How To Become A Thought Leader In The Digital Age

Posted by:

Ultimately, success comes down to one thing: getting known. Whether it’s in business, scholarship, entertainment or the arts, you can’t rise to the top of your profession if people don’t know know who you are. Fair or not, when one person gets more notice and attention than another, we assume that that person has some distinction or edge or positive quality the other person doesn’t. And that’s the person that gets the job and leads the pack.

Every field has such a figure – Donald Trump, Real Estate Billionaire; Anthony Hopkins, the Actor’s Actor; Lee Iacocca, Mr. CEO; Margaret Thatcher, Madame Conservative; Walter Cronkite, Mr. Anchorperson; Harry Houdini, the Great Magician; Winston Churchill, Statesman.

Even locally there are always a handful of figures who are the local doctors or lawyers or people to go to.

What gives them that edge?What can make them the acknowledged leaders in their field?  What can make you the acknowledged leader in your field?

Answer: a special kind of marketing. The kind that promotes not a product but a person.

How is it done?  Read on.

Start With A Niche

It’s easier to become a great anything than a great everything. To become notable in a particular field, you have to first choose the field, and the more particular it is, the better.  It’s easier to become a famous liberal or conservative politician than to become a famous politician, and a famous heart surgeon or neurosurgeon than a famous surgeon.

The more focused your area of specialization, the less competition there’ll be for for the top spots.  And the easier it will be to distinguish yourself within it.  Anti-terrorism experts are nowadays not that rare.  Female Iraqi Russian-speaking anti-terrorism experts are very rare.  A quality that would not make an average person unique can make a specialist very unique.

You can expand that niche, or narrow it, but a niche remains the easiest place to start out.

So to become an acknowledged leader in your profession, first ask yourself what makes your profession unique, and then what make you unique within your profession.

Get Qualified

And by qualified, I don’t mean get over-qualified. Shakespeare did not have an MFA in English, and Einstein’s failing grade in math is legend. Future leaders are not always the first in their graduating class.  But, by and large, they at least went to a good school or studied under someone good or have samples of work that shows that they can deliver.

Do you need to demonstrate genuine expertise? The answer may surprise you, but no. You don’t have to be the very best at what you do, or even remarkably good at what you do, to be an acknowledged recognized expert at it.  Led Zeppelin did not have to put Mozart in the shade to fill stadiums. Exceptional skills ceertainly don’t hurt. But even without them you can make a mark.


By organizing and directing people who have exceptional skills. Lee Iacocca was not a great auto mechanic, nor could Leonard Bernstein play the violin. But they could organize and lead and inspire people of talent who could. 
Or you can associate with people with remarkable skills. Oprah is not generally considered a great writer or thinker or a leading actress or vocalist. But she continually connects with leading writers, actors, vocalists. Associate with the acknowledged leaders in a field and fame will rub off on you.

You can also simply explain or evaluate how it’s done. The thought leaders in many a field are not active practitioners in that field. They may well be academics or writers who have never run a company or acted on stage, but who can explain and articulate things powerfully and brilliantly. (Or, even easier, find a ghostwriter who can.)

Join Articulate Communities

Fame is social. No one ever became famous staying home under the blanker. You have to mingle.  And you have to mingle in the right circles.

What circles are the right circles? They’re not always expert circles – but they are always articulate circles: groups that not only hear what you have to say, but actively spread your words and spread word about you. One single journalist with no particular expertise in your niche can make you more well known to those there than everyone you have ever met in it.

Needless to say it pays to cultivate both experts and influencers. And the new social media has allowed articulate communities to spread their views so widely that it merits a later section all to itself. The principle remains: to become a hot topic of conversation, find and mingle with those who converse and whose conversations are followed.

Build Your Web Site

These days a web site is as necessary to a person as a business card or a personal ID. It is the one place where you can make a rich definitive case for yourself, and present the world the image of yourself that you want it to see. Facebook and Twitter present not you, but you bobbing on the surface of your friends and associates.  People who encounter you there judge you by your accompanying crowd, and that crowd can be anything but focused and professional.  Your personal web site is an entirely different story.  You control it totally.  And that make is the best means you have to say exactly what you want to say to the world.

