What Is Thought Leadership — and How to Leverage It

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on November 1, 2023

Rodin's the Thinker for thought leadership concept

Becoming a subject matter expert (SME) is one thing. Being recognized for your expertise is another. A thought leader is somebody who is recognized to be at the cutting edge of their field, an authority in their subject who provides valuable information and advice to guide others  

Naturally, people seek out thought leaders when they need advice, guidance, and instruction – and as an expertise-business, you want to be sure those seekers find you.

So, how can SMEs cross the line from expertise to thought leadership? How can you leverage your knowledge to establish your brand and bring customers to your expertise-based business?

In this post, I’ll explore the ways that SMEs can harness thought leadership to grow their reputations and expand their income potential.

What makes a thought leader?

Thought leadership isn’t just knowing a lot about your subject. You also have to develop your own theories and ideas about your subject  and share that knowledge in accessible ways.

Thought leadership is primarily about leading the thinking in an industry or field. Anyone can read a few books and learn the basics of a subject, but not everyone can take their knowledge to the next level and truly become a resource an guide for others.

What thought leaders do:

  • Predict future industry trends
  • Influence the direction of study and learning in a field
  • Provide insight based on their experience
  • Share their knowledge with others

There are thought leaders in every discipline. Just think of who you would turn to for guidance to identify who they are. If you want to know more about SEO, you might seek out Neil Patel.

For entrepreneurship, it could be Michael Gerber.

Or Brené Brown for leadership.

These people have established a reputation for being experts in their subjects, and for effectively teaching others how to master those skills.

Niching down to increase thought leadership

Unsurprisingly, most disciplines already have several prominent thought leaders. So how does a subject matter expert establish themselves alongside the greats in their field? The most effective way is to niche down to a specific area or area within your discipline where you have deep knowledge and experience. This reduces the competition and provides a solid pathway to broader brand recognition.

If your area of expertise is teaching people how to escape the 9-5 and live self-sufficiently, you could start by establishing yourself as the go-to guy for rearing backyard silkie chickens. (Yes, it’s a thing). That’s a much smaller field to dominate. From there, you can expand to other breeds of chickens, different species of birds, and then to growing crops and raising larger animals.

If you’d started your career in thought leadership by trying to approach all these different niches at once, there would always have been somebody else who had a better reputation than you in each individual area. Not only does niching down make it easier to break into thought leadership, it also makes it easier to level up into broader and more competitive fields.

What it takes to become a thought leader

There are two elements to thought leadership. The thinking, and the leading.

You must first become a master of your subject. That means being a true subject matter expert, not just the “read three books” guy who learned enough to teach others what he learned.

Then – having established solid expertise in their topic or discipline – thought leaders take their knowledge to the next level by influencing the direction of their field of study. Taking on a leadership role means mastering how to impart knowledge and teach others.

Educators and SMEs are ideally positioned to become thought leaders. They typically already have the expertise part of the equation covered. So, it’s primarily a matter of becoming more conscious of opportunities for sharing your expertise publicly and building a following.

Really making the leap from true, but little know expert to prominence as a thought leader requires a bit of a multiplier effect. Ideally, you want each individual you reach to tell multiple other individuals in your field about you. Making that happen, of course, means doing many of the things we’ve already covered here on Learning Revolution, like content marketing and actively building an audience.  

The pay-off is that doing these things – and getting that multiplier effect – will dramatically increase your brand reach and income potential.

The benefits of thought leadership for SMEs

It’s worth being very clear about just how significant the benefits of thought leadership are for an expertise-based business.

Think about what the growth of your business is going to be like if you have to sell one customer at a time. If you are a relative unknown who has not established a strong reputation in your field, then the selling itself is likely to take a lot of your time – and you’ll probably have a hard time charging at the level you would like to.

Then, once you have made a sale, most of your time will go to delivering whatever content or service you have promised – meaning little or no time is going towards getting your next customer.

