67% of professionals prefer thought leadership to prominently feature the point of view of an identifiable author instead of being published by a faceless brand. That suggests companies should think about adding a human element to their thought leadership by nurturing and putting forward the best representatives in their business.
According to Feifer, a company needs to think of thought leadership as a product — creating a video series like Red Bull or a media outlet like a16z's Future. “You essentially do it at scale, creating a trusted environment for consumers to engage in.”
On the other hand, Feifer says individuals should treat thought leadership more like a conversation, where they're connecting with individuals and inviting them along on their journey.
He highlights Jim Kwik as someone who is laser-focused on his place in the world, offering his audience wonderfully crafted lessons on how to get the best out of our brains, while Vanessa Van Edwards, a thought leader on social science for introverts, provides smart and value-oriented advice to her followers.
Find your unique place
So, plenty to consider for your strategy to become the next best thought leader in your field. And while shaping how your industry thinks and behaves might sound like a lofty ambition, it’s absolutely achievable. The best thing now is to find your unique place and get started.
As Feifer discovered, one of the biggest challenges in thought leadership is unearthing what you own. “That's what I was trying to figure out,” he says. “But, once I did, everything else clicked into place.”
Find this article useful? Discover more industry insights, agency best practices, and inspirational stories when you join the Wix Partner Program. To find out more about Jason Feifer’s journey and the lessons he learned along the way, read our Q&A with him here.
Marketing Writer | Wix Partners Dublin