But it can be so much more. A professionally constructed site can show you who’s visiting, what pages they linger over, and how long they stay. It can allow them to download your information kit, hear you talk, see you on video, make a payment, leave a message – the works.  You can sell on it, connect through it, collaborate with others using it, and — best of all — use it to present the world with your ideal image of yourself.

In a world of global information, the first impression many people get of you will be through the web. If you shape that impression rightly, you’ve taken a major step to making yourself the knowledgeable and notable expert to call.

Build Your Blog

What’s the difference between a web site and a blog?

Roughly, a web site is about you and what you can do.  A blog is you, speaking directly.

That’s not to say that there aren’t blog-like web sites with first-person content.  Blog-style sites can feature multiple bloggers, have multiple functions, be comprehensive interactive content management systems, or host truly massive amounts of information.

But the classical blog approach is one person, communicating his or her personal thoughts, often in the give-and-take of online conversation. That can certainly help highlight you as the obvious expert, but more to the point it provides the illusion — and prepares for the reality — of a personal connection.

This personal, conversational style is at the heart of social media marketing.   Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest all stem in various degrees from the blog approach to developing a web presence conversationally.  That matters because while the most important part of being a thought leader involves having a thought, being a leader involves personality.  Blogging is like reading a person’s diary, or following their private thoughts.  If the private thoughts impress, the expected performance can seem assured.

Can blogging alone gain fans and followers, and build and even make a reputation?  Sure.  But why let your blog go it alone? The more tools you have, the more ways you have to build a compelling reputation. Create a dazzling web site, blog and tweet. The farther you stretch, the more you reach.

Article Marketing

Blogs can make you look knowledgeable.  A book can make you the subject matter expert in a field. But is there no middle way between the quick offhand approach of the first and the major commitment in time of the second?

There is. Article marketing. Concise, keyword-rich, properly tagged pieces on particular subjects can drive traffic to your web site, pop up on page one in Google, appear and re-appear in guest posts, and demonstrate expertise and a flair for articulate writing and thinking with a quickness matched only by blogging – and (like blog posts) the articles can be combined into ebooks and even eventually books themselves.  Think of blog posts as the seeds of articles, and articles as chapters from books, and you can build your reputation easily, piecemeal and daily.


Optimization means making sure that every digital document you put out onto the net is written, designed and formatted so that search engines and content-hungry websites will pick it up. OK, it’s a little esoteric, and you may have to hire a specialist. It’s worth the money. If no one can find what you have to say, no one will read it.

Optimization is not as tough as it sounds.  Optimizing perfectly may cost a fortune, but it may also distract from what really drives attention — solid content.  Optimize just enough to be both Google-friendly and reader-friendly:  be sure the document is written and formatted in ways that are search-engine and RSS friendly, and you should be fine

But don’t ignore that basic minimum.  What you have to say doesn’t matter if no one reads it. Optimize. No optimization = zero readership.

Use Social Media

Can you get to the top of the list in your profession by working social media alone? Probably not. But if you don’t make it a key element in your efforts, you’re nuts. A thousand followers on Twitter, five hundred friends on Facebook, and two hundred and fifty connections on LinkedIn, has long been considered to be the bare minimum ‘triple crown’ of social media influence, and the closer you approach that goal, the closer you will be to having and maintaining the kind of lasting prominence that builds notable careers.

Of course there are well over fifty competing social media tools, from Instagram to Pinterest to Google Plus, and life is short, and anyway the digital landscape will alter sooner than we know. The fact remains that anyone wishing to advance their career needs to know the main tools and get familiar with them, and not simply because they can get you known and talked about quickly and widely (even globally!) in literally a matter of moments.

Social media affects us whether we take part or not, because those who do take part in it discuss and praise and criticize even those who don’t. Anyone with any involvement with others at all now has a social media presence, like it or not, deliberate or not; and the effects can reach back in ways positive and negative, major and minor.

Should someone wishing to advance themselves take part in those conversations, or let others discuss them without knowing it? Clearly, it’s better to take part. And there’s no better way than to begin with the three current leaders: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Use Old School PR

I know, I know. Print is dead. Even TV is dead. Everyone keeps saying that. And everyone keeps picking up the paper at the newsstand, reading the magazine in the doctor’s office, opening up that junk mail, and tuning into Reality TV.

Print is not dead. Nor is TV. When a newspaper writes you up, you get attention – not least because, these days, whatever appears first in print appears next online. When you appear on TV, tens of thousands if not millions of people see you. And then see you over and over again on YouTube. Radio interviews become podcasts, and podcasts are available everywhere forever.  The line between the media is no longer a line:  it’s an increasingly invisible blur.

