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If you’re a small e-commerce business owner, you might have overlooked thought leadership as an appropriate marketing route for your business. Some of the more well-known thought leaders quoted regularly in mainstream media – such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (of whom, more later) – may have left the impression that thought leadership is solely related to globally-recognized super brands. Yet, this would be an inaccurate assumption. Thought leaders can be from any business, of any size, in any industry – simply put, if you have something informative to say that can be of real value to others, you have a platform!
A thought leader is the go-to person in a selected business specialism. They’re seen as an authoritative voice on a subject; a trusted opinion leader, inspiring people with innovative ideas and guidance to turn those ideas into reality. In turn, thought leaders are rewarded for their expertise in the form of respect amongst both peers and competitors. Over time they may build a dedicated group of fans and followers who value and trust their opinions enough to integrate their advice into their own business strategies.
Such is the importance attributed to their opinions, thought leaders are often invited to speak at conferences, give interviews to media, and write opinion pieces for publications about changes and trends within their industry.
“A thought leader recognizes trends before they happen and applies that insight to achieve actual business results." - Numaan Akram, founder and CEO of Rally1
“Thought leader” may sound like business jargon, but it can be an extremely valuable marketing asset to your business.
88% of consumers research a product or service online before purchasing2, so if you’re an e-commerce business trying to cut through in a competitive market, thought leadership might just give you the edge. Essentially, the purpose of thought leadership is to build brand credibility; to raise its profile and position it as the best in the business.
To this end, thought leadership is not about creating sales heavy content, it’s about providing valuable and helpful information to audiences with an interest in your industry and defining your business’ authority in that space. The goal is to forge relationships with prospects based on expert knowledge so that, down the road, when someone is seeking a product or service that your business offers, yours will be front of mind as a trustable brand to consider first.
If you own an e-commerce business, there are several benefits to incorporating thought leadership into your content marketing strategy:
Expertise. In a saturated market, what’s going to put you ahead of your competitors? The expertise your brand can share with customers may be the crucial differentiator. By tapping into existing talent within your business, you can find a key thought leader who will essentially act as a brand ambassador, helping to demonstrate it as a knowledgeable business that really knows its area of specialism. The insights they offer consumers will be highly valued and a strong influence on their decision to do business with you. They’ll believe there’s intelligent thinking behind the development of your product, giving it more authenticity.
Brand trust. This is a huge priority for customers, but it must be earned, not bought; there’s no quick fix. An ongoing and carefully executed thought leadership strategy will establish your brand as a credible one which customers can rely on. Allowing your chosen thought leader to speak about pain points within your industry will show customers your brand understands their challenges and position it as the solution.
The likeability factor. People want to connect with people, not robots, so a thought leader will give a human face to your business and engage customers with its message on a deeper level.
Exposure. Once you’ve built a reputation as a thought leader, you may be approached by media outlets for comments and quotes, giving you some great – and free! – PR coverage.
Remind existing customers you’re there. Depending on the nature of your business, you may have episodic contact with your customers, selling your product or service to them only occasionally. Thought leadership keeps you on their radar within the buying cycle so when the time comes for them to make another purchase within your industry, your brand will be front of mind.
Networking. Thought leaders are often invited to speak at industry events, allowing them the opportunity to meet potential new customers and build relationships with them.
Sales! Ultimately, the goal with any new marketing strategy you implement is to achieve sales at the end. The brand coverage generated by thought leadership will secure you new leads which you can convert into real customers.
So, with these endless benefits, you’re no doubt eager to make thought leadership part of your marketing strategy. But just how easy is it to become a thought leader? Beyond their expertise, a successful thought leader will also possess a certain ‘X’ factor that gives them the power to truly engage and inspire an audience.
Here's how to get started and make yourself someone worth listening to.
Start small. Successful thought leaders aren’t created overnight. They must demonstrate their credibility over time and earn the respect to speak on the biggest platforms. There are already many established thought leaders out there, so you need to find your USP; identify a niche area within your industry which you can become the go-to expert on.
Say something new. Disrupt thinking. Challenge the status quo. People are interested by new ideas and points of view so if you can meet these needs, you’ll get noticed. Perhaps one of the most famous thought leaders in this respect is Elon Musk, the eccentric CEO of Tesla3. He regularly uses Twitter as a platform to share radical ideas and start discussions around visionary topics, including space travel and Hyperloop technology. He’s not afraid to be controversial or stand out and thus has created a name for himself as a visionary and a pioneer – both of which have helped to solidify Tesla’s position as a forward-thinking brand. Just don’t lose your authenticity – it’s not about being controversial for the sake of it. You still need to stay true to your core brand message, but you can find interesting and unique angles to it.
