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There are several definitions of a thought leader, all of which involve influence, inspiration and implementation. But there’s one that stands out to me. I like this definition by Denise Brosseau of Thought Leadership Lab:
“Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.”
Hiring a public relations firm is certainly one way to get your name on the thought-leadership map. It may get you there faster, but it will cost you a significant sum of money. Personally, I’m a big fan of bootstrapping your way to the top.
First of all, it forces you to hone your voice and message over the months and years while you’re building your brand and positioning yourself in the exact niche and industry you want to be known in. It also forces you to lead with revenue and get creative while you’re building your thought leadership.
It seems easier to pay for PR in the beginning, but at what cost? Will you really be able to maximize the return on that investment? Will you have enough products or services to offer to generate revenue to recoup the cost of the investment before you start seeing a profit? Maybe, maybe not.
The decision to invest into marketing and PR to fast track your thought leadership positioning is ultimately up to you. Now, 10 years later, it’s an investment I’m considering to make, as we have established such a solid foundation of content, services, products and ideas that it only makes sense to turn on the faucet.
So, how did we establish that foundation in the first place? There wasn’t just one thing we did, but rather, a series of strategic in-house public relations efforts that have been more than worth the sweat equity. Here are nine ways you can position yourself as a thought leader for low or no cost.
1. Host in-person and online trainings
These are usually going to be free or low-cost offerings in the beginning. Hosting webinars or live Q&A’s on a subject that you’re an expert in is a great way to start to get your name and ideas out into the world.
In the early days of my entrepreneurial career, I would travel around the country taking every opportunity I could to speak and share my thoughts, successes and failures. Now, this also includes virtual speaking engagements and online training sessions.
2. Become a guest columnist or blogger
Find others in your industry (or in the field that you aspire to be known in) who are doing it right and see if they are taking guest post submissions. Perhaps there is an industry magazine or a local business publication that speaks to your target audience. Many of these publications have guest columnist opportunities, and if they don’t, pitch a column to them!
Online magazines and blogs are often looking for quality content in this day and age of extreme media consumption. As long as you’re providing value, it’s a great opportunity for both you and the media platform to benefit from.
3. Start a podcast, or book guest appearances
It’s extremely low-cost to create a podcast. You don’t need much more than a solid microphone and editing software. Creating your own is one way to go about it, but if you’re not quite ready to become a host, then booking yourself as a guest on other podcasts is a great way to get your message out there.
Before I launched my podcast last year, I would book as many guest podcast opportunities as I could each year — on podcasts that aligned with my company vision and overall thought leadership.
Yes, we did turn down some opportunities that just weren’t quite the right fit. We didn’t want to muddy our brand messaging. Once the podcasts were live, we got additional exposure by sharing those episodes on social media to get even more eyes (and ears) on the podcast.
4. Regularly use Facebook Live, IGTV or YouTube
The key here is to determine which platform you want to dominate and then go all in. Video is a great way to share your ideas. You can connect directly to your audience through your words, tone, body language and other visuals.
Be consistent with when, how often and where you are delivering your content so your audience can come to know what to expect from you, while solidifying you as their go-to resource for your unique principles and ideas.
5. Publish LinkedIn articles, and engage with the audience
All social media platforms can play a big part of establishing you as a thought leader. LinkedIn deserves a highlight because it is a great place for thought leadership for entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Over the years, we’ve had many articles get circulated widely across LinkedIn, which have led to other interviews and speaking engagement opportunities. LinkedIn is where people are going for thought leadership, so add your voice to the mix — purposefully and consistently — and other opportunities will follow.
Take it a step further by posting your original articles or even sharing other interesting articles (with your unique perspective) in niche groups on LinkedIn. Again, groups are where people are going for business and career information, be there and ready to add value.
6. Write a blog
Much like a podcast, blogging is a very low-cost (or no-cost) way to create content and start sharing your ideas on a weekly basis. Determine the niche you want to be known for and then start writing.
For several years, before we launched our podcast, I wrote a weekly blog on all sorts of leadership topics and many of those blogs lead to other opportunities, such as podcast appearances, speaking engagements and print magazine articles — not to mention new clients and employees.
Staying true to your voice, writing about topics that you are interested in and knowledgeable about, while create a consistent publishing schedule, will help increase your thought leadership status.
7. Apply for awards
While awards don’t specifically showcase your thought leadership, they do lend credibility to the other content and work you produce. Yes, it does take some time to complete nomination forms and gather submission materials, but it’s well worth the effort.
Local business awards, statewide “Best Places to Work” awards, ranking on industry-specific lists and gaining national recognition all provide a great way to showcase you, your company and what you both stand for.
Our company has been on the “Best Places to Work in Vermont” list for four years in a row, and it has attracted many new team members to our company. I’ve also had two organizations make it onto Inc. Magazine’s Inc. 5000 list of “Fastest-Growing Companies” over the course of several years.
You’ve already done the work, why not get recognized and create a tailwind of other opportunities for your thought leadership to shine?
8. Help a Reporter Out (HARO)
HARO is essentially a daily email listserv that connects journalists who are looking for expertise to include in their content with sources who have that expertise. Why shouldn’t that expert be you?
We made it our mission to pitch me and our organizations as an expert source at least once a week for several years, and it helped us land countless opportunities in articles and podcasts. We promoted those articles through our own social media channels, which helped increase our thought-leadership reach even more. Win-win!
9. Answer questions everywhere
Whether it’s a direct email into your website or podcast, or a general question in a LinkedIn or Facebook group, if you have value to add to the conversation and can provide your unique perspective and advice to the person asking the question — do it!
For years, I purposefully entered groups that aligned with my vision and answered any question I could. Provide value, then more value and even more value after that. Serve others and share your ideas everywhere that it makes sense based on your thought leadership goals.
I’m a huge proponent of saying “no” and focusing only on the most important things that will move the financial meter forward. And early in my career, saying “yes” to almost every opportunity to share my vision, mission, thoughts, ideas, success and failures was one of the most important things I could do. It required a lot of time, but it was time well spent.
Simply put? Becoming a thought leader is good for business. It helps spread your mission, vision, and overall company philosophy and ideas, which in turn helps attract clients, business partnerships, sponsors, employees and other opportunities.
Having a distinct viewpoint, never being indifferent to the ideas of the day and consistently sharing your thoughts and insights is all part of becoming a thought leader.
Adam Hergenrother is the founder and CEO of Adam Hergenrother Companies