DC Thought Leadership for Entrepreneurs

Thought Leadership for Entrepreneurs

What it is, why you need it and how to master it

Imagine having an audience hanging on every word you speak, businesses reaching out for your expertise, and a stream of opportunities ranging from speaking engagements to lucrative partnerships. It’s the dream of every entrepreneur.

When you have added the finishing touches to a recently launched product or service and present it to the world, the anticipation for feedback is palpable. It’s only natural to desire influence and visibility at that point, more than ever before. Your visibility and credibility are enhanced when you have a robust executive presence, conveying all that you have to offer, matched by the credibility stemming from years of experience.

For small to mid-sized business owners, achieving these results and more is possible by strategically investing time and resources in building thought leadership. 

In this article, I put the case forward for why small to mid-sized business owners must consider the value and strategic purpose of thought leadership and practical steps to begin this journey themselves. 

What’s ahead in this article:

  • Galvanise action
  • The purpose of thought leadership
  • Build a robust body of work
    • Step 1 Take stock
    • Step 2 Determine key focus areas for your thought leadership
    • Step 3 Evaluate the best way to deliver your thought leadership
    • Step 4 Set up for success
    • Step 5 Plan an editorial calendar
    • Step 6 Develop, edit, publish and promote

Galvanise action

Meet Sarah, a well-regarded workshop facilitator and executive coach. Based in Sydney, Australia, Sarah has been coaching C-suite executives and senior leadership teams for over 15 years. For most of this time, Sarah has achieved considerable success through word-of-mouth and clients who have happily been retained for years. 

However, Sarah is keen to grow her business this year and knows that this requires her to increase the professional visibility of her brand and that of her business. While she has a LinkedIn profile, she is not very active and she also does not have a business website. Sarah does not blog or write articles but is open to doing so. What could Sarah do to support building her business?

Thought leadership, for a small business owner like Sarah, who seeks increased business visibility or expanded customer bases, extends beyond delivering genuine content. Genuine here implies delivering something meaningful, authentic and original. While many individuals have expressed their thoughts and insights on topics Sarah may choose to address, thought leadership requires Sarah to share her unique perspective and experience. 

The goal for Sarah is to showcase her expertise to her audience, which includes potential and current customers, through insights and stories, with the singular aim of delivering value.  Done right, Sarah’s visibility and credibility will increase, although these are not the intended primary outcomes.

For Sarah, thought leadership can lead to sales and new business development, contingent on factors such as marketing, the size of her team, product/service refinement and more.

The purpose of thought leadership

Good strategic thought leadership can help Sarah assist others by offering a unique perspective, experimenting with new approaches, or solving critical problems. The starting point is for Sarah to take a stand, being purposeful and clear in her delivery. She raises awareness of the issues that matter to her and her audience.

However, this takes work.

Sharing thoughts and insights to shift perspectives or galvanise action requires several things initially: trust, credibility, and patience, and not necessarily in that order. 

Sarah speaks for herself and her business. For her audience to consider what she says, there must be an understanding that she possesses integrity and a certain cachet. 

In a face-to-face environment, Sarah’s audience can verify the situation directly and in real time, considering her content, poise, tone and delivery. First impressions matter in face-to-face interactions, and they can be strengthened in follow-up conversations, whether in a group setting or individual conversations.

But what about in a digital environment? This is when Sarah’s personal brand and digital profile take on a heightened significance. 

Sarah’s audience will go to what is readily available, and rely on what they find, which makes first impressions critical. 

What does Sarah’s digital personal brand speak to? How is Sarah’s digital profile presenting her? Is everything discoverable online about Sarah placed there by Sarah or by others? Is everything available about Sarah online representing her well? Thought leadership is Sarah’s opportunity to shape the discourse. 

Build a robust body of work

Sarah can begin her thought leadership journey by carefully curating the content that best represents her and her business. Thought leadership is her opportunity to speak to her expertise, elevate her brand and business, and support her customers. I call this Sarah’s body of work.

As an individual, Sarah’s body of work is something tangible that her audience can use to assess whether she is who she says she is. She can do this by writing an article, developing a case study or infographic, creating a slide deck, or giving an interview. 

Businesses understand the value of this, which is why content marketing exists and is so widely used. 

Content marketing is a strategy used to attract, engage and retain an audience by sharing content which may be developed as a video, blog post, podcast or other media. As a business, it provides an opportunity to establish expertise and promote brand awareness.

This is “show, don’t tell” in action. Through powerful narrative, your audience gets to experience your story through actions, words, subtext and feelings rather than through a description or summary.

There are several ways to do this, and all are powerful. The power lies in storytelling and the development of credible material that informs, educates, inspires and propels action. The steps below outline how Sarah (and any business leader) can begin her thought leadership journey. 

Step 1 Take stock 

Evaluate what has already been developed

Sarah’s first step is not to jump straight into writing an article. A better start is for her to evaluate her existing body of work. She likely has some material, finished and unfinished, whether paper-based, from talks delivered years ago, or captured by others she has worked with, drafts long-forgotten and more. Some of these may present good starting points.

Reflect and connect the dots

But often enough, much of that body of work would sit in Sarah’s head. Her job is to distil, separate, and bring those ideas to life on paper. Evaluating and taking stock of the material she has already developed is useful so that she is not reinventing the wheel.

The content she begins developing or refining may start with what she has already created. If this content is an article she wrote a few years ago, she could review it:

  • Does it need to be refreshed and updated with new topics? 
  • Can she add resources to make it more relevant in today’s climate? 
  • Should anything be removed? 

Step 2 Determine key focus areas for thought leadership

Consider challenges resolved

Sarah should review her business and the problems her business addresses. She can reflect on her range of experience and expertise and how this connects to her business. She can consider the direction of her business and her key outcomes. 