On the other hand, when you actively pursue thought leadership, the impact over time is that:

  • You are able to reach many more prospective customers even while you are actively serving current customers
  • You increasingly become known by and sought our by your name, rather than as generic expert, which means …
  • Converting your prospects into customers becomes much easier and faster
  • You are able to be choosier about who you work with rather than just going with whatever pays the bills
  • You are able to charge more for your offerings with much less – if any – negotiating
  • The overall value of your business increases, opening up better opportunities for hiring, partnerships, and other paths to helping you scale

Those are just some of the most obvious benefits. Take a few minutes to work at it and you can likely name many others that apply to your specific situation.

No doubt that all sounds great, but how do you make it happen?

How to establish yourself as a thought leader

The good news is that any time you position yourself as a subject matter expert, on or offline, you’re contributing to your reputation as a thought leader. That means you can choose almost any method of becoming established in thought leadership in your field.

The most common method is through your website content marketing strategy. I’ve written frequently about the benefits of blogging, and it remains one of the best ways there is to showcase your thinking and attract followers. By creating a regular blog series about your subject you can address the key information newcomers to your industry want to learn and provide valuable perspectives on areas of your discipline where your expertise is deepest. This strategy is often the foundation of any thought leadership reputation building.

If blogging isn’t your thing, you can achieve the same ends through other media. Posting regularly on social media or starting a YouTube channel can be very effective as can starting a podcast (an approach that has worked very well for me). For ideas on what to do, run searches on the biggest names in your field. What are they doing, and does it seem to be attracting a significant audience? Could you provide an alternative in a new medium, or perhaps try a different medium that other thought leaders haven’t capitalized on yet?

SMEs should focus on their personal branding across the web as a way to increase their reputation in thought leadership. LinkedIn is an obvious place to showcase your credentials, but is often under-used or used poorly by entrepreneurs working in online education and consulting. (Here are some tips on using it better.) Joining relevant online communities and participating in knowledge-based forums like Quora can also improve your reputation as a thought leader.

Not all branding has to occur online either. Getting featured in trade publications, news reports (HARO is a good source of leads), TED talks, conferences and expos are also valuable ways to boost your reputation in your field.

The main thing is to determine the methods and channels for sharing your thinking that work best for you and that you will be able to pursue consistently and enthusiastically. If writing really isn’t your thing, then don’t subject yourself to the torture of producing a weekly blog post (or hire a good ghostwriter!). If shooting videos is your thing, make the effort to set up a simple, but permanent home or small office video studio to make it as easy as possible for you to capture new content.

You get the picture. The quality and distinctiveness of the content you offer is very important, but plain old consistency is equally important.

How to develop a thought leadership strategy

As with any other marketing strategy, to establish yourself as a thought leader it is first important to define your audience. How will you convert a solid reputation in thought leadership to new revenue opportunities? Who are your prospective customers and – critically – what outcomes do they want to achieve?

With your target audience in mind, consider the most appropriate niche to establish your reputation. Again, this is probably much narrower that the general discipline within which you work. SEO, or even on-page SEO, with marketing, for example. Or – in my case – market-facing learning business within the broader field of adult learning and development.

Once you have your niche identified, find the right methods to reach your audience. If you want to reach business executives, a content marketing strategy deployed through LinkedIn will produce faster results than developing an extensive Twitter following. Alternatively, if you want to attract millennials working in tech, Twitter could be the ideal platform to cultivate.

In order to monetize your reputation as a thought leader, align your strategy with your sales funnel. If you offer an online course on learning Java, writing a blog series on the basics will provide a useful resource for newcomers, and neatly segue into a sign-up form for your course.

Final thoughts

Many SMEs already focus on thought leadership as part of their marketing strategy, whether they realize that or not. And as your reputation in your field improves, you may find yourself considered a thought leader by default. But by approaching thought leadership strategically and making a focused effort to establish your brand in your field, you can accelerate your promotional efforts and dramatically increase your revenue potential.

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