Identifying thought leaders

The phrase “thought leadership” has become pretty commonplace in marketing conversations nowadays, but don’t dismiss it as just another buzzword.

Demonstrating your thought leadership shows customers and prospects that your company understands the issues they are facing and actively seeks out emerging trends and technologies that can help solve those issues.

However, while the overabundance of online publishing platforms gives everyone the ability to share their point of view, authoring a blog post won’t necessarily cement you as a thought leader.

The handful of people who truly embody what it means to be a thought leader have unique attributes that make their voices heard more clearly above the noise.

In 4 Characteristics of Great Thought Leadership Content, we highlighted how a company can elevate the quality of their content to develop a passionate and loyal following.

For brands that are just starting to produce content, identifying who is (or has the potential to become) a thought leader for your company is an essential first step.

We recently asked our ProfNet experts network “What makes a great thought leader?” and heard back from authors, speakers and executives throughout the marketing industry.

Here are their tips for identifying individuals whose expertise and influence can help your marketing and PR efforts shine.

Thought leaders change the industry for the better.

“A thought leader is willing to look at the rules in any industry or field or conventional wisdom and say ‘This is no longer wisdom,’” says Mark Stevens, CEO of MSCO Media and author of Your Marketing Sucks. “If your ideation has led to change then you are a thought leader.”

Stevens cites Bill Gates and Taylor Swift as thought leaders in their fields. It might not seem like the two have much in common, but both Gates and Swift have struggled with the trials and tribulations of the tech and music industries, defied norms, and changed their industries for the better.

Thought leaders don’t shy away from controversy.

The point of thought leadership is to inspire discussion, which sometimes means sharing a perspective that is not widely accepted.

This is why Linda Popky, president of Leverage2Market Associates and the author of Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing That Matters, notes that thick skin and strong self-esteem are helpful traits for thought leaders:

“Many people are not comfortable being on the leading edge of thought in their area of expertise –they’d rather look to others to guide the way. Thought leaders are not bothered by others who disagree or even argue with them. In fact, they expect to stir dissent and discussion.”

Thought leaders are sought out by others.

Don’t be misled by the flash of celebrity. “We consider celebrity a requirement for thought leaders, but that’s just marketing,” says Annette Kramer, a performance and business development consultant whose clients include Ogilvy and Reuters.

Thought leadership is not self-appointed. When others in your industry seek unsolicited advice from you, it signifies that you have established your authority.

Kramer explains that every industry has its “thinkers” and “followers.” Thinkers have the ability to change others’ minds and actions, inspiring followers to apply their principles, succeed as they did, and potentially become thought leaders in their own right.

Thought leaders rank well in search results.

Most people head to search engines to seek answers to their questions, which is why coming up in search results for keywords pertaining to your niche can be another important marker of a thought leader.

In fact, according to John McDougall, CEO of McDougall Interactive Marketing and author of the college textbook Web Marketing on All Cylinders, a person’s value as a thought leader can have a considerable influence on search rankings.

As an extension of their mathematical algorithms, Google employs a team of quality raters whose job is to review and rate websites against the “EAT” principles: expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness.

“If you are not only an expert but an authority and have positive reviews and signals of trust, then you’re going to rank much better in Google,” says McDougall.

Thought leaders look to the future.

The pace of change happening in marketing is unprecedented as a result of the technology boom. A true thought leader is not just prepared in the present, but also preparing for what’s next.

“I believe that thought leaders have vision of what is next to come. Not what’s happening now and not what’s happened in the past, but what the future is going to hold,” says Rob Basso, a small business expert and regular contributor to Fox Business News. “You’re considered a thought leader only after you’ve created new ways of thinking and a blueprint for other people to follow. “

When you are identifying thought leaders at your organization, remember that influence is not necessarily defined by age or job title. Instead, it is about using life experiences to fearlessly dictate the changes that need to happen to help your industry grow.

Learn how to leverage your brand’s subject matter experts and other less traditional assets with our white paper Redefining Newsworthiness: New Opportunities to Earn Media & Attention for Your Brand.