Your digital footprint is the sum of your internet presence, including social media, blogs, comments, and casual mentions. Creating the right digital footprint is crucial for thought leaders. Why? Because this is how others see you, and it therefore strongly affects how and whether you can build strong, trust-based relationships with others. And, of course, trust-based relationships are crucial for successful and effective thought leadership.
As a thought leader, your digital footprint needs to be consistent and coherent. It must show your expertise, and also that you are prepared to listen and engage with others, and with their ideas. Even if you have been practicing thought leadership for some time, it may be helpful to review your digital footprinting ‘toolkit’ to ensure that it remains up-to-date, and you remain effective.
Check your craft
Creating content requires skill. You can learn to write or to create engaging video blogs—but you need to put in the effort. It is no good having great ideas, or knowing how to solve your audience’s problems if you cannot get this across to them.
For example, did you know that people find it much easier to understand shorter sentences? Using sentences of no more than seven words means that your audience will almost certainly understand everything. Up the sentence length to over 40 words, and they will take in no more than about 10% of the meaning.
For more ideas to develop your writing, read our article on whether your writing is supporting your social objectives.
Building on the essential skills of thought leadership: making ideas memorable
Perhaps the greatest skill in any thought leader is to be able to express complex ideas in simple terms. Why? Because this makes them more memorable. Memorable (or ‘sticky’) ideas share certain characteristics:
- Simplicity – they are simple, easy to remember, but fundamental and important.
- Unexpectedness – memorable ideas surprise us.
- Concreteness – they are clearly expressed in real terms, no abstract.
- Credibility – they are believable.
- Emotional – they connect with our feelings.
- Stories – we are hard-wired to remember stories, because this helped us to survive years ago.
Storytelling is probably the most fundamental skill for thought leaders, but it is not everything. The right story can draw in an audience, and capture and hold their attention, then make a point in a more memorable way. The wrong story, however, will have the opposite effect. You have to keep it simple.
Ideas fail to stick because once you know something, it is hard to remember what it was like not to know. It is, therefore, hard to capture the simplicity required.
Metaphors are one way to do this. However, it is crucial to use the right metaphor. There are plenty of bad metaphor-based articles available. These over-use the metaphor, and get lost in it, or use over-complex metaphors that nobody outside a very small and elite circle will understand. You need to keep your metaphor simple and easy to relate to, and ensure that it is only a ‘hook’, not the body of your article. Then your metaphor blogs will shine. To learn more about using metaphors in your writing and other content, read our article on how metaphors engage audiences.
Another way to increase your impact is to structure your writing or broader content creation using a tool like the Minto pyramid. This helps you to organise your ideas into a more memorable structure, by using the ‘rule of threes’: the idea that humans find it easier to remember things in threes. This helps to ensure that your ideas are laid out logically, even across a number of blog posts.
You can also try to harness the impact of visualisation. For example, including a picture with your social media posts makes them more likely to be shared or retweeted. You can even make the picture your story by creating an infographic. For more about this, read our article here.
- For more about how to make ideas memorable, read our article on the book Made to Stick.
Types of content
There is obviously a wide range of options for content to build your digital footprint. There are also a huge number of possible platforms to use and several ways for your connections and contacts to endorse you. These include valuable options like ‘claps’ on Medium, which affect how often content is offered for viewing. They also include less valuable options such as LinkedIn endorsements—which we suggest are not worth the bother.
There are some approaches that will work across a range of platforms and types of content—for example, use of storytelling is extremely effective in any medium. However, some platforms and media have more specific requirements. For example, subject matter experts might easily be asked to write a foreword or a preface to a book or white paper—after all, these are often written by an independent expert in the field. This could open you up to a whole new audience, so it is worth putting some thought into the process (see box).
Listening, engaging, monitoring and responding
Publishing your own content is only the start of genuine thought leadership. The purpose of thought leadership is to build relationships—and that means interacting with people. There may be a number of different elements to this, including:
- Listening to what is said on social media
It is often said that we have two ears, but only one mouth, and you should therefore listen twice as much as you speak. Some would say that the same goes for social media too. Obviously thought leaders do need to speak, but they also need to listen.
Our article on listening tips for thought leaders provides some ideas for how you can do this effectively.
- Engaging with comments on your blogs and those of others
It is important for thought leaders to take part in ongoing conversations, as well as trying to start conversations. You should reply to people commenting on your content—but it is also good to read some of their content and comment on that too, especially if you find it useful.
For more good practice on engaging with comments, read our article on contributing to ongoing conversations.
- Monitoring your impact and adjusting what you do in response
It is essential to understand the impact of your thought leadership. You need to know what is effective, so that you can do more of it, and stop doing what doesn’t work. There are a number of tools available for this, including Klout and the LinkedIn Social Selling Index.
Getting the right tone in your thought leadership
It is, perhaps, worth considering two final thoughts. First, thought leaders are, by their very nature, experts. They know a lot about a subject: some might even call them ‘geeks’. However, we all know that ‘experts’ are out of favour at the moment. How, then, can you develop effective thought leadership?
The answer is to ensure that you never patronise your audience. They are not stupid: they just do not have your level of expertise on this particular subject. Temper your writing with empathy, and use your knowledge and inner geek to help your audience solve their problems.
It is also important to remember that intent and impact are not the same things. You may do or say something with the best of intentions, but get the tone wrong. It may be misinterpreted, and damage a promising relationship. It is worth taking time to surface intentions—both your own, and those of others—to lessen misunderstandings. However, if you do get it wrong, you need to apologise for the impact, and not justify the intention. For more about this, read our article on the misalignment of intention vs. impact.