A few people have asked me how to go about establishing themselves as recognized thought leaders in their respective fields. I make no particular claims to expertise in this regard, but it is something I have thought about consciously while trying to do the same thing for myself, which means that even if I’m not an expert, I can give advice based on my experience.
Lots of people have written on this topic generally, and some have done a very good job of it. Therefore, for me to add value and not just repeat what has already been said, my advice needs to be concrete and specific. And that in turn means this article will be rather long; my apologies for that, but there is a lot of ground to cover, and I expect it will be more useful as a single guide than a series of posts. Let me know if you find it useful.
0. Define your brand
Ultimately, all of this is about building a personal brand: a reputation for which you would like to become known. The most important advice I can give – far more important than any specific instruction below, is to be in control of your brand. A great way to understand this is to look at the world of celebrities; it is very easy to distinguish between celebrities who are in control of their brands (e.g. Beyoncé or Madonna), and who has relinquished control of their brand to a media industry whose priority is making money, more often than not at the expense of the celebrities themselves (e.g. Britney Spears or until recently, Justin Bieber). But you don’t have to be a celebrity to make this kind of decision; you can control your brand, or let it control you.
Be clear and specific about what your personal brand is about. Becoming an expert takes time and energy, and most of us will have less than 3-4 hours a week to invest in it, so it’s critical to make that time count. The best way to do this is to tightly manage the subject areas you choose to build expertise in. That’s not to say the focus can’t change; given the pace of innovation in just about everything these days, such change should be expected if not outright required. But plan for it, be conscious of it, and make sure both your research and your writing stays on topic.
1. Set up a business email account
- Make sure you have a business account that is separate from your regular personal account. There are several reasons to do this, but for me the biggest reason is the mental separation; when I compose an email, even on my phone, the act of choosing which account to send it from reminds me to be “on brand” and think about how my words will impact the reputation I am trying to create.
- A free email account like Gmail is fine for this, though setting up your own domain is really inexpensive. The domain registrar I use, Gandi, charges about $15 a year, and that includes email hosting for 5 separate addresses.
- If you already have a business email account from your employment, consider whether or not it makes sense to use it as the account for your personal brand. If you run your own company or hold a visible leadership position in the company you work for, this is a no-brainer, but there may also be instances where it doesn’t make sense; you be the judge.
2. Make sure your LinkedIn profile reflects your brand
- If someone you don’t already know sees something you’ve written that they like, 90% of the time the first thing they will do is check out your LinkedIn profile, and in many cases they will also use LinkedIn to message you directly. So, LinkedIn is probably the single most important place where you want your brand identity to come across.
- As with most other web interactions, people tend to be allergic to scrolling down, so the items on the top of your LinkedIn profile is the most important when it comes to setting your brand.
- Your background photo is the first thing the eye will see when someone comes to your LinkedIn page, and for most profiles, this is a lost opportunity to send a message. The background photo does not need to be a picture of you; it can be a photo relevant to your chosen areas of expertise. To use my own profile as a case study, my current background photo superimposes the logo of my consulting company over a 1940’s era globe. The logo is there to get my company’s name into people’s mind, the globe is to underscore the fact that I have delivered work in over 40 countries around the world, the globe is focused on Africa to reflect my experience working in developing countries and my passion for financial inclusion, and the globe is an older one to reflect a sense of stability as well as the fact that I tend to incorporate the lessons of history into my writing.
- The next item that appears is your photo. Common sense prevails here; the photo should look professional, and if possible to present you in a context or background suitable for the reputation you are trying to create. If possible, arrange to have someone photograph you actively doing your job; that dynamism will show, and will make your photo far more engaging than a static professional portrait. My photo, for instance, shows me speaking at a conference. I am actively engaged in sharing my expertise, and I think this shows. Also, the translation device in my lapel pocket is another subtle cue to my international experience.
- The third thing that appears is your profile description. Roughly a paragraph of it shows; users will have to click to see the rest; make sure the visible paragraph talks about your brand. You don’t have to summarize your work experience; people can see that further down in your profile if they’re interested. Sum up in a few sentences what you aspire to offer the world. And don’t worry if you don’t think you actually live up to those aspirations yet – we all feel that way (Google the term “impostor syndrome” sometime).
- The final section likely to appear on your profile without scrolling down is a list of your most recent posts and articles. This is what you’ll be working on in some of the further steps in your guide, so don’t worry too much about it for the moment.
3. Set up a Twitter profile for your brand
- I have a confession to make: I don’t really get Twitter. As a reader, I find RSS and LinkedIn news feeds to be much better sources of content (more on that below), and as a writer I am far too verbose to do a good job of getting my point across in 140 characters. But my own inadequacies don’t change the fact that Twitter is a really important channel; many people disagree with me about Twitter, and say that it’s an incredibly useful way of harvesting content. You want to reach the people who like Twitter as well as the people who don’t.
- For similar reasons, the mere fact of having a well-populated Twitter feed will also enhance your reputation in the eyes of many.
