Thought Leadership on a Shoestring

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How much does it cost to become a thought leader?

When I meet with marketers and leaders at smaller organizations, I’ve noticed they’re often worried that they don't have enough resources to make a splash.

That’s not necessarily true. But when your budget is limited, you do have to be strategic and intentional as you try to elbow your way into the conversation.

If you have big ideas but little or no budget, consider these four simple steps to develop your thought leadership.

Step 1: Have Thoughts

I realize this might seem fairly obvious, but a lot of people try to skip the “thought” part of thought leadership.

You can spot this issue by taking a look at what you're publishing now and asking yourself: If we dropped this content on a competitor’s website, would anyone be able to tell the difference? For a lot of people, the answer, unfortunately, is no.

So how do we get past the buzzwords and develop perspectives that stand out? It starts with our own reading habits. Thought leaders are learners, and reading and engaging with thought-provoking content by other people is critical for developing your own ideas. Try to spend an hour a day reading industry publications and general business magazines like the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey Quarterly. And of course, you should also look at your competitors’ content — just don't copy it. Ask yourself: How can I respond to what I'm reading? Can I build on it or challenge it?

As you're expanding your knowledge base, you also want to get in touch with your own expertise. That can be more challenging than people realize because we tend to take our own expertise for granted.

I rely on two techniques for uncovering those unique insights, both borrowed from David C. Baker. First, record calls with prospects and customers — with permission, of course. Transcribe these calls and review them. Look for the moments where you’re delivering your expertise in a way that changes the perspective of the other person.

If you’re not comfortable recording calls, get a colleague to join you on calls and in meetings. Ask them to listen for the signs that you’re delivering “aha” moments. Have them take notes and debrief you afterward.

Step 2: Be a Leader

The other half of the job is leadership.

As a thought leader, your job is to shape the conversation, creating spaces to develop and spread your ideas. That doesn’t mean blasting out 20 tweets a day or sending a daily email full of random links with no context. That's just digital pollution.

If your ideas are any good, there's a good chance you're going to see them pop up elsewhere. Your colleagues may even start fretting about revealing your secrets to the competition. Or other people may start copying and pasting your material under their byline.

If people are stealing your ideas — with or without crediting you — you know you've arrived as a thought leader.

 

Step 3: Choose A Platform

So you have thoughts. You’re ready to lead. It’s time to get your ideas out there.

But because you’re on a shoestring, you don’t have the reach big companies do. You don't have the budget to try a bunch of things to see what works.

Instead, focus your efforts. Choose one channel, and own it.

Now, which one do you choose? LinkedIn? Twitter? Maybe it’s Facebook or an email newsletter. All that matters is that you choose the one that you feel most comfortable with, and the one that will bring you the most joy.

Here are a few tips and tricks for each:

  • LinkedIn: LinkedIn is a great platform to share ideas (I’ve written before about why I love it so much). Those could be your original ideas, or curated ideas you like from other people. Share things you’ve read that have made an impact on you. Check out David Green’s LinkedIn profile if you haven’t. He’s one of my favorite LinkedIn follows, and he’s figured out every nook and cranny of their algorithm.
  • Email: Every Sunday morning, I make time to read Hung Lee’s email newsletter. To me, it’s the ultimate case study for email newsletters. The secret to its success is Hung’s authentic voice. He curates a list of links, and he writes insightful commentary around each link. He tells us what he thinks is interesting and why it’s important. He’s not scared to dip into politics — you know that no matter what you’re reading, you’re reading what Hung truly thinks. He also takes the time to publicly thank anyone who promotes or shares his newsletter. It’s a great way to build a community.
  • Twitter: Twitter’s algorithms have changed recently in a very interesting way. More and more, Twitter is now a place for real conversations, instead of a jungle of links and retweets. In fact, if you pump out too many tweets, the algorithm will actually punish you for that behavior. So find a way to be human. Provide interesting content and participate in the conversation. If you need a good model to follow, check out my friend Laurie Ruettimann's feed.
  • Facebook: When you're on a shoestring in B2B marketing, I don't necessarily recommend Facebook. While Facebook is still good for advertising, changes to its algorithms have made Facebook very unpredictable. If you’re seeing success there already, then stick with it! But for many people, a different platform will be more effective on a tight budget.
  • Podcast: Whatever you do, don’t start a podcast. I know they’re awesome, and it really seems like everyone else is starting a podcast. But podcasts are best for people who already have audiences. If you are on a shoestring, you probably don’t. Here’s my caveat to that advice: there’s still a way to fill that podcast itch — go be on someone else’s podcast instead! Since everyone really is starting their own podcast, there’s never been a greater need for guests. Go out and build your audience!

 

Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Rep Cap. Before creating her own content marketing firm, she served as director of content development and a senior general business and finance editor at SmartBrief, a leading publisher of e-mail newsletters. Before joining SmartBrief, she spent 8 years at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department. You can find Mary Ellen on Twitter @MESlayter.

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