Successful, fast-growing small businesses and startups generate awareness, credibility and trust – ultimately influencing audience behaviors. In order to do so, they became industry thought leaders.

Creating industry thought leadership for your startup, small business or client should be one of the key goals of your public relations program. If it isn’t, you need to rethink your PR endeavors.

Many public relations programs focus primarily on media relations, content marketing and social media. The best way for small businesses to generate thought leadership is by cultivating industry influencers.

So who the heck are industry influencers and why is cultivating them so valuable?

Classically, the public relations discipline focused on the media – newspapers, business publications, trade magazines and broadcast outlets. The advent of the modern-day, easily accessible Internet meant nothing short of a total upheaval in the media industry. In a period of just a few years, healthy newspapers, broadcast outlets, magazines and newsletters saw their marketing dollars taken away and appropriated for website advertising.

Publications that had rushed to secure “eyeballs” online were being savaged because advertisers had a more difficult grasp of evaluating and monetizing website visitors to a web page. That continues to this day. What it meant for the media industry was a slashing of editorial team budgets, smaller publications and a tendency to focus reporter efforts across a wide coverage area. Other than in some areas of the trade publication realm, the media had lost institutional knowledge about given industries.

Then two things happened.

Technology gives and takes, and in this case it provided a simple set of tools that allowed everyone to have a voice on the Internet and publish their thoughts.


Over a very short period of time, old school reporters and editors began to build publication brands of their own using these tools to both publish and manage advertisers. But it did not stop there. Moms got an opportunity to become media mavens. Dads too. A whole group of experts on a given topic became published too. A whole new publishing industry was born.

The other large shift occurred when reporters at the traditional newspaper, publishing and media outlets began to rely on industry experts to provide context to their stories. As a technology industry veteran, this was already a best practice. We leveraged the fact that media relied heavily on industry analysts for their insights and expertise. This was also the case in a number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Today, there is a broad landscape of industry influencers to cultivate. The following illustration is how we segment industry influencers for the technology community. It is not exhaustive, but a very good representation.

Other industries will have their own influencer ecosystems. Please note that the reporters at respected media outlets can now be classified as industry influencers.

Let’s recap. Industry influencers are powerful because they are industry experts and have powerful connections within an industry. We just noted that they are reporters or are quoted by media. They also publish studies and bylined articles. They speak at industry events. They speak at corporate events. They publish blogs and they use social media. In the case of professors and think tanks, they teach the next generation through lectures.

Perhaps most importantly, they drive the conversation in a given market. Self-promotion gets you only so far. Having the industry influencers talk about your young company, and possibly project your key messages, that is powerful word-of-mouth marketing.

If a startup or small business wants to gain awareness, credibility and trust – in other words become a thought leader – this is the group of people to cultivate. What makes this so powerful and cost-efficient is that cultivating relationships with the top-50 influencers in a given industry will put a company right into the middle of the conversation.

My next column will discuss how small businesses can effectively cultivate and activate industry influencers.