When it comes to content marketing — the way we build an audience, establish authority, and promote our products and services — a lot of Thought Leaders just throw stuff at the wall on a fairly irregular basis and see what sticks.
Because although they have an ill-defined and under-thought goal of “being a Thought Leader,” they don’t have a system. They know who they want to be, but they don’t really know what it takes to become that person. They don’t have a path charted out. It’s therefore no surprise that a lot of Thought Leaders confuse activity for accomplishment.
Most people want to achieve “Thought Leadership” because they want the status that comes along with the position. But I suggest that “Thought Leadership” is not who you are, but what you do.
So what is a budding Thought Leader to do? Write a book? Sure — that is something the public generally understands as a hallmark of authority. And you’ll know what to do next because you have books to sell. But it won’t make you a Thought Leader — it makes you an author. The bad news is that very few copies of most books are sold these days, and even fewer are read. Not to mention the fact that there is a difference between someone consuming your content and adopting you as their Thought Leader.
In order to use content to build authority in your marketplace, build an audience, and generate leads or sales for your business, you should ditch the idea of a one-off effort that serves as a “silver bullet” to achieve all your hopes and dreams overnight. You need a sustainable, realistic system that runs on a day-in-day-out basis.
Benefits of A Thought Leadership System
Components Can Be Optimized
You can break a system down into its component parts, and then have benchmarks and KPI’s to monitor progress and improve your results. As you improve each element of the system, you get an exponential improvement in your net results. Getting this continuous feedback will help you stay on track and keep you accountable for the results you expect.
Systems Make Your Actions Clearer
When your system is well thought out and your objectives for each component are clear, you always know what you need to do and have a plan for getting it done. Additionally, because you will always know your next action, you won’t feel the need to get distracted (shiny object syndrome) by ideas that may or may not fit into your overall plan.
Systems Reduce Overwhelm & Increase Efficiency
A well thought out system means fewer opportunities for decision-making. This reduced cognitive load helps you stay in implementation mode and allows you to create better Thought Leadership Content. The system I’m about to introduce certainly does not run itself, but it keeps your efforts effective and efficient.
The Educated Authority Thought Leadership System
A “system,” as I define it for this purpose, is “a series of repeated behaviors that create progress toward a goal.” Although your system implementation make not look exactly like the system of another Thought Leader, both systems will have the same basic parts.
There are five components of the Educated Authority Thought Leadership System. Each minute you’re working on establishing, building, and maintaining your status as a Thought Leader, you’re doing one of five types of activities: learning, publishing, productizing, promoting, or retaining.
Although it sounds simple, we could realistically spend an entire day analyzing each component, choosing and refining the tactics that make the most sense for your business. We don’t have time or space for that here, so I’m only going to be able to give you a brief overview of each type of activity and one or two suggestions for tactics you might implement in each area.
Thought Leaders must not only master their subject, but all the topics that are adjacent to it. For example, a Thought Leader who is an expert on marketing should also be able to speak intelligently about consumer psychology.
So learn deep and wide, and don’t ever think you’re done learning. Thought Leaders must also continually add mental models and new ways to explain their concepts to their audience. This will help keep your communication fresh and interesting.
If you feel like you have run out of things to say to your audience, it’s because you’re not doing this step, or at least not doing it well enough. You should be seeing new connections, having new ideas, and finding new ways to teach your material on a reasonably frequent and consistent basis. If you’re experiencing a lack of output, it means that you are experiencing a lack of input as well.
Thought Leaders publish. That’s what we do, and there’s no way around it. And I’m not talking about writing a book — we’ll put that activity in the next category. I’m also not talking about promoting your products. We’ll do that in another category as well.
When I advise Thought Leaders to publish, I mean that they should document their work and learning. This is one of the ways you will demonstrate authority, build your audience, and build trust with that audience. You can publish on your blog, podcast, and/or video channel… whatever the best medium is for your message.
