Thought Leadership Strategy Made Easy: Eight Simple Steps

Thought April 17, 2020 By: Paul Bergeron

Many associations want to establish themselves as thought leaders. Here are eight ideas that can advance your organization’s reputation and value proposition and potentially grow membership.

Associations are authorities on the industries and professions they represent, and their leaders have deep expertise to share. That’s the raw material for thought leadership—you just need a strategy for positioning your organization as a thought leader to your members, prospects, even the media and policymakers. The good news is that most of these recommendations for doing that will hardly cost a penny.

1. Have a Confident Mindset

Good: Meet with key staff to devise a clear plan for messaging and outreach that you believe to be fail-safe. Methodically run it through the approval process to gain 100 percent buy-in. But word to the wise: Don’t ever tell your audience that you are, in fact, “a Thought Leader.”

Much better: Convince leadership to move past fear of failure. Try things. Learn from mistakes. Repeat successes (after patting yourself on the back). Make most content and information public-facing. This is what brings people to your door. Hiding information behind a members-only wall stunts reputation-building and potential membership growth.

2. Be a Trusted Resource

Good: Promote the value of your organization’s products and services. Tell members and potential members just how good you are.

Much better: Craft all content with a WIIFM approach: What’s in it for me? Don’t fill your website home page with posts that talk about yourself, turning your site into a billboard with pitches about how members can spend money by registering for events or purchasing information. People do not like to be targets of sales pitches. A website that gives visitors the chance to search and discover the information they need will convince them to participate—and spend—with you.

3. Participate in Events

Good: Volunteer to serve on a panel discussion or offer to fill in if a conference organizer is struggling to find an expert speaker.

Much better: Craft presentations that tap into trending topics (“Making Work from Home Work for You”) but are not clichés (“10 Ways to Improve Culture”). Plan ahead for call-for-presentations deadlines so you won’t be forced to rush to submit something at the last minute. Presenters who have diverse points of view and who discuss critical topics are more likely to be selected. The conference will promote you and your organization—both before and after the event.

4. Give Media What It Can Use

Good: Target media outlets that cover your industry with emails, press releases, or more directly through Twitter, offering assistance, information, or story pitches.

Much better: A wise man once said, “With media relations, don’t give them something they need, give them something they can use.” Reporters will appreciate having their minds opened to new—and potentially unique—concepts about trending news. It could help them break a story and raise their profile as an enterprising reporter. Any organization can answer information requests or schedule interviews with a staff member. Offering something useful will keep the reporter coming back. Even better: Attend industry events where you know members of the press will be present. Make it a point to introduce yourself and offer a quick description of your organization.

5. Invest in Brand Exposure

Good: Create brand guidