Positioning for thought leaders

Sure, it sounds attractive to be a “thought leader.” You just hold yourself out as an expert on something and then post a lot on social media and wait for the speaking and consulting gigs come pouring in, right?

Not quite. There are a lot of pretenders out there. And there are a lot of legitimate experts to compete with in any space you’d like to enter. It’s crowded, and shouting the loudest will not make you the winner.

You need a way to stand out. That’s what thought leader positioning is all about.

How I know this

I spent 20 years as a technology analyst. Technology analysts are basically the archetypal thought leaders — they do research, figure out what they think will happen, name trends, make projections, do lots of public speaking, and get quoted in the press. Some of them even define markets.

During my time at Forrester Research, I got to the top of this heap twice. In the early 2000s, I was the country’s top analyst in the future of television, and eventually, the most quoted analyst in the country. And at the end of that decade, I was an influential social media analyst and coauthor of a bestselling book on the topic of how companies could leverage social media — I gave almost 200 speeches on it.

At the end of my tenure at Forrester, my job was to help other analysts gain influence, including as authors of books for Forrester. And since then, I’ve worked with dozens of authors who sought to be influential on topics as varied as artificial intelligence, small business branding, the future of transportation, personal networking, brand licensing, political polarization, and cybersecurity. And I built my own brand as a leader on business books — writing, publishing, and promotions for authors.

Prerequisites for thought leaders

If you hope to be a thought leader, you need these qualities and skills:

  • You must be an actual expert on the topic you have chosen. That means you’ve got lots of personal experience or you’ve done extensive primary research (that is, talking to actual practitioners, not reading articles!).
  • You need ideas. Thought leaders share ideas.
  • You must be highly visible. That means giving speeches at conferences, blogging, doing podcasts or videos, posting on social media, writing bylined articles in publications, or otherwise getting the word out about your ideas.
  • You must be persistent. You can’t flit from topic to topic or duck in and out of the spotlight; you need to put in sustained effort over a period of years, keeping up to date and sharing a constant stream of ideas and insights.

But that’s not enough. You need a unique positioning to take these qualities and turn them into actual thought leadership.

The 7 types of thought leader positioning

How will you stand out. That’s your positioning. You cannot just stand up and say “I am a marketing thought leader” (how many of those are there?) or “I’m a leading voice in the streaming media space.”

Here are some ways you can position yourself. Every aspiring thought leader should pick a positioning persona from this list:

  • Trailblazer. You can stand out by being the first to identify a new trend and becoming the definitive expert on that trend — naming it and developing ideas about it. If people identify you with the trend, you stand out. In my days as a television technology expert, I coined the term “personal video recorder” (later, they became known as DVRs) and was consistently ahead of others in analyzing the shift to TV viewing outside of normal broadcast and cable channels and schedules. The challenges with being first are (1) it takes enormous effort to stay ahead of trends; there are always new developments to follow, and (2) if you are too far ahead of the trend, you can be wrong, and it may never catch on. (All the cryptocurrency experts are wondering if this is about to happen to them right now.)
  • Niche dominator. It’s too late to be the expert in marketing, or even the expert in content marketing. But specialize, and you can be the dominant expert in, say, content marketing for manufacturing companies, or content marketing on TikTok. When you dominate a niche like this, the startups and specialists within companies all know who you are; you become the big fish in the small pond. When I was the top TV analyst, I could walk down the aisle at a cable TV conference and bump into a couple dozen people who all knew me and wanted to hear the latest; that was my niche. The challenge with this is that the niche can be too small to support you, which is why niche dominators often expand into adjacent niches to broaden their appeal — but only after they’ve conquered their original niche.
  • Data maven. Collect and publish enough hard data about your field and you’ll have instant credibility. That data could come from surveys, financial reports, or proprietary data streams from industry participants. To turn that data into a defensible position as a thought leader, you’ll need to build analysis on top of it: tell people not just what you found, but what it means. Thought leadership based on data is expensive to create, but highly defensible — at least as long as the structure of your industry stays stable. (Think of how much less valuable TV viewing data is now that streaming has muddied the idea of an audience.)
  • Clever wit. Coin a phrase. Draw a diagram that everybody references. Capture people’s imagination. These are all good ways to stand out a thought leader. If you have the kind of psyche that is brimming with ideas and good at generating clever names for them, you can build a personal brand on that. (When Charlene Li and I came up with the POST method for social media strategy — People, Objectives, Strategy, Technology — we built a framework that every social media strategist could feel comfortable embracing and sharing.) But clever only goes so far; some of your ideas will be misses, and there’s always some other clever wit trying to redefine what’s important in your space.
  • Schmoozer. Some people just have a talent for making friends. They expand their network and use the power of that network to establish themselves as a leader in the space. Such networks are robust and with a little renewal, will bolster your staying power. But networking alone is never enough; you need ideas to go along with the relationships, or you’ll strike out on the “thought” and “leader” qualities.
  • Author. Write the definitive book on a topic. The author persona includes elements of trailblazer, data maven, and clever wit, but goes further, because a book-length treatise demands broader, deeper research and a more cohesive set of ideas. The danger here is that most books don’t hit the target, and a poor-selling book won’t help you lead the thinking in any space.
  • Lead singer. When an entire organization is conducting research and consulting in a given space, they’ll sometimes designate a single person to be the front-man or -woman. The lead singer in the band gets all the attention, even if others behind the scenes are doing a lot of the research and idea generation. This is a challenging role to fill, because organizations have their own agendas that don’t necessarily match the ambitions of the lead singer. Plus, when the front-person and the organization part ways, who gets custody of the ideas? I’ve seen lead singers — including those who founded the organizations they were representing — run afoul of challenging political headwinds as their organizations grew.

If your positioning is murky, you won’t stand out. You’ll be just one of those many voices in your field . . . and that’s no way to lead people’s thinking. So pick a positioning persona and work on it. Then you’ll have the chance to spread your ideas in a way that generates a growing, engaged, and profitable audience.

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  1. This is great stuff. It’s implied in what you’ve written above, but I think the best thought leaders are driven by a restless (and relentless) curiosity. Not only about a topic in the abstract, but in its practical relevance – why and how does this matter?

  2. A man from West Africa once said to me “Eef you hef to say you are keeng, you are not keeng.” That comes back to mind every time I see someone who claims thought leadership.