I get asked frequently how I got to be a contributor for a major platform like Entrepreneur. In fact, every time one of my articles get published on any of the several well-known platforms I write for, I get Facebook, and Linkedin messages and emails asking, “How do I get published there?” I also get asked how I got to be a contributor to national TV news programs and how I am the one that is quoted in articles and interviewed often.
I answer in a similar way every time: Does the totality of your published content (articles, videos, podcasts, books, etc.) establish you as a Thought Leader? I am definitely not a celebrity or Richard Branson famous, so becoming a Thought Leader is how I got there.
A Thought Leader is someone whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential. And it’s not easy to get yourself in that position. However, through hard work, dedication and creativity, almost anyone can be a thought leader. It requires the building of a powerful and visible personal brand and then taking one or more of the aspects of your personal brand to an even higher level.
Here’s what lead me to become a thought leader: In 1999 my company was one of the largest wholesalers of photographic supplies in the country. We had a five-share of the film market, meaning that we sold 5% of all the single rolls of film sold in the country. Our customers consisted of small and medium sized retail stores, including camera stores, located in all 50 states.
By 2006 my company was failing. Digital cameras had replaced film cameras at a meteoric rate and were being sold everywhere driving margin to near-zero. Film sales went to near zero. The small stores were being bought out by large chains or put out of business by them. People started buying on the Internet and Amazon started taking over the photo business. The number of camera stores decreased from more than 10,000 to a few hundred, and there was near-zero that were still profitable. I had to do something or my 60-year-old business would also be done.
So, in 2008, I opened a 5,000 square foot retail camera superstore in New Jersey. Everyone thought I was either crazy or a fool or both. But I had a new idea – a different concept than anyone had thought of for a camera store. My store’s operation was based on an experiential-educational concept and on the power of photography itself.
Within five years we became a highly recognized brand (more than 50% of residents and 80% of photographers) in New Jersey for camera equipment and photography supplies, and we became one of the largest, single-location camera stores in the country. In 2013, we were picked as the best camera store in the country by DIR Magazine. Our education program became the largest and most successful of its kind and is frequently copied by other stores across the country.
How did we make our camera store so successful, so quickly? It was, in large part, the way I used social media to build my personal brand in conjunction with our business brand. And when I sold that business in 2015, I was able to focus my attention on bringing my powerful personal brand, which I had worked on for years to build, to an even higher level, and eventually into thought leadership.
So here are the top 10 tips that I used to become a thought leader in social media, personal branding, photography, retail, and parenting:
- Love Your Topic: In order to become a thought leader, you are going to have to write, speak, produce video, get interviewed and come up with original ideas about the topic you want to specialize in. And you are going to have to do this for years – and you are going to have to repeat the same ideas over and over again. If you don’t love and believe in the topic you are talking about, you will surely not last long enough to become a thought leader. I have given similar speeches on social media and personal branding over 30 times, have been interviewed more than 50 times, and have written numerous articles on this topic. No way I could do that, if I didn’t believe, with my all my heart, in what I am talking about.
- Authenticity: Being authentic is a vital component of building a successful personal brand and having people attracted to you. When you try to be something you are not or say things you don’t believe in, trust me, the audience will know it. Thought leadership can not be achieved without it. Period. So be yourself
- Gravitas: To become a thought leader you must establish yourself as an authority. That means you have to have life experience, produce valuable content and promote it and yourself, and do it repeatedly over an extended period of time. To become a thought leader on fatherhood and parenting, I had to raise five kids on my own (after their mother left us) for 20 years into successful adults, produce 50+ articles, podcasts and videos, and write book, a memoir, “Leader of the Pack.”
- Write, Write and Write Some More: I said it three times for a reason. The process of taking your thoughts and transferring them to a blog so that others will see, is transformative for you in developing your unique voice. And it’s your voice that will determine your success or failure at thought leadership. When I decided to write about my journey as a single father, I had all sorts of ideas about what I wanted to discuss. It was only when I published my writings and saw my audience’s response, that I understood what I was actually trying to say which was valuable to others. And the best way to get to be a contributor on a top publication is to have written many successful articles on your own. Over the past 3 years, I have written over 100 quality articles.
- Ask for Help: I was a math major in college and grad school. I wasn’t a writer and I didn’t like it but I knew I had to do it. So I reached out to a branding expert to help me with my writing and formulating a voice that was powerful and avoided getting me into trouble by saying the wrong things. And trouble is easy to find when writing about divorce and ex-wives. And it wasn’t until I got very good at writing, was I able to get my articles accepted into major publications.
- Social Media Power: Pick your best social media platforms (you don’t need every one of them), and be social every day. Social media is not something you do, it’s a lifestyle. A great way to get recognized as a thought leader is to have continuous high-engagement posts on your topic. And not only should you be posting your stuff, you should also interact with other influencers and thought leaders. It helps your engagement and you can learn things from them. Make sure you regularly engage with your audience. Don’t make being a thought leader all about you. Make sure to regularly like and comment on other people’s posts on social media. Your audience will love you for being an active member of their community. Doing so enables you stay top of mind with your followers by being visible and making thoughtful contributions on posts from others. It took me years to build my substantial social following and the sooner you start, the sooner you get there.
- Live Video: It’s possible to become a thought leader without live video, but you are putting yourself at a disadvantage and not using an amazing free tool that exists on Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, and now on Linkedin. If I get an idea for something valuable to share with my audience, I can now do it instantaneously, even on the street. And within a few minutes, I have content that can bee seen by thousands. Here are three examples I recently recorded that illustrate how an informal live video can get thousands of views: “Has Amazon lowered Whole Foods pricing?”, “My birthday thoughts inspired by a question my daughter asked me last night” and “Live video has made LinkedIn and Social Media fun again… and more powerful.“
- In-Person Networking: This often neglected activity is very important to your ability to test your thought leadership in person, collect new ideas, find people you can interview or interview you and build your confidence. Get off your butt, get dressed up professionally and network in-person, frequently.
- Pitch Yourself to Media: Even if you can’t afford a publicist, you can pitch media yourself. Write them, tweet at them and pitch a coherent and completely setup story (don’t make the reporter or producer work) and you have a good chance – assuming you have established yourself. And be bold about it. I received a Linkedin connection from a TV host in England and immediately emailed her asking to be put on her TV show. She responded that I was “cheeky”, looked at my social media and writings and immediately scheduled me. Or when I wrote a blog about sculpture in Wisconsin that was defamatory, I aggressively tweeted and emailed local news media. Four TV interviews and two newspaper articles later, my blog went viral.
- How Badly Do You Want It?!: That’s my personal slogan for a reason.
The biggest complaint I hear when I speak about becoming a thought leader is how long it takes and how hard it is. My answer is simple: If you want the huge benefits of becoming a thought leader you have to put in the time, effort and smarts. If it was easy, everyone would be a thought leader.
I know that doing and completing all 10 of these tips can be a daunting task – especially if you are just starting out. But if you want to be a thought leader badly enough, you can do it.