So get into print. Get on TV. Talk to radio interviewers too, while you’re at it. Is using such pre-internet media Old School? So what? Old School works, and when you use it it’s augmented by New School digitization, video, and podcasting almost at once. Do it.

And get out among people, too. Yes, you can become world-famous without ever making a personal appearance.  If you’re Max Headroom, you can become world-famous without being a person at all. That’s the exception, not the rule. Talks still work. Seminars still work. Workshops still work. Reality can get you some pretty good web traffic too.

Write The Book

If TV and radio are Old School, books are straight out of the Paleozoic. But Old School or not, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can get you recognized as an expert or  a leader in your field than writing a good book.

Why the mystique of authorship is so strong in an time so awash in Google, tweets and hashtagspeak is a mystery. But you don’t have to understand a mystery to acknowledge its power. Whether you’re George Soros or Bill Gates, Arnold Schwartzeneggar or Seth Godin, Barack Obama or David Ogilvy, if you are a person of influence you are the author of a book. Masterful articulation has nothing to do with it.  Trump had a dozen boghosted prior to shaking the world.  Nothing sets the seal of expertise on a person more strongly.

Unfortunately few things are more time-consuming to produce or difficult to carry through. The actual text has to be researched and written and revised, publishers and distributors need to be involved, the physical book layouts has to be created and the book cover designed, and post-publication promotion can make or break the reception of the book.  A manuscript alone is not enough. If a book is not part of an overall marketing effort, its creation may well be wasted.

But that’s all the more reason to think of a book project in marketing terms right from the start.
In a world without deadlines, taking the time to write a book might well be considered a pleasure. But if someone is a busy professional with a full To-Do list, writing assistance is mandatory. Should you have your book ghostwritten? Increasingly, many businessmen, professionals and experts do. Trump had a dozen books ghosted prior to shaking the world.

In many cases it’s not a question of lack of skill but lack of time. An expert who takes six months to a year off to write a book may not be as competitive an expert at the end of that time, and his or her other marketing efforts and business may well have taken a back seat too. Using a ghostwriter can be the fastest way to the single strongest thing you can do to establish expertise. It’s definitely an option to consider.

But solo or with assistance, the book is a must.

Get Help

Don’t have time to write a book? Haven’t got all day and night to wade through all the cutting-edge social media? Not sure how to reach, pitch, and get the attention of journalists? No idea how to design a web site, set up a blog, arrange for a series of talks and lectures, assemble and distribute a Press Kit?

Welcome to the human race.

People who rise to the top of the profession have a well-known secret: they practice their profession. Promotion they leave to referrals, or to hired help. Yes, you can concentrate only at working at your profession, and being the best you can. Word of mouth marketing gets clients too. But competitors who are not necessarily less able will get the same word of mouth marketing, and amplify it many many times over through all varieties of print and digital media, and all without taking away from their regular tasks, if professional assistance is brought in.

Of course, if you have multiple promotional talents at the professional level across several areas, and can cram 48 hours into a 24-hour day, you can get known all by yourself. You deserve to be!

But if you’re human, you’ll probably need professional help.

Where can you find it?

A good starting place would be more of Humility aside, such promotion is my profession, and this site ranges social media, writing for the web, book design, ghostwriting, search engine optimization, and, not least, an extremely wide-ranging section of informational links and resources, and not a few areas (like this one) addressing the personal marketing geared at advancing one’s career. Poke about. And if you would look further into the subject, Google.

All World-Famous All Of The Time

Whether you go it alone, or get help, or decide to try out only one or two of the above recommended steps, definitely realize that things have changed.

Andy Warhol once said famously that in the future we would all be famous for fifteen minutes. He was wrong. The future is here, and we are all world-famous twenty-four hours a day. What we are and what we do leaves light or heavy traces on the internet every moment.  We can use this to our advantage to advance our careers and values and beliefs, or we can ignore it and let things happen to us as they will.

Intelligent professionals and entrepreneurs will respond actively, not passively, and shape their futures the best way they can. History has given us these extraordinary new tools, and with a little thoughtfulness, we can use them to shape our own history, and shape it for the better.

Do it!


About the Author:

Add a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.