What’s the Difference Between Being an Expert and Being a Thought Leader and Can You be One?

We work with a number of “thought leaders” — experts who are hoping to establish or build their reputations in some specific area whether as an author, a consultant or some type of service provider. The phrase “thought leader” is bandied about quite a bit lately and we never gave it much thought. But, recently someone asked me to explain the difference between a “thought leader” and an “expert” which caused me to ponder the definitions of these two terms and come up with, at least IMO, an important distinction.

There is a distinction, however subtle between thought leaders and experts. An expert is someone who knows a lot about a particular topic or subject. A thought leader is someone who OTHERS believe is an expert on a particular topic or subject. That’s a key differentiator. It’s possible to be an expert that nobody knows about. It’s also possible to be a thought leader without true expertise (although, chances are, you won’t remain a thought leader for long…)

Much of our work is done with those who wish to establish themselves as thought leaders (and we do similar work on our own behalf!). We’ve found that the key points and elements of the process to make this happen are:

1) You need to have legitimate expertise in an area.

2) You should clearly state your desired objectives around what thought leadership means to you. How will you know when you have “arrived”? When you have X references in certain trade publications? When you’ve been invited to appear on XYZ media program? When you have X number of friends, followers, etc.? When your client list reaches X or your revenue reaches Y?  (Hint: our preference is to establish metrics that are outcome-based, not process-based, so we’d be most concerned with revenue, booked speaking engagements, inquiries, etc.).

3) You should clearly identify very specific target audiences. There is a tendency to want to appeal to a large number of people because of the belief that “more is more.” In reality, “less is more.” The more targeted and focused you can be, the greater results you can achieve–counter-intuitive, but true. Define very specific audiences that you wish to influence.

4) Determine the means by which you will reach those target audiences. Make a list and prioritize that list. What are the media outlets that these audiences most respect? What communication tools (e.g. social media) do they use?

5) Evaluate the competition and determine how you will position what you have to offer relative to the competition and in alignment with your target audiences’ interests.

6) Create and disseminate quality content through the targeted channels you have identified. There are two key factors that are “must have” here:

  • Quality — don’t just pump out “stuff.” Remember that thought leaders are defined by others. If your audiences view your communications as too basic, off-the-mark or irrelevant, you will not succeed in becoming a thought leader.
  • Targeted channels — the local paper may not be as influential as the Wall Street Journal. About.com is not likely to be as influential as the Huffington Post. But, when it comes to defining the “right” channels, the answer is likely to be: “it depends.” The right channels for you will be in alignment with your identified goals and targeted audiences. The key is to achieve and maintain that alignment — stay on track!

In an information age where data and knowledge proliferate there is ample opportunity for those with real expertise to readily establish themselves as thought leaders. The “real expertise,” of course, is foundational.

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