Maybe this article from Mike Templeman in Fortune Magazine should have been subtitled "Everything I know about thought leadership I learned from Donald Trump."
In theory, establishing thought leadership seems so simple. The internet is littered with article aiming to teach avid marketers how to establish themselves as credible leaders within their industry. Blog posts, webinars, podcasts, and many other channels are touted as keys to becoming a thought leader and gaining consumer trust.
The reality, though, looks different. As content marketing has entered the mainstream of digital marketing, countless content producers look to do the same thing in establishing thought leadership. The result is a digital environment that is cluttered with countless blog posts that no one reads , podcasts that no one listens to, and webinars attended by a precious few audience members.
So where is the disconnect? How do you go from well-meaning tutorials about blog posts to a thought leadership strategy that can be both successful and sustainable, setting you apart from the countless other hopeful thought leaders?
The answer is at once simple and complex: by tapping into the psychology that drives the importance of thought leadership.
First, it’s important to understand just how your audience gets to the point at which they find you credible enough to be a thought leader. And sure, regular articles at credible publications or an established industry leadership position are great tools, but not nearly every company (or marketer) can boast them.
But at is turns out, you don’t have to be. Astonishingly, 2012 study found that simply being confident boosts your credibility among your audience. In other words, truly believing that you are an expert in your subject (and letting that belief shine through your published content) can make a tangible difference in becoming a digital thought leader. And as the same study shows, even overconfidence can have the same effect.
Involve Your Audience
Speaking of your audience, did you know that your readers will perceive you as more credible if you openly ask question for yourself or your audience to answer? It’s called the Benjamin Franklin Effect: if you ask someone a question, they will like you more.
In addition, asking questions also increases your perceived credibility in more direct ways. As it turns out, curiosity is among the top traits needed for success in business. Showing your curiosity while involving your audience helps you build the credibility necessary to become a thought leader.
Social Proof and Reciprocity
Here’s another simple truth about digital thought leadership: your audience believes in you as an expert if other members of the audience do the same thing. Digital behavior very much follows a herd mentality, considering that 79% of online consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. People everywhere depend on the opinions of others to reinforce their beliefs and distinguish right from wrong.
Of course, social proof in thought leadership is more difficult to achieve than it is in your other marketing endeavors; you can’t just include a testimonial about your blog on your blog. But here’s one way you can accomplish nearly the same thing: write and encourage guest content by industry experts on your blog. Surrounding yourself with experts in your industry means that the expertise ‘bleeds’ into your own, as your audience will begin to think of you on the same level as these experts.
Always Be Honest
Of course, you also have to be honest (and be perceived to be honest) in everything you do digitally. Audiences easily experience cognitive dissonance, which occurs when something they encounter directly contradicts their past knowledge or experience. When that happens, your audience tends to trust their previous knowledge more than your contradicting ideas, diminishing your credibility.
For your thought leadership efforts, that means one important thing: no click-bait headlines. While it may be tempting to create a stunner that draws audiences into your content in droves, they will not come away with a favorable opinion of your business if the article doesn’t deliver on the headline’s promise. Instead, your headlines (and contents) should be honest and at all times.
Don’t be Afraid of Controversy
But as you can probably imagine, being honest does not always mean falling in line with conventional wisdom. As long as you can support your views with evidence and examples (not to mention the social proof we covered above), don’t be afraid to challenge the norm and establish an alternative way of thinking.
Nobody wants to read the 1000th blog post on how to write an effective blog. Instead, find a new topic, see how that topic may be different from what most people think, and cover it exclusively. The minor amounts of cognitive dissonance your readers experience will not matter once you provide the necessary evidence to back up your controversial opinion.
The most dangerous trap content marketers can fall into is blandness. If you don’t have anything new to say, chances are your audience won’t believe in you as a forward-thinking industry leader. By being a little bit controversial on the other hand, you can draw in your audience and encourage new ways of thinking, putting yourself at the forefront of thought leaders in your industry.
Establishing thought leadership is a complex process – and it’s much more complicated than simply writing a couple of blog posts on industry topics. Understanding the psychology behind the importance and practice of thought leadership helps you establish a strategy that will be successful and lasting.