This is where the money is made: whether you write a book, produce an online course, or enter into coaching or consulting agreements. There are many different formats and information structures, so it’s a matter of picking the right strategy for your information, your goals, and the needs of the customer.
I can’t tell you how many Thought Leaders I’ve met that have been great at learning and publishing, but they struggle to package their information into a sellable solution for their audience. It’s a shame because they go fundamentally unrewarded for all their learning and hard work.
Don’t be a Thought Leader who doesn’t productize. And if you are, get help so you can get paid.
There won’t be a day as a Thought Leader when you shouldn’t be doing one thing or another to promote yourself, your ideas, and your products or services. This is where the offers are set up and made.
A lot of Thought Leaders find promotion difficult, so they avoid it in hopes of not coming across as too “salesy,” or too much like some sort of late-night infomercial host. Some of them think that if they just teach enough free material, the audience will someday hopefully decide to purchase something on their own. Although there is a kernel of truth to that sentiment, it is a dangerous plan that is likely to end in bankruptcy. Without the embedded psychological tactics designed to lead the audience subconsciously down the path to an almost inevitable purchase, there is no hope of that strategy working out in the near or long term.
Retention, in this context, means that you retain a customer for as long as you possibly can. You want to build a relationship with your customers so that you can sell them things over a long period of time, helping them as they learn and grow. And also boosting your profits in return. You’ll end up paying to get every customer (customers never show up for free) so you want to make that return on investment as high as you can.
Retention is important in Thought Leadership because relationship is important in Thought Leadership. If you don’t have a relationship, you don’t have a follower — you’re just a source of information. If you don’t have a follower, you’re not a leader. And I would also add that, maybe most importantly, if you don’t have a follower, you don’t have a customer. And if you don’t have a customer, you don’t have a business.
Building Habits Into The Thought Leadership System
As we established above, Thought Leadership is about what you do, not about who you are. We then explored a comprehensive system for categorizing the regular, consistent activities of Thought Leadership. We might call the actions taken within those categories “habits.” Specifically, habits are the repeated behaviors within the system.
Habits make progress easier and reliable
I see a lot of Thought Leaders making progress in “fits and starts,” where they may go days or weeks without any measurable progress. By building habits into a Thought Leadership system, you ensure that change happens, not so much automatically, but far more reliably and consistently. Habits lead to powerful, real change and you can use them to build your Thought Leadership.
Now let’s move into the specific habits you can implement for each category of Thought Leadership activities. I’ll give you one or two suggestions for each type of activity, although they may or may not be the best activities for your situation. There are many options for each type, and selecting the right activities at the right time in your business may require some one-on-one consultation with an expert — like, me, the person who developed this system.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the rise of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) systems. I think this is a wonderful tool for Thought Leaders to enable them to learn and publish at their very best. Without getting too much into the minute details of what your PKM system could or should look like, the basic premise for the Learning category is to create notes that interconnect and establish relationships between concepts and ideas. So a PKM system is not just about remembering information, but using it in interesting ways.
One method of making and storing notes is the use of a Zettlekasten, which is German for “slip box.” This method has been around since the sixteenth century, but was popularized by sociologist Niklas Luhmann. For more information on this type of PKM, I suggest the book “How to Take Smart Notes” by Dr. Sönke Ahrens.
I strongly suggest setting aside five hour per week of “learning time.” One way to maximize this time is to use a little trick I picked up over the winter: listen to the audio book and read it at the same time. You should be able to easily consume the book at 2-3x speed on the audio book.
I use a Boox Note Air 2 e-ink tablet in split-screen mode so I can read using the Kindle and take notes as I go along. It’s similar to the “Remarkable 2” which you have no doubt seen advertised, but it’s a much more flexible device.
One trend that I think will probably forever change the way Thought Leaders interact with their audience is public notes, which is sometimes referred to as “digital gardening.” This is a great way to “show your work” to your audience, attract new followers, and build your relationship with them. Instead of waiting until you’ve fully developed your ideas, you publish things you’ve learned as you go. These notes could also be put to use as a product following the model of “selling your sawdust.”
