Successful thought leaders concentrate on what might be described as three pillars: topic, audience and engagement. It’s worth spending a bit of time on each to explore what this means, because it is so fundamental to successful thought leadership.
Why is choosing your topic or content so important? First of all, it helps to differentiate you from others. A thought leader is not just a subject expert, but is also seen as such by peers, customers and competitors. They become the go-to source for information. You can’t do this unless you choose your topic very carefully. Your topic should be something on which you can speak or write with authority, and where you can bring a unique perspective to bear. Something you feel passionately about.
One aspect that is important to bear in mind is the need to have deep and broad knowledge of a subject. You need to sharpen your focus, so that you can drill down into the topic, and explore it in depth. By providing detailed insights, you will attract an audience who really wants to know about your subject.
That brings us neatly to the next of the three pillars: audience. We have talked before about how your content has to be tailored to your audience, but how do you work out who exactly is your intended audience?
The technology and IT industry, like many others, is accustomed to describing its audience in terms of demographics. So you’re probably used to thinking in terms of company size, country of location or industry segment. But that’s not enough for thought leadership. Instead, you need to understand what challenges they face, and where they want to go in future, so that you can bring your knowledge to bear on helping them to meet those challenges. You may even, at times, be showing them the future, and guiding them towards where they should be aiming, although this is pretty ambitious at this stage. Your audience, then, is those at the right stage of development, who will value your input in solving their problems.
At the same time, most B2B buyers also have their own distinctive styles, and ways in which they prefer to engage with the people selling technology. So you need to be able to tailor your topic and content at an individual level too. This means being highly responsive to the needs of the person in front of you. In other words, engaging with them.
The final pillar, engagement, is obviously intimately linked to audience and topic. The way in which you engage will depend on both of those. And for the majority of thought leaders in B2B organisations, presentations and one-to-one meetings with customers, whether formal or informal, will remain the most rewarding ways to engage, in both a business and a personal sense. As you build relationships, the interactions will become more rewarding in the sense of the feedback you get about your thought leadership, as well as the material rewards of business won. And it’s also important to point out that thought leadership is a long-term selling process. You won’t win business overnight, any more than you will become a thought leader instantly.
As well as meetings, you also need to reach out to those who are not yet in touch with you. This ‘unseen audience’ consists of those who may come across your thinking via social media or the internet, and be intrigued by what you’ve said. Plenty of potential customers are using search engines or social media to find a subject expert, so avoiding these channels may mean losing a lot of potential business. It may seem odd to talk about engaging personally with someone you’ve never met or spoken to, but the principles are the same for this channel. Think about the people likely to be searching for information this way, and build up a picture of what they need to know, then provide the information in a way that will ‘grab’ them.
The three pillars of thought leadership, topic, audience and engagement, are intimately entwined. You cannot engage successfully without doing so on a personal basis, on a topic on which your audience wishes to engage. Indeed, it may be wrong to describe them as pillars, as they are much more like intertwined rings that cannot be separated. Putting equal thought into each is likely to enhance your thought leadership and pay dividends both personally and professionally.