- The final reason to include Twitter in your thought leadership plan is that it’s incredibly inexpensive in terms of your time to do so. Using a free tool called IFTTT, you can set things up so that every time you blog or post something on LinkedIn, it is automatically posted to your Twitter feed as well. So with almost no extra work, you can have a fully realized presence on another distribution channel for your personal brand. Kind of a no-brainer really.
- For those of you who do get Twitter and already use it, I strongly advise setting up a separate Twitter feed, linked to your business email address, so you don’t dilute your brand with other topics you currently like tweeting about.
4. Become current on your chosen area of expertise
- The important thing here is to be ruthless in your focus, so make sure you are focusing exclusively on things related to your chosen areas of expertise. Clickbait is your deadly enemy in this endeavour; build up the self-discipline to resist it (if you are at all like me, this is easier said than done). And if you find yourself continually drawn to a topic that is not on that list, perhaps it is time to revise your brand accordingly.
- In terms of where to look for content, everybody has different ways of acquiring knowledge that works well for them; there is no one right answer. My wife is an avid radio listener, I have a friend in Indonesia who is a voracious consumer of podcasts, whereas I prefer reading. The concrete advice I present here is what works for me; you will probably need to alter it to reflect your own way of acquiring knowledge. I use two primary channels for acquiring my expertise: the LinkedIn news feed and RSS.
- The LinkedIn news feed is useful for two reasons. First, since you tend to make connections with people you actively work with, the likelihood that you will see things in your feed that are directly relevant is pretty good. Second, when you do see something notable, you can directly reach out to a) find out more, and b) establish a new networking connection that may be useful. Once again though, beware the clickbait. LinkedIn clickbait looks very different from Facebook clickbait, but it’s still clickbait. Great interview questions, generic advice on how to handle difficult colleagues, or exposes on the personality quirks of celebrity CEO’s are unlikely to be worth the time spent reading them; learn to ignore the urge.
- RSS is fantastic. For those of you unfamiliar, it stands for Really Simple Syndication, and is quite old tech, having been first developed in the 90’s. RSS is a protocol that monitors a list of websites you specify for new content; anything new published on your list of sites is automatically harvested for you and presented in a single easy-to-manage list. The way to use RSS is to use an app known as an RSS Reader. There are literally hundreds of these and they are all similar in terms of how they work: you input the URL’s for the sites or blogs you want to follow. A lot of sites will actually have a specific URL that is tailored for RSS feeds — look for the orange RSS icon pictured here — but a regular URL will usually work fine as well.
- The RSS reader I use is a very popular one called Feedly. I like it because the lists are easy to manage and because it lets me have a single list that I can use across devices, so an article I already read on my phone is already marked as read when I next look on my tablet or PC. But as I said, there are many readers out there, and a lot of them are free. Choose one that works for you.
- As for which sites to include in your RSS feed, once again, be ruthless about choosing sites that are directly relevant to your chosen areas of expertise. If you follow too many sites, your reader will show so many articles that you will always feel behind your game, and eventually you will decommit and stop reading it. Try to define a list so that you can complete a top-level scan of the headlines in less than 10 minutes, something you can easily manage to fit into your daily routine. If you have time, you can deep-dive on the articles you truly want to read (for me that is usually 3-4 articles a day), or you can star them to read later when you have time.
5. Build a visible point of view
- Once you’ve been doing step 4 for a couple weeks, you will almost certainly find yourself having opinions about what you’ve read. Some trends will catch your interest, while others may strike you as bogus. As soon as you feel you’ve seen enough, start saying so. And remember that articles that annoy or bore you can be just as much a source for your comment as an article you like. That being said, since the goal is to build a positive reputation it is better in such cases to couch your opinion as an elaboration of the work they author has already done (in the case where you think they’ve gotten something wrong), or a suggestion for how the author can get more engagement for their message (in the case where the author’s views struck you as valid but boring).
- Start building this base on of posts on LinkedIn rather than on your own blog, or at least mirror them so your posts appear in both places. Your goal is a wide viewing base, and since you are just getting started on your journey, most people don’t know your blog exists. If you do want to mirror LinkedIn with your own blog, once again you can use IFTTT to automate this for you, so there is no extra work involved. I mirror my posts on my own website: finservexperts.com
- LinkedIn draws a distinction between posts, which tend to be short comments on something somebody else has published (usually linked to directly in the post), and articles, which tend to be longer and usually contain more original thinking on the part of the author, or perhaps a synthesis of thinking from several different sites instead of a post, which tends to concentrate on a single entry on another site. I find this distinction useful.
- So when to write an article vs a post? Articles should be the refined essence of your brand, and should have a higher quality gate in your mind than posts; you need articles to make a more lasting impression. Also, since they tend to be longer and require more original thought than posts, you will come up with valid article topics less often. I expect to write no more than 8-10 articles this entire year, while on some days when there is lots of interesting stuff in my RSS feed, I could post more than once a day (though I try to avoid that, as people will only generally see your most recent post on their RSS reader or LinkedIn feed).