Try to publish something every day — one thing you’ve learned in your reading time for that day.
Thought Leaders need to regularly and consistently solicit or absorb customer feedback. This habit will pay dividends in not only improving your products or services, but also will help you to discover unrealized customer needs, which may help you to create new products or a new way to market your existing products.
Additionally, try to spend some time on a regular basis either working on new products or adding more value to existing products. As you learn new information, see if you can either tie that information into an existing product, or add that information to an outline for a new product.
Promotion is definitely a daily habit you want to build and maintain. Don’t leave your office without doing at least one thing that creates sales, either directly or indirectly. That may consist of working on a sales letter or video, sending some bit of information to an interested prospect, or emailing your list. Every work day should move the ball forward, even if only a little bit.
Another great habit to get into is to build a “swipe file” of interesting marketing you find, either in your market or, more preferably, outside of it. You’ll use it to build your sales materials and find inspiration for offers or promotions.
In addition to the information you provide your audience, you should also bring them storylines about the attractive character of your public persona. Bring them along on your adventures, and let them know your origin story and your reason why you do what you do.
One massive suggestion I think every Thought Leader should take is to engage in the “virtual world building” of creating a “place” for your audience to hang out. I don’t mean just an online place, but a state of mind (think “Margaritaville”). This is the place where you and your followers use coded language, and have permission slips to be themselves. Your audience knows they’ll fit in there.
Don’t think you can build the business you probably want just by providing information without some form of entertainment. Your audience will quickly grow bored, dry up, and take off in search of more engaging sources of information and inspiration. Put some time into creating that emotional bond.
Habit Best Practices
Hopefully, I’ve given you some ideas about habits you can incorporate into your Thought Leadership activities. Next, I’ll share some advice from my “Thought Leader Habits” deep dive I did last month. I’ll share some notes from two of the best books on building habits: Atomic Habits by James Clear and Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. I’m not going to put you through a traditional book review, but instead I will just share some of my notes I think are most relevant to this article. If you can only read one book about habit formation, read Atomic Habits.
Assuming the Role of a Thought Leader
In “Atomic Habits,” we first learn that if you want to change your habits, whether it is to rid yourself of a bad habit or to install a new habit, you first must change your identity. In that spirit, I want to encourage you to start being a Thought Leader right now, even if you still need to build expertise and an audience. The reason I recommend this is because successful implementation of habit often springs from a sense of identity. The conversation with yourself goes like this: “I’m a Thought Leader, and Thought Leaders publish their work. Therefore, I publish my work. It’s what I do.” So it’s not about working to become something, but being what you are and reinforcing that identity every day, even in very small ways.
One of the things about Thought Leadership is that Thought Leadership itself is very hard to measure. That’s why we use lagging indicators like revenue (always important), sales, and email list size, and web traffic. But in the meantime, find ways to track your progress as you complete your daily habits. You may also want to invest a bit of time in creating some sort of habit tracker so you can monitor your consistency.
Immediately after you execute a habit, reward yourself in a proportionate way. These rewards should be immediate and pleasurable. Don’t confuse these rewards for incentives, like “when I lose 30 lbs, I’ll take that vacation.”
In addition to rewards, do your best to make the habit satisfying. This may mean that as you execute the habit, you are doing something pleasurable, like listening to music.
If there is one thing I hope I’ve convinced you of in this special issue of Authority Gold, it’s that a “Thought Leader” is first and foremost a set of actions. You can become a well-rewarded Thought Leader by taking the simple (but decidedly not easy) required actions.
A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2022 edition of Authority Gold, my free (so far) monthly newsletter for emerging and established Thought Leaders. In Authority Gold, I write about how Thought Leaders can create impact and wealth by ethically using the propaganda and persuasion tactics used by historical figures who have changed the world — for better or worse. You can subscribe for free at educatedauthority.com/newsletter.