Becoming a Thought Leader

Becoming a Thought Leader

I recently attended a fascinating event held at a marketing company, specializing in PR and marketing for startup companies in the cleantech space.

Now I recognize the necessity of marketing (as separate from sales), and I understand how much of it (nearly all of it?) is done online these days. But my goodness, I could spend my entire working time on the computer doing marketing, if I followed all the “best practices” as outlined! Hmm, I guess that’s why even small companies find value in a dedicated marketing person… 🙂

One of the audience asked a very thoughtful question: “Many times startup companies are operating in ‘stealth’ mode, to avoid showing their hand before their product is ready. But how then to build a marketing buzz or excitement, or establish yourself in the market, while dealing with that kind of restriction?”

The answer I found quite relevant – it has to do with a concept of establishing yourself specifically (as the CEO) or your company in general as a “thought leader” in the industry. The idea is that you should have an online presence as YOURSELF, and build your reputation as an expert in your field, and then when you DO announce the launching of your startup, people pay attention because they already pay attention to YOU.

Now I follow quite a few blogs on entrepreneurship – mostly written by VCs. It never occurred to me that this is what they might be doing. And here I thought they were just sharing their knowledge for, you know, the good of mankind… 🙂 But really the purpose is to engage with the community you want to be a part of – your customers, your financiers, your potential partners. And to keep abreast of what your competitors are doing.

Ways that were reccomended to establish yourself as a “thought leader” included:

– post regular blog entries on your own blog, pertinent to your field

– participate in other conversations by publishing response pieces to other postings or timely news articles

– post comments on other blogs and articles

– talk to analyst once a quarter (they will try to sell your their services, but there is a lot you can gain by talking to them, and it is their JOB to talk to you about the field if you are making a difference)

– when attending conferences, participate in twitter with updates and hashtags

This mindset is very different than academia – where to establish yourself there as a thought leader, your goal is to get journal papers in prestigious places and to be invited to speak (bonus for keynote speeches).

Now of course I am biased because I am a hardcore techie at heart – but it does strike me as suspicious that one can do all the things in the “thought leader” list without actually being, you know, an expert in your field. Whereas one hopes, at least, that in order to get prestigious journal papers and grants and whatnot, you do actually have to display some technical depth.

However my cynical self notes that there is more than enough politics in academia to go around, and that in business people are smart enough to distinguish the real leaders as well.

Do you find it personally useful to develop a reputation online, and if so how do you go about it?


There has always been a big difference between posturing (“social media” today) and performing (technical conferences). The Internet just makes it easier for posers to get attention, and exposes more laymen to ideas that they don’t understand but impress them anyways. In the long run you’ll be more successful performing than posing. The marketers’ job is to dupe the public into buying the flavor of the day, but technical talent must maintain integrity. So be careful about your Internet presence, don’t post opinion as fact, and avoid confrontations.

“Do you find it personally useful to develop a reputation online, and if so how do you go about it?”
In my experience, one can spend too much time trying to develop and maintain an online reputation (time better spent on work itself) and too easily get caught up into social politics. I have withdrawn from social media because it is too easy to become a target for posers with selfish agendas. Before I venture into social media again I want to have my prototypes and patents in order, then present them to (and hopefully impress) established leaders in the field. Then I’ll probably allow those leaders to take the lead publicizing its merits and see how things go. There are so many charlatans championing vaporware today that I don’t want to risk getting identified with them. If I need funding I’ll research venture capitalists to separate posers from performers, and then hook into those performers. In my opinion once again, I don’t see a need to play showman when others are better suited to it.

“more successful performing than posing” – I love it! I agree with you that it always seemed to make more sense to do more WORKING rather than TALKING about working. It infuriates me when people spend more effort promoting what they do, than actually doing it.

Your plan to have a solid foundation first, and then venture into social media, seems like a great strategy. Ideally it would be great to have other impressed leaders in the field pick up your product and promote it for you – but I wonder if that ever works in reality, or if you will always have to do some amount of self-promotion and showmanship, at least to start the buzz?

I obviously agree with a lot of this stuff and have tried to be a “thought leader” while still actually doing some useful work. However, there’s two things I’d like to point out, as I have in the past.

1.) This is a great reason why people should go by their actual name online. Obviously there are reasons not to and I’m not saying Miss Outlier shouldn’t (I can’t recall why she went with a pseudonym). However, I think all the time and effort spent online writing and building a persona is more valuable when its under a real name.

