Admittedly, thought leadership is a buzzword. But like many buzzwords, rub away the patina of jargon and you’ll see there is substance relevance behind the popular phrase.

Thought leadership means having a reputation in the market as a company with unique, innovative, and important ideas about your industry, the forces shaping it, the challenges facing it, and the future awaiting it. As a thought leader, your company will gain credibility in the market and become a trusted advisor and partner. Potential customers will gravitate toward your products and services. Journalists will seek you out for quotes. Analysts will call you. Industry websites will link to you.

Thought leadership is especially important in B2B markets where the decision-making process can be long and complex, and involve multiple people who look at problems from various angles. But what every one of those people have are questions about the decisions they face. What they all need is an expert they can trust, someone (or company) who can demonstrate the knowledge and perspective to solve their problems. They need a thought leader.

Here’s how to be that thought leader that the market will turn to for expertise.

1. Focus on your audience
The number one attribute of thought leaders is they are able to provide answers to questions their audience has. Questions about approaches to solving problems. Questions about technology trends. Questions about industry best practices. Every industry is changing rapidly. Your audience has a multitude of questions that must be answered so they can make the right decisions about buying products or setting strategic direction. Answer those questions.

2. Sell ideas, not products
Your audience knows your company is in business to make a profit, but that doesn’t mean you should be trying at all times to be turning a profit. Before you can sell products and services, you need to be able to sell ideas. Offering intelligent, well-reasoned, and useful ideas is what will attract your audience. What will turn them off is trying to slip product pitches into articles, white papers, blog posts and other content that is allegedly educational in nature. Your audience will smell a rat.

3. Identify a niche
In this day of extreme market segmentation and specialization, the generalist thought leader is dead. The specialist survives. Choose a niche that is important to both your company and your audience. Focus on that arena to develop thought leadership. It’s best if you can choose a niche that is not already dominated by another company, so you can “own” the expertise. Putting your resources into one area of specialty means that you might have to sacrifice somewhere else. That’s okay because you’re choosing what’s most important to you and your audience. You’ll also be able to find targeted outlets—websites, e-publications, industry events—where you have a captive and motivated audience.

4. Give it time
More than most other initiatives, building a thought leadership platform takes time. Not only must you produce content to support your position, you must publish and distribute the content. You must participate in industry conferences and events. You must continue to repeat your position and perspective in order to be heard. All of this takes time—not days or weeks, but months and years. You don’t become a recognized thought leader overnight. The benefits are there, but they take time to accrue.

5. Educate and entertain
Your main goal is to educate your audience by being able to answer their questions and becoming a trusted resource. But you can’t do this with facts and figures alone. If you’re boring your audience won’t pay attention. In any communication today, there has to be some aspect of entertainment. But not dog and pony shows. Not juggling acts. The way to entertain is through stories: real-world experiences and anecdotes are the best ways to add entertainment to education. Get personal. Start sharing. Be human.

6. Don’t be a know-it-all
Being a thought leader doesn’t mean you know everything about a subject. And it definitely doesn’t mean you can predict the future with absolute accuracy. Instead it means you have enthusiasm for your subject matter. You have a vested interest in your industry niche. You are open to the possibilities the future may bring. You are able to admit you don’t know everything and at the same time you refuse to abandon your quest to advance the knowledge base in your industry.

7. Commit to producing and distributing content
There’s only one way to build your reputation: content. Your target audience is hungry for information. Thought leaders supply it. You should be pitching article ideas to relevant online publications in your industry and getting to know editors. You should also be moving forward with producing content on a regular basis in the form of blog posts, webinars, newsletters, white papers, videos and more. Distribute your thought leadership content on your website and through your social media platforms. Find a media partner with channels like e-newsletters, webinars, online events and banner advertisements that can help you distribute your content to a targeted and engaged audience.

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What steps have you taken to develop thought leadership in your industry? What tips and ideas would you pass along to your peers in industrial marketing? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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