There was an interesting conversation about thought leadership on #profschat the other day around what it is, what it means, where it fits into an organization’s priorities, who “owns” it, and how to execute a successful thought leadership strategy. And it got me thinking anew about a strategy that’s increasingly important in today’s fragmented marketplace.

Here are five things to consider:

1. You can’t anoint yourself a thought leader. Doing so is akin to saying you’re a guru or begging people to “like” you. No matter how many times you put “renowned expert” in your bio or on a profile somewhere, it doesn’t make it so. It’s up to other people to judge your content valuable, interesting, and useful to them.

2. Thought leadership is an investment. It’s not an insta-solution. Before you can be brilliant, you have to know what you’re talking about. That means understanding your business goals, your competitive differentiators, and your customer’s and prospect’s pain points across both the product/service lifecycle and your company’s operations. And that’s all before you develop a content strategy to educate people, problem solve, and be a go-to resource.

3. One-size-fits-all fits no one. If you understand your business and are targeting the right audience, what works for another person or company won’t work for you. Don’t imitate. The best voice—whether in words or in pictures—is your voice. 

4. It’s okay to focus on today and look ahead. During the Twitter chat, Bruce Hallas expressed frustration at the difficulty of positioning himself as a thought leader when he’s interested in what happens 3, 5, or 10 years from now but his clients are focused on the “now.” Why can’t you do both? The “now” responds to people’s current needs. The “thinking” piece is an opportunity to educate us on the things we don’t know we don’t know (or don’t yet recognize as needs). I’d create special, perhaps-gated, content (e.g., white paper, e-book) to showcase your forward-thinking smarts. You can always re-purpose some of that content into bite-sized nuggets to tease your everyday audience.

5. Thought leadership pays off. Look at IBM. After years as a products company, IBM has reinvented itself as an ideas business. But you don’t have to clone IBM to be successful. In fact, a thought leadership strategy is perhaps even more important for small companies who don’t have the deep pockets to supplement their content marketing initiatives with mass market brand advertising  It’s all about differentiating yourself and giving people a reason to pay attention.

Photo by visualpanic (Flickr).