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Thought Leadership on a Shoestring

Developing ideas that are worth sharing and building lasting trust in your opinions can be a powerful branding and marketing tool for organizations of all sizes — not just for major corporations.

In fact, thought leadership is less about how big your organization is and more about how big your ideas are, says Mary Ellen Slayter, the CEO of Rep Cap, a B2B content marketing firm in Baton Rouge with clients around the world.

“You don’t have to spend a billion dollars to spread your ideas,” Slayter said during a recent Tech Park Academy event at the Louisiana Technology Park.

Slayter, who launched Rep Cap after working as a journalist at The Washington Post and at business publisher SmartBrief, walked participants through a simple framework for honing your big ideas and getting them out into the world in service of your bigger business goals.

Here’s a look at some of the insights she shared.

Focus on Your Big Idea

Slayter says that when people decide they’re ready to start producing content for their brand, they often get caught up in tactical decisions like which social media platforms to use when they should concentrate most of their energy on the big idea they’re trying to introduce to the world.

“Usually we’re pushing a client to come up with something that’s unique to you, that’s special to your experience, in your perspective,” she says.

A good place to start sussing out your big idea, Slayter says, is to consume high-quality content relevant to your profession. “Thought leaders are learners,” she says.

She suggests carving out regular time for reading and learning the daily news in your community or profession. Also, big-picture general business publications, such as McKinsey Quarterly, can offer context and perspective for your thoughts, as well as inspiration, and industry-specific publications can help you stay up-to-date on important trends.

Next, focus on any routine things that you say that lead to “aha” moments in other people. This usually requires an outside perspective to recognize. She says that one way to do this is to record calls — with consent — with business prospects and to go back and listen to the conversation again later. You can also have a co-worker attend meetings with you and take notes about the other person’s reactions to what you say.

“You're looking for those things that you just take for granted because they’re the things you just know,” she says. “That’s your expertise.”

Lead the Conversation

To become a thought leader, think carefully about how you share your information, how you participate in your community and how you can create a conversation, Slayter says. That means not just relentlessly sharing your own content, which can be a turnoff for your followers. “Your goal is to drive the conversation, not to dominate it,” she says.

Focus is also important. For companies and individuals with small budgets, Slayter says, it’s best to choose one channel for your content rather than to spread your message over multiple social media platforms. “Pick the one channel that you’re going to be amazing at,” she says.

She says she’s bullish on LinkedIn now that algorithm tweaks have made the networking platform more conducive to real conversations, making it more attractive for thought leaders looking to spread their ideas. But Twitter, thoughtful email newsletters and short videos (90-120 seconds) are also effective, she says. Even amateur videos can resonate with consumers looking for authenticity over slick marketing messages, particularly on LinkedIn and Facebook.

“If you get stuck on writing, this can be really fun, and it’s very high-impact,” she says.

Once you’ve settled on a channel for your content, it’s time to choose a format — whether it’s writing, video or something else — and to hone your craft. Public speaking can also be an effective way to spread your ideas and develop a reputation as a thought leader, Slayter says, although it’s usually not the best first step. Podcasts, on the other hand, are too labor- and cost-intensive for individuals or small organizations, she says.

Although they’re usually not focused on selling, thought leadership and quality content hold the power to solve business problems and pave the way for better business, she says. “Thought leadership is about selling the idea,” Slayter says. “If you do that right and invest in that part then the more tactical selling goes a lot faster.”

Zoe Parker