She should look for the things that bring her ideas, experiences and expertise together to develop her business narrative. She can bring it all together as her business’s elevator pitch

Consider the target audience

Sarah must reflect on her target audience and customer types and ask herself these questions: 

  • Who is my target audience?
  • What do they need and care about? 
  • Is there more than one audience type? 
  • How can I reach my target audience?

Again, Sarah’s business’s focus areas will determine the direction of the content created.

Are there particular services to showcase? Has there been a service recently launched? Sarah should identify the things that many clients look to her for and explore how to leverage their attention.

Sarah can also determine focus areas by considering how her unique skills and experience solve certain problems. It is worthwhile for her to consider relevant keywords associated with her subject matter expertise. Feedback from her clients can also shed light on how they believe they are supported. All of this is useful for Sarah to explore how she can create meaningful content. 

Consider the content pillars

Sarah’s focus areas become her content pillars or content categories. 

Just like a good movie has central elements that weave a plot together, the content pillars are the key themes Sarah keeps returning to and uses to consistently define her business’s brand. The good news is that Sarah need not limit herself to just one content pillar. She can have several content pillars that form the foundation of her content strategy, and which can also be supported by secondary content. 

For instance, if you are a fitness coach, your content pillars might be wellness tips, nutrition and weight-training advice. Each topic becomes a building block that is part of your overall brand’s story.

What is the end goal for Sarah? Success is achieved when someone thinks of a particular content pillar or category, and Sarah’s brand and business naturally come first to mind.  Her positioning and elevator pitch must sit alongside her key focus areas, helping inform the type of content she develops. Working on it in this order ensures alignment, consistency, and a singular focus in everything she does.

Step 3 Evaluate the best way to deliver thought leadership

Some prefer to write articles, while others may love to record videos instead. The creatives may relish the idea of crafting an infographic or putting together a slide deck. 

As a small or mid-sized business owner, Sarah naturally will want to go for the quick win. She should choose a mode of delivery that sits easily with her. If Sarah enjoys writing, she should write an article. If she enjoys speaking, she should record a video. Once she decides on the mode that she is most comfortable in, this can be how she delivers the majority of her thought leadership. 

Step 4 Set up for success 

Developing the thought leadership for Sarah’s business cannot be a one-time effort. In order to gain professional visibility, build her reputation, and be known for her chosen areas of expertise, Sarah must commit to producing and promoting a certain volume of work. Notice the emphasis on both production and promotion.

Additionally, she must set herself up for success.  

Let’s say that she decides writing will be her medium of choice. She should have a website with a blogging feature so that she can house all her thought leadership pieces. Guest posting on third-party websites and mainstream media publications is valuable. She also has the option to write native LinkedIn articles because there’s no cost to doing so. 

However, Sarah is building a robust body of work and it needs to sit somewhere credible, trusted and reliable.

Third-party websites and social media are good ways to drive attention and traffic but once that is achieved, where does Sarah want her readers to go? Where does she house all of her best material? Where does she go where she can control exactly what she puts out and when to do so? This is her website: her personal and business websites.

Step 5 Plan an editorial calendar

An editorial calendar is simply a plan that allows you to develop your business content and schedule it across all of your social media accounts. Teams typically work with editorial calendars because it helps them manage multiple pieces of content and varying roles and responsibilities. 

However, even if Sarah were to work on her marketing efforts alone, it would be worthwhile for her to develop an editorial calendar so she can get a quick overview of her plan – content, timeframes, platforms, keywords and more. 

At its simplest, Sarah can develop a plan over a three, six or twelve-month period, identifying:

  • how frequently she will publish content
  • where there is more than one type of content, a way to distinguish between different formats such as video and article
  • how her editorial calendar will be used – as a tool to brainstorm and dump ideas, to collaborate and refine, or to assign work to others in real-time
  • the various steps that a piece of content needs to go through before publishing, such as the review process and ancillary tasks (such as creating a headline image, paragraph headings and relevant hashtags)
  • the format in which the calendar will be used and shared. For example, will Sarah use a tailored app or a spreadsheet?

The key is to keep things simple. Sarah must not over-complicate matters, and create too many processes and bureaucracy. The more steps there are, the more complexity is added, and this can result in significant hurdles in getting started. 

Sarah needs to get started and celebrate the quick wins. This gives her the drive and momentum to keep going.

Step 6 Develop, edit, publish and promote

The creative process involved in developing a piece of content includes: 

  • planning around a theme or topic and how this sits alongside other pieces in the editorial calendar
  • writing the piece of content
  • editing it to check for errors, flow and tone of voice
  • preparing for publication by developing a cover image, identifying keywords and hashtags and preparing the author bio
  • publishing the final piece
  • promoting the content through word of mouth and social media

Ways to create ease and flow

To help Sarah start or continue, there are several things she can do to ease this process: 

  • focus on just one key topic or theme for starters
  • keep her content short. If it is a video, keep it to 2 to 3 minutes. If it is an article, cap it at around 600 – 700 words or less
  • always be guided by the audience she intends to serve
  • once an article is written, for instance, she must step into her audience’s shoes to evaluate if this is helpful and insightful
  • pass the article along to close friends or colleagues who are happy to provide feedback

A topic, particularly when large and complex, can be spread out over multiple pieces of content such as a series of consecutive blog posts. An article or video does not need to be exhaustive. Sarah should block time out in her calendar for the content development process and be generous with her time, particularly in the early stages.

In conclusion, developing thought leadership is a powerful way to establish yourself with a broader audience, strengthen your tribe of followers, amplify key messages, and clarify your service or product offering. It is already a mainstay in every successful business’s arsenal. Embark on your thought leadership journey today and reap the rewards. 

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