“A thought leader is true to themselves even when others might laugh, disagree or nay-say. They actually walk their talk.” - Jessica Northey, Social Mediologist4
Share your challenges – and how you overcame them. Thought leadership is about humanizing your brand, so share your story, your passion, your motivation – what gets you out of bed in the morning! Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable too – it’s your weaknesses that will resonate most with your audience. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg has established herself as an influential thought leader by sharing the challenges she’s faced progressing in a male-dominated business world. She uses her position of power to speak out about the disparity of women in the workplace, ultimately starting a movement that empowers women to ‘lean in’ and be counted. Women feel inspired by her message; if she’s overcome barriers then so can they. As a thought leader, if you can empathize with challenges faced by those within your industry, and offer strategies to overcome them, your value will increase.
Be willing to keep learning. When Airbnb5 launched in 2008, it was an almost-overnight success. Founded by two San Francisco based roommates who came up with the idea of putting an air mattress in their living room to turn it into a bed and breakfast and make some quick cash, their concept of flexible accommodation quickly grew into a thriving business that completely transformed the travel industry. Over the years the founders have been active spokespeople for the company, sharing their journey as they built it into a global brand valued at billions of dollars6. Yet, when the coronavirus hit, the company’s fall was sudden and hard. Last month, one of the founders, Brian Chesky, gave an honest and unguarded interview7 to a British publication where he admitted that the pandemic’s devastating effect on Airbnb had forced him and his co-founders to take time and reflect on where the company had grown too quickly and not stayed true to its original goals. Admitting its weaknesses made the brand seem human, and more importantly, would have reassured investors and customers that it had plans to come back in better form.
Inspire! Sir Richard Branson’s autobiography was a worldwide bestseller8; Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk has had over 10 million views9; Elon Musk has over 38 million followers on Twitter10…Why? Because people are inspired by their success and want to know how they achieved it. Thought leadership isn’t just about telling your brand’s story, it’s about the wider picture of being a successful businessperson. Share your tips for making it to the top and you’ll quickly gain an engaged audience.
"Taking initiative pays off. It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do." - Sheryl Sandberg11
Network, network, network. To become an established thought leader, you need to put yourself out there. Stay in contact with those you meet at industry events who you can tap into for advice and guidance in the future. And be a resource yourself – spend time answering questions on your social media channels and look at opportunities where you can mentor those just starting out in your industry.
Remember the goal. Don’t forget the purpose of thought leadership: to be an ambassador for your business and position it as a market leader. Whenever you speak or publish content as a thought leader, always stay true to your brand’s core values.
There are many channels where you can integrate thought leadership into your content plan.
Launching your own blog is a good starting point to find and develop your voice. As the author, you have the freedom to explore ideas and share opinions without restrictions. Invite feedback from readers – you can use their comments to guide what topics you cover and in turn build up an engaged following. And don’t forget to use your social media channels to promote the blog amongst your existing followers there.
LinkedIn12 is another important platform that can help raise your profile as a thought leader. With over 600 million global members13, you can utilize the site to gain visibility, demonstrate your expertise by posting opinion pieces, and network with those within your industry who can help your business grow.
It’s important to first optimize your LinkedIn profile. Include a detailed list of all your relevant experience, skills and qualifications – this will validate what you say and ensure people take you seriously. Use LinkedIn Groups to start interesting discussions, contribute to existing threads, or answer industry questions from other users. Ultimately, the site is there for networking so by proactively sharing your knowledge you can form connections and gain more followers.
Podcasts are another great way to share your opinions – either by being a guest on one or hosting your own. Stay in the loop with industry trends to discuss to keep the podcast relevant, and invite peers and industry experts on for Q&A sessions.
Whatever platforms you choose to promote yourself on, just remember to stay authentic to your brand message. By doing so, you will establish yourself as a credible thought leader, and in turn, add greater value to your business.
Thought leadership marketing should be just one part of your brand’s growth strategy. Speak to a DHL expert today to discover other ways to help your business expand globally.
1a - Numaan Akram quote, Business News Daily, June 2019
1b - Rally
2 - The UK Domain, June 2020
3 - Tesla
4 - Jessica Northey quote, The OD Pro, July 2020
5 - Airbnb
6 - Financial Times, April 2020
7 - Brian Chesky interview, The Times, August 2020
8 - Losing My Virginity, Richard Branson, Wikipedia, 2020
9 - Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders, TEDWomen, 2010
10 - Elon Musk’s Twitter, August 2020
11 - Sheryl Sandberg quote, Lean In, published 2013
12 - LinkedIn
13 - LinkedIn statistic, Business of Apps, June 2020