- The last thing I would say about articles vs posts is that articles should be original. For example, one of my areas of expertise is blockchain, and blockchain is squarely in the worst part of the hype curve. Thousands of people are writing about blockchain right now. Lots of what gets written is rubbish, but the people who are writing useful content are often already doing a better job of articulating their message than I could. I only write an article when I feel I have something useful to say that no one else is already saying.
6. Make your point of view more accessible
- Once you have a point of view that people can see, it is time to start getting more people to see it. The first step in this process is perhaps the hardest: wait. People already in your network or LinkedIn connections list are presumably there because they already know who you are or what you can do. Anyone who encounters you for the first time via your LinkedIn profile or Twitter stream will form their first impression based on what they see, and you don’t want to come off like a neophyte. How much content is enough? Well, one easy rule to follow is one I’ve already mentioned: people are allergic to scroll bars. If you have enough posts or tweets to fill one complete page, that is probably enough to start thinking about expanding your network.
- Many people hate networking. I used to be one of them, and sometimes I still find it hard to do. But over time I’ve become convinced that the main reason that people hate networking is that they are looking at it wrong. Most people seem to depict networking as an activity in which you go from one stranger to the next to either a) pitch them on a business idea you have, or b) figure out how they can help you achieve your ambitions. The result is that you usually end up feeling slimy or manipulative, and are resultantly uncomfortable, and therefore unsuccessful, when trying to do network effectively. But I have found that effective networking is almost completely the opposite: instead of figuring out how someone can help you reach your goals, effective networking is actually about figuring out how you can help someone reach their goals. I like solving problems. I like helping people. The moment I figured out that networking is nothing more than helping people solve their problems, I started enjoying it. And the moment I got to the point that one of the main ways in which I was helping people solve their problems was by connecting them to someone else who had the necessary skills or experience to help them, I was forced to realize that networking was something I could both enjoy and be successful at. Keep this perspective, and you might end up feeling the same.
- In terms of concrete advice, a great way to start is with your posts. If you write an article about something you’ve read, particularly if your comments are positive, reach out to the author and make them aware that you’ve written about them. Most people are very happy to publicize comments that praise their work – this is where the “helping people achieve their goals” part of networking comes in. And once you’ve made a connection on LinkedIn with someone, their posts and articles will start appearing regularly in your feed, giving you more good content to look at. And just as important, your posts and articles will now start appearing in their feed; they may choose to share a post or article about your work to their network, at which point you will start being read by people who have no prior connection to you, and that is where magic starts happening.
7. Engage with the media industry
- Growing your network as described above is an organic process, and unless you get a lucky strike and one of your posts goes viral, your reach will tend to grow in a slow and linear way. To reach a larger audience, you will need to find ways to start appearing in media. To many people, including me, it felt like there was some huge invisible barrier between myself and the sort of people who get quoted in news articles. I have since discovered that barrier is largely illusory, and one of the reasons why is a tool called HARO that my good friend Linda Coss (who helps small and medium businesses with digital marketing for a living) told me about. HARO is a tool that reporters and journalists use when they need to consult experts for articles they are writing. The tool takes the form of signing up for an email that gets out three times a day, Monday through Friday. The email is a list some 40 to 80 questions, each submitted by a different reporter, looking for someone to quote in an article they are writing. The questions cover a bewildering range of topics and are broadly grouped into a set of categories (business, technology, healthcare, etc). Each entry has the question they want asked and an email to send your response to. You email your answer, and if the journalist picks your answer from the submissions they receive, you end up being quoted.
- Some tips for dealing with HARO. Reporters are always under deadline, and may have to sort through dozens of responses to their query to pick yours. So to maximize the odds of getting your response selected, make it fast and easily consumable. If you can’t respond within a few hours, it may be wise to pass, and wait for a good question that arrives at a time when you have the bandwidth to answer quickly. And the more able you are to render your answer in a few elegantly concise sentences, the easier it will be for the journalist to use your answer
- Don’t be shy of answering a question just because you don’t have the answer immediately to hand. You already know something about the field; after all, you did choose it as your area of expertise. And even if you form your answer simply by googling a bit, your google searches are going to be well informed by what you already know; it would be a mistake to assume that the journalist could find the answer as easily or quickly as you could. And even if they could do so, they may not have the time; that is probably why they put the query on HARO in the first place.
- Last piece of advice is the same is the first: keep your brand in mind. You will find tons of questions you could successfully answer that are on subjects outside your branded area of expertise. Don’t. Even if you end up being selected, you will end up diluting your brand.
So, there it is. How to become an expert in one overlong article. Let me know if it helps, or if there is anything you want more details on. Most of the guidance revolves around being clear about the reputation you want to create, and taking care both your content and your investment of time and energy are efficiently dedicated to that goal. This requires a certain level of focus, which is sometimes energizing but other times exhausting. My final piece of advice is to reserve for yourself a forum in which you don’t have to worry about being on brand. Someplace where you can rant about politics, indulge in paroxysms of joy over your favorite singer/actor/athlete, or post videos of unspeakably cute pets. Make sure you have a space where you can safely be off brand. There will be days when you need it.