Thought leadership is a term that many of you will be familiar with. It seems that everywhere we look, someone is now promoting themselves as a thought leader in their particular sector.

As long as there have been experts in anything, there have been thought leaders. And more recently, the concept of thought leadership has increased in importance – especially with the growth of content marketing. There’s a great examination of how these two ideas work together, here. Today, attempting to become a thought leader in a particular area is now recognised as a valid strategy for building your own personal or business brand.

But there is clearly much more to being a thought leader than simply announcing to the world that you are one. So, I want to give you a few pointers to bear in mind as you build your thought leadership strategy (and yes, you really do need a strategy). Here are a few ideas on how to be a thought leader.

  1. How to be a thought leader: first, define why you want to be one

The starting point for any strategy has to be defining your goals. So, why exactly do you want to be seen as a thought leader, rather than simply being an expert at what you do? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Most importantly, there are clear advantages to being seen as a thought leader. Being a thought leader gives you the opportunity to shape the future of your industry. It is a chance to promote yourself, your brand and your business. It is an opportunity to build your professional network. It will, hopefully, help you to sell more and to more people.

It’s likely that some or all of these reasons will inform your end goals. But the important thing is to be explicit about what you’re trying to achieve. Because when you’re clear on where you want to get to, the path to get there gets a lot clearer too.

  1. Even thought leaders never stop learning

Clearly, you’re not going to become a thought leader if you’re not already an expert in your field. But to take that expertise to the next level and to be able to apply it practically in a way that consistently helps and inspires others, you’ll need to up your game.

In my experience, humility is one of the most crucial qualities any successful business person can have. When we acknowledge that we don’t know everything, it encourages us to keep learning. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is particularly important if we want others to see us as thought leaders.

We need to do our research, of course. But we also need to leverage the knowledge of our growing network of industry contacts, distilling all the information we can gather into something new. Thought leaders need to be great listeners: not least because the content they create has to directly address the needs of their audience. But more of that later.

  1. Be original, and be unique – but most of all be useful

What does your audience look for in a thought leader? I’d suggest a couple of things.

  • Unique content and ideas
  • The answers to their most pressing concerns.

These two needs directly impact the kind of content you create for them.

So sure, you need to be out there, leading the way with new and unique ideas. Fresh takes on the industry – ideas that will potentially transform its future – are what marks you out as a unique and exciting thinker.

But you also need to talk to people about the questions that concern them right now.

Thought leadership is not always about being a visionary. Instead, it is also about giving your audience the relevant insight that they’re looking for at the moment.

Michael Brenner, one of the experts at Marketing Insider puts it nicely: “Your audience isn’t looking for your content to be differentiated all of the time. They are just looking for the best answers to the questions. Differentiate with your consistency by becoming an authority and by helping your customers with different types of content, every single day.”

It’s great advice.

  1. Make your advice actionable

You want to be seen as an influencer. Your goal is to become someone who has a direct, practical and tangible impact on your chosen industry, now and in the future.

The key to achieving this, I believe, is to make sure that all of your insight and advice is actionable. You are writing (and perhaps speaking) because you want to influence others. Everything you do needs to have a practical outcome.

So sure, come up with complex, unique, thought-provoking ideas. But the key here is that a) these new ideas always fulfil a need in your audience and b) you show people the actual steps they need to take to make these ideas a reality.

Of course, there is always a time and place for throwing something out there and trying to provoke a discussion. But I believe that as a thought leader you need to always be showing others the way ahead. The most powerful way to do this is to make the complex simple, and the intangible, tangible.

  1. Be accessible, reliable and trusted

A thought leader, by definition, has to be visible. So, choosing the channel you use to deliver your content is absolutely key. As a thought leader, you should always be looking to help your audience, in whatever way you can. Therefore identifying who that audience is and where they consume most of their content is crucial. You might be doing the rounds, making speeches at industry events. Or, you could be offering helpful, relevant advice on a blog like this one.

But of course becoming a successful thought leader is also all about being authentic too. You will need to build your reputation around the quality of your advice. Making it actionable is an important part of this, but this is also where you need to show that you’re listening to your audience. Make sure that you are always addressing their needs, not yours.

And building on this, here’s a final and very important point about the way you go about becoming a thought leader. Don’t explicitly self promote. One of the quickest ways to lose credibility is to make everything you’ve just said sound like a preamble for a sales pitch.

Instead, focus on helping your audience and showcasing your thinking in a particular area that benefits them. Explicitly referencing your product or service is unnecessary, and it ultimately undermines your authenticity.

You won’t become a thought leader overnight. This is a gradual process that relies on consistent, high quality and relevant content – so take your time, and don’t push too hard.