In a digital world full or recycled ideas, one way to help your business stick out among all the other would-be lemmings is to establish yourself as a thought leader.

If you’re not the market leader for your product – and you have a limited amount of time to establish yourself in this role – then your brand will have a difficult time differentiating itself, says Craig Badings, co-founder of Leading Thought.

“There are many brands who aren’t thought leaders who do OK,” Craig says. “But there’s no doubt that those brands who are recognized thought leaders or who have thought leaders at their helm have clear differentiation in the market (e.g., Apple, Virgin, Berkshire Hathaway, PwC, Deloitte, McKinsey, IBM, Dove, etc.).”

Luckily for us, Craig recently answered a few questions we had about thought leadership and its use in sales and marketing strategies. 

What is your professional background?

I started my working life as an English teacher but have spent the past 25 years in public relations. The exposure I’ve had to a variety of clients and how they communicate with their audiences introduced me to the concept of thought leadership. I witnessed first-hand how powerful it can be when applied strategically. I decided to explore it in more detail, and eight years later here I am having written two books, two eBooks and launched two blogs on the topic.

Tell us about your site Thought Leadership Strategy…when and why did you start it?

It came off the back of my first book Brand Strand: Seven Steps to Thought Leadership, which was published in 2009. I decided I didn’t want to stop my thought leadership writings and musings with the book – I needed something more regular, hence the blog. Since then I have launched a second blog with Dr. Liz Alexander, co-author of my last book.

What do you think have been your most successful strategies for growing the audience to your site?

A singular focus on the topic of thought leadership and not trying to be all things to all people.

In addition, it is important to have what I call the “virtuous digital circle,” (e.g., the blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, etc.). The platforms you use depend on where your audiences hang out, but if you want your content shared in multiple ways, then you need to be using other social media channels.

What is your definition of thought leadership? Why is it important to the success of a business?

The long version: Thought leadership is about delivering new ideas and content to your target public based on deep insights into the business issues and challenges they face. In the process, the value you deliver should go well beyond merely selling your product or service. Your thought leadership point of view should differentiate you from your competitors, establish you as the “go-to” expert in that field and position you as a trusted advisor – all with the intent of underpinning the sale.

The short version, which Dr. Liz Alexander and I came up with together: earned authority arising from a pioneering mindset, the courage to influence and a clear, compelling, client-centric focus.

Why is thought leadership important in sales and marketing?

One only need speak to retailers and salespeople or read about how the sale has changed irrevocably. Fundamentally, the sales power used to vest in salespeople – they had all the knowledge.

Not anymore. Now, thanks to the web and social media, the knowledge lies with the consumer. By the time they come to a brand, they are prepared and informed. And it’s content that provides this knowledge. The question is what differentiates your content from your competitors? Sadly, the answer is all too often: “Not much.”

It is my strong view, based on 25 years in the content industry, that thought leading content is what changes this. The reason is that it is client focused, and it often solves or at least provides new insights into how to solve their biggest challenges or issues. By providing this, you are indicating that you have a deep knowledge and understanding of your market’s needs – you are providing something that is useful and strategic to them.

Critically, it should not be about you and your product or service.

Why is having a clear brand definition/identity so important to the success of a business?

People like to know what your brand stands for. Trust develops in a brand over time, and it comes from a clear definition of what the brand stands for and the values the market attributes to you. The clearer and more focused this is, the better for building that all-important brand attribute – trust.

What are some of your current favorite marketing tools?

One-on-one engagement. This is an oldie but still the best way to market. There’s nothing like eyeballing a client or prospect, being able to ask the right questions to identify their real issue and then being able to share an insight or product that can address that problem.

Next to that, my books and eBooks have been great marketing tools and good door-openers. Finally, without social media, no one would have heard about my work on thought leadership – this interview, for example, came about as a result of my blog.

What do you think are the right and wrong ways to use social media?

You need to clearly differentiate which platforms you are using for personal and which for work. That’s not to say you can’t share certain personal things on your work platforms, but be very careful about what it is you share – there have been many things tweeted, Facebooked, Snapchatted, Instagrammed, etc., that have been regretted or, worse, resulted in a corporate issue or crisis.

A good test is would you stand up in the office or to a group of friends and say it to their faces? If not, don’t put it on social media.

On the flip side, social media used well and aimed at the right audiences is a very powerful tool for global reach and engagement with like-minded individuals. I have had some great engagements on social media and have met some amazing people via social media. This is what Jeff Bullas calls turning weak ties into strong ties, and he lives it.

He and I met online, initially to share guest blogs, and we now catch up for a chat and a glass of wine every few months and have become good mates and work colleagues. In the same vein, I have now met with PR Warrior Trevor Young a couple of times and recently introduced Trevor to Jeff.

What thought leaders out there inspire you the most? Who would you recommend we follow?

It all depends on the industry/sector that interests you.

If you are in professional services, companies like Deloittes, PwC, McKinsey, Ernst & Young, Booz&Co, etc., all do a great job.

Then there are brands like Dove (Campaign for Real Beauty), IBM (Smarter Planet), GE (Ecomagination), Philips (Liveable Cities), SKM, etc., who do big brand thought leadership really well.

Finally, there are individual thought leaders from one person operators like Jeff Bullas, Gary Vaynerchuk, Chris Brogan, Brendan Burchard, David Meerman Scott, Bernard Salt, etc., who have built amazing global profiles through the recognition by the market that they are thought leaders in their field.

Follow Craig on Twitter @thoughtstrategy.