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Want to Be a Thought Leader? Here's How

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The planning industry is full of buzzwords, particularly in marketing. Anything that someone writes or develops is now “thought leadership.” Every special report or longish article is now a “white paper.” These terms are in danger of losing their meaning.

Having worked with financial advisors for 25 years, I can say that most of them will never be seen as thought leaders – they just don’t have the time. That’s what it takes to be a thought leader: One must take the time to really think and advance the conversation around a body of thought.

In addition, a true thought leader does not claim the title for him or herself—others must see that person’s contributions and dub them a thought leader.

Indeed, this idea came up in Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Services Firms Become Thought Leaders, by Russ Alan Prince and Bruce H. Rogers. The authors provided the following as one of their definitions: A thought leader is an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.

Before you bombard me with hate mail, consider this: The sad reality is that most of what we see in the industry, even from the larger organizations that support financial advisors with good “how to” information, is far from thought leadership. And yet we continue to see “thought leadership” tabs on many-a-website and in push email campaigns.

Also consider this: While a white paper was once an academic research effort, today a B2B white paper is often used to generate sales leads. So while some long-form written content can be helpful, just writing and putting out your own paper is not thought leadership. There really needs to be some rigor involved, not just a business agenda to advance.


I’ve long maintained that financial advisors must become not just a credible expert and local authority but that they must also be seen as “slightly famous” in their hometowns and/or within specific, targeted markets. This is known as “credibility marketing.” Credibility marketing assumes you already are credible. The problem is, your target market does not yet know how credible you are.

Being quoted as an expert in other people’s articles, audios and video/television interviews by credible media outlets creates visibility and can serve as an implied endorsement for the financial advisor. The “halo effect” is an important distinction here.

Likewise, when a financial advisor or other industry expert’s original content is published by a credible media outlet, the perception is that the person or brand is more trustworthy because their work(s) have been published by an entity that has rigorous screening and acceptance standards – therefore, the individual being published “must be good.”

While most financial advisors and industry brands are unlikely to achieve thought leadership status, boosting one’s credibility and visibility through traditional PR efforts is very doable. In addition to the immediate “lift” and “glow” that the advisor or expert gleans upon initial publication, there can be a long and beneficial tail if the published content is properly leveraged.

Particularly as it pertains to social media dissemination, where “canned content” is becoming more and more the norm due to advisor overwhelm and compliance headaches, advisors and brands need original and more relevant content to stream into their social media mix. Commenting on and linking to good third-party published articles, audios and videos is called “curating” content. If the advisor or firm is quoted in the third-party created content or has had their own work published by that credible outlet, then the halo effect is amplified and contains a viral quality.


My challenge to the readers of this column is this: If you do take the time to really think and develop unique insights that can help your clients and the general public, try to get it published by a credible media outlet. Don’t just regurgitate the same well known thoughts--add something to the conversation. And don’t call yourself a thought leader--let others do that for you.

If you are writing a long-form guide that seeks to persuade the reader that your solution is the best one, don’t call it thought leadership; call it a Special Report or, if you must, a white paper.

Here’s a simple content development and publication plan to help you stay on track:


Capture your thinking and/or original research in whatever form is best for you: audio, video, multimedia or written. The most powerful way to talk about any product, service or idea is in plain English. The more innovative your product, services or idea actually is, the less you’ll need to puff it up with clichés and jargon.

If you do not have the time or inclination for all that, then work with a professional content creator to produce good quality material that will set you and your firm apart from competing entities.

2. Self-publish on your marketing hub.

Publish some of your thoughts on your own marketing hub (typically your website or your blog). Develop a theme, a voice and an editorial calendar – and stick to it.
Since you own this outlet, you control everything: timing, topic, tone, compliance disclosures, etc. Your “reach” may not be as great as the content published by a bigger entity, but you’ll be glad to have a page on your site that showcases and demonstrates your expertise.

In addition, you can “buzz up” your self-published pieces on social media by posting short summaries and links back to your company insights page.

3. Earn a second home.

Find a credible third-party (such as a news outlet or well trafficked site that is even more popular and credible than your site) to publish your very best insights. Work with the editor or producer to provide new insights that advance the conversation. A good editor will push you to provide better prose, clearer thought and the most relevant information for the audience.

Since you do not own this outlet, you will give up some control over the actual content but you’ll likely enjoy greater reach and your thoughts will be seen as more credible, simply because they (and you) have been vetted by a trusted, professional source.

Once your content is live on the hosting entity’s site, post short summaries and links (back to the original publication) on your social media accounts.

If you follow this plan, you can become slightly famous in your community. Consequently, you will be top-of-mind within select circles. As such, you will be consistently called on when your skills and clear, articulate thoughts can prove beneficial. Who knows? You might even be dubbed a thought leader in the process.

Marie Swift is the president and CEO of Impact Communications, Inc. Follow @marieswift on Twitter, or connect on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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