In today’s knowledge economy, the winners aren’t merely the smartest players, but those who have parlayed those smarts into real value for their customers.
These thought leaders position themselves at the top of their fields—and top of mind among customers—by sharing knowledge their audience can actually use. “In a crowded marketplace, companies compete on the battleground of ideas,” says Tim Deighton, senior vice president, director of corporate advocacy at Regions Bank. “That is your point of differentiation; that is the value proposition you bring.” At the same time, with so many outlets—speaking opportunities, blogging, or social media—it can be hard to raise your voice above the fray. Deighton suggests following the lead of the most successful thought leaders by adhering to the Four R’s: reliability, relatability, respect, and rigor.
- Be reliable. “Being a thought leader means making yourself and your ideas regularly available to those you serve,” Deighton says. If you have a blog, establish a regular publishing schedule so that readers can anticipate your next post. What’s more, search engines rank active blogs higher than those that are updated infrequently. Similarly, you should make yourself available to journalists who seek out your expertise. In either case, Deighton adds, it’s a matter of creating a consistent presence so that you’re the first one people think of when they think of an expert in your field.
- Be relatable. Bear in mind that those who seek you out—particularly potential customers—do so in order to find the solution to a problem or meet a need. In considering what to write about, focus on your audience and those problems that concern it most. At the same time, be careful to avoid jargon or technical language that might alienate readers or listeners. Consider instead how you can take complicated ideas and present them in a way that speaks to somebody who is trying to address a problem.
- Be respectful. While your credentials may draw followers to you, it is your focus on their interests that will keep them coming back. For Deighton, this means calibrating your tone so that you’re addressing your audience as peers and developing an authentic voice that shows you’re speaking from the heart. Don’t simply lecture your audience, he warns, but rather present your ideas in an engaging way that gives them the answers they seek.
- Be rigorous. It should go without saying that the ideas you present to your audience are grounded in careful research. What is the theoretical basis behind your topic? Which of your statements are fact, and which ones are opinion? Your credibility depends on this distinction. What’s more, you should stick to topics that are well within your expertise. “There’s a difference between being known and being known for something,” Deighton cautions. “In the world of thought leadership it’s about being known for expertise in a specific area.”
Establishing yourself as a thought leader is a great way to pull in customers at precisely the moment they need your products or services. But it also requires commitment from you in terms of time and energy. “This is a participatory sport,” Deighton says, “and a rewarding one as well.”