2.) Another path forward is to instead of spending the time becoming a thought leader is to instead recognize and engage with people that already are. This takes work and will require that you have a compelling offering (I know that Miss Outlier does!); but often the main criteria for getting good press on what you’re doing (especially when you’re moving out of “quiet mode” into the public’s eye) is momentum. Getting one or two people to write about you often is enough to catch the eyes of others and the process continues onward. A great book about this is “Here Comes Everybody” by Clay Shirky.

Great article!

1) When I first started blogging it was to keep my family in touch with how I was doing, and for the fun of it. I wasn’t planning at the time to talk about engineering topics, and I wasn’t doing a startup, and I didn’t much care about establishing a reputation. But I am seeing the value of real names now! I’m a bit caught in the middle between wanting a blog for the purpose of venting and creative expression (where anonymity is useful for protection and privacy) and for establishing a reputation or representing myself professionally (where you would use a real name). I’m still a bit too wigged out by the creepy comments I get under Miss Outlier to let the whole web of crazies know who I really am…

2) Excellent point! That would be a great addition to the list of “best practices.” And fits with what ferd says above – getting others to talk about you will be more valuable than talking abut yourself.

I’d also like to point out, that another thing I’ve seen you do is TEACHING (with the Amp Hour in particular and I think you have another podcast under development?). As commenter Steve Hoefer points out below – that is also a highly effective “thought leader building” activity, and one I’ve always been impressed that you do so well.

From my day job in Technical Marketing/Sales, I firmly believe that if the product sucks, it doesn’t matter what kind of promotions you do.

From a product launch standpoint, I don’t think it matters much if you show your hand before the product is done. It’s pretty hard to get people to accept your product ideas even when they’re brilliant. It’s much easier to get people to accept your ideas once they’ve got some momentum (sales, $, publicity!) behind them.
Of course, this is different in academia, where many people may be researching the same thing.

Being a “thought leader” is a great way of looking at things. Thanks for presenting this viewpoint, I had not considered this. I always talk about products/projects before they’re launched.

And I agree with Chris Gammell, there is a huge upside to using your real name. People can track your writings for several years back, which adds to your online presence. Even if your first forays into the online world are asking questions on forums, it’s important to build up a history.

I have to agree with both you and Chris. Since I quit blogging anonymously almost a year ago I feel as though I’ve been much more successful in establishing my online reputation than before. Putting a name and personality behind a post or other medium has been way more effective for me. Granted, becoming a thought leader wasn’t my original intention when I started posting (and I’m not claiming to be one now by any means either) but it’s nice to Google myself and actually see pertinent results.

I thought about “coming out”, but then decided I’d probaby get fired. So Fluxor it is…

Tons of good stuff here! Pardon the long comment:

“…but it does strike me as suspicious that one can do all the things in the “thought leader” list without actually being, you know, an expert in your field”

Yes, and people often do. And they’re ridiculously obvious about it. If you’re a fraud (ie: You’re not only not a leader, you’re barely even a follower) and you’re posting that much information it will be pretty obvious. But if you really do know what you’re talking about, at least enough to be involved in a good product, people will listen.

One category missing from the list above: Teach. If you can teach me something in a white paper, a video, a podcast, blog post, etc. then I’m in your debt and I automatically recognize you as an authority. After all you know more than I do. I’m much more likely to spread a link that teaches something than one that’s selling something. (And if you teach me how to use your product better, it’s a great marketing move, and should be easy for you since you’re closer to it than most people.)

When interacting online Interesting attracts Interesting. I don’t know how much of an “opinion leader” I am, but I’ve found a direct correlation between the amount of good original content I post and the quality of my online audience and interactions. The number of interesting and influential people I interact with now is many times greater than it was before I started posting to my blog and using Twitter.

This is a great post and one that I can relate to. As an engineer turned engineering career coach, my job is to connect with engineers online on a daily basis.

What I have tried to do through my blog and my social media outlets is to find out what engineers biggest challenges are and then I can offer blog posts, programs, books, seminars that halp them to overcome those challenges.

Lately I have started blogging very regularly again on my blog and I am trying to hit topics that will help engineers change their lives for the better and things seem to be really taking on the blog.

Thanks for the article, I plan on subscribing!

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