Banksy monkeyThought leaders, as we’ve discussed earlier on this blog, aren’t just revered as industry influencers and trendsetters — they also shape the customers’ buying decisions, and what could be more valuable than that?

Forbes contributing writer Jim Nichols, in his July 30 article, “Thought Leaders: B2B’s New Sales Rainmakers,” notes that the previously heavily used popular selling model, called “solution selling,” where “companies offer multi-faceted solutions to a customer’s problem made up of modular parts,” increasingly leaves customer with too many choices that leads to taking no action at all. So this model is being replaced by using thought leaders who can cut through the clutter and educate the customer so that he or she could make an informed decision “while also giving a peek at what industry innovations or trends are just around the corner.”

Nichols notes that thought leaders are often talented experts in their field who not only represent the company but set the trends within their respective industries, influence many buying decisions, and help shape their company’s overall image. That’s why, he says, companies create thought leadership programs, and thought leaders become if not celebrities of sorts, then at least the household names within their organizations and industries.

However, as Contributing Editor Elaine Pofeldt points out in her article, “How to pull off a thought-leadership campaign,” for Crain’s New York Business that targets small businesses, “Not everyone’s got the sparkling communication skills of a business guru like Seth Godin or Jim Collins…” Also, not everyone has the budget to establish thought leadership programs within a company and groom its future stars, or hire a third party to do just that.

If you, a business owner, were ever advised to “establish yourself as a ‘thought leader’ in your field by blogging, publishing books and hitting the conference circuit,” Pofeldt says, and feel like you have to do it on your own — and on a budget — here are some tips on how to pull off a thought leadership campaign:

Many would-be thought leaders make the mistake of pontificating in so-so blogs no one wants to read. Offering smart advice in a blog post or speech on a thorny challenge that customers face can help you to underline the fact that you’re among the best in your niche…

Being too cautious in your commentary can doom you to oblivion. Some companies find that taking a position on a debate that’s going on in their industry […] is a good way to raise their profile. […]

Speaking, appearing in the news media, writing articles and books, and maintaining a Twitter feed can turn into a full-time job if you’re not careful about how you invest your time.

No matter how hard you tweet or how many speaking engagements you’ve booked, as Harry Gold, CEO of Overdrive, rightfully points out on ClickZ, “The reality is most companies, and most likely your company, will never have a million fans.” And that’s OK. It’s not about how many “likes” you get, Gold says, or how many fans follow you on this or that social platform.

Again, it boils down to influencing your customer’s decisions to your advantage, branding, and sharing content. Gold says:

So this is where thought leadership and social sharing come in. In thought leadership, the share (the act of someone emailing or posting your materials to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social sites) can be far more valuable than a Facebook ‘like.’ When people share your content they are a) endorsing it and b) weaving it into the very fabric of the web. It becomes popular and echoes out into blogs and mainstream media and pops more in the search engines. When this happens you not only embed your influence directly into the web — your social media marketing success starts to be realized via organic search.

Gold recommends two sets of action while implementing your thought leadership program using social media: enabling your content socially and using certain best practices. On the first one, he comments:

So often I see sites that ‘hide the share.’ When you go through the trouble of producing a great chart, image, checklist, guide, or whatever — celebrate the share. Make social sharing a huge, honking call to action! […]

As for the best practices, Gold says:

Let me start by saying while I know the power of video and the age of the white paper is not over, content development can be risky. Videos, more often than not, do not get watched in any significant numbers (I mean, we all cannot produce Honey Badger), and who wants to read a 10-page white paper? Today, content has to be lightweight. That means easy to produce, easy to consume, easy to share, and easy to republish.

Gold shares the following thought leadership content development tips that pretty much require no further explanation:

  • Lightweight, quick, and easy
  • Valuable, interesting, and educational
  • Simple
  • Portable, sharable, and printable
  • Optimized for SEO
  • Campaign-ready
  • Repeatable

There you have it. You probably won’t acquire a million fans, but “celebrating the share,” as Gold puts it, among those other best practices, can certainly earn you a voice within your industry and help you establish yourself as a trendsetter and an influencer — in other words — a thought leader.

Image by kalidoskopika, used under its Creative Commons license.

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