Take On A Hard Thought Battle To Stand Out From Your Rivals

Sharing knowledge and expertise is a cost-effective way of establishing your company as a leader in its field, finds Sandra O’Connell

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times of September 26th, 2021

If you are good at what you do and know how to explain it, a thought leadership strategy can be a low-cost way of generating business leads. The aim is to position yourself as an authoritative voice in your sector. One way to do it is to seek out opportunities to speak at events and conferences, either online or in the real world.

When Gerard Tannam of Islandbridge Brand Development spoke at a conference in 2010, it led to a six-year slot on Newstalk called Kickstart Your Business, providing advice on national radio to small businesses, his target market.

Establishing himself as an expert in the field helped Tannam to grow his brand development agency, he says. The entrepreneur believes that thought leadership can help to differentiate any business, even in the most homogenous of markets. “Take two electricians. One does everything to exacting standards; the other does, too. So on what basis is a customer to choose?”

If one electrician uses every platform available to let potential customers know that they can offer rewiring with minimal disruption, or future-proof homes and offices for the next generation of power needs, and will even come back to clean up after the work is done, “that’s a very good way of approaching it,” he says.

“Increasingly, in a world where products and services look the same and are increasingly regulated to be the same, thought leadership is a way to differentiate yourself,” Tannam adds.

You don’t have to be a big business to do it. Speaking at conferences is great, but you can start by speaking at smaller events or hosting your own. Posting or replying to articles on LinkedIn helps too, as does submitting articles to trade journals. “Thought leadership is widely considered to be the sharing of expertise that influences how people think about a specific industry,” says Claire Mason, a content strategist who specialises in helping small business-owners to establish themselves as thought leaders.

Content guru Claire Mason says the first step to becoming a thought leader is to start publishing.

The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, a managment consultant and founding editor of Strategy & Business Magazine, according to Mason, who lists benefits such as raising your profile, attracting “great fit” leads for your pipeline, and shortening sales cycles.

The first step is to start publishing. “Whether that is a daily post on social media, your own podcast or a blog, you need to get in front of your audience with content, and you need to be consistent about it,” she says.

Share practical insights into your work and have a point of view. “You don’t need to be deliberately controversial to stand out but cut through the noise with a point of view and then back it up. Say why you believe it,” Mason adds.

Now is a great time to start, as the current debate about returning to work versus remote working offers chances to stand out. “So much of the content is boring and regurgitated. Staff want to work from home; management want them back in the office. Some professionals are cutting through by sharing how remote works assists diversity and inclusion practices, and then giving examples of how,” Mason says. Alternatively, some are “showing how working in an office provides a demarcation between home and work, and this supports mental health. These views are contributing to the coversation with new viewpoints”.

Measure success through engagement and lead metrics. “Engagement metrics are things like impressions, likes and comments. Don’t dismiss these as vanity metrics – they will tell you how far your content is reaching and if it is is reaching the right people. Lead metrics will be a tally of the new opportunities coming your way.,” Mason says.

Share case studies. “This type of content above all others is in demand by potential clients. They want to see how you can help other businesses or people like them,” she adds.

Join a business network. With many there will be only one representative from a single profession in your group. That automatically positions you as the voice of authority on your subject.

Shay Cahill set up Venture Business Network in 2007. Instead of referrals it works by building a database of each member’s business contacts and using them to make introductions. Members get to make regular presentations. “These are not ‘amn’t I great’ sorts of presentations but opportunities to present yourself as a thought leader through the sharing of market knowledge and intelligence with the group,” Cahill says.

Procurement expert Ross McCarthy produces regular technical articles for his website about arcane elements of tendering procedures. They’re not meant for a general audience but are designed to address the nitty-gritty questions uppermost in the mind of the target market for his sourcing and supplier platform Sluamor.com. That includes SMEs looking to hone their tendering skills to win business, and those who wish to partner with others SMEs to do so.

With supply chains being disrupted by Covid, the articles are focused on helping buyers find alternative suppliers, to source in smarter ways, and to save money by introducing proper procurement processes. He and his colleagues post two articles a month on the Sluamor website. The most popular this year was about how to specify an IT system. It has been read by 1,300 people, and warm leasd are more likely to sigh up to his tendering platform as a result.

Some of its earliest content, which is evergreen and doesn’t date, has been read by tens of thousands of potential members of Sluamor. They help his business to be found by anyone searching for information about procurement processes, bringing potential clients to him rather than having to seek them out.

“For us it’s a way of bringing people to the platform and giving them a reason to come back,” McCarthy says.

To start he recommends you post “cornerstone” content: evergreen, general material that is most in demand. “you get the benefits of SEO (search engine optimisation) for those and then you can do the fun stuff later such as, in our case, “How to do financial appraisals of suppliers to make sure they don’t go bust,” he adds.

Sluamor’s thought leadership strategy costs nothing but time – though in McCarthy’s case, a lot of time. Some articles are 6,000 words long.

“It has been worth the effort…With thought leadership you’re not looking to talk to one million people with nothing to spend; you’re looking for one person with a million to spend,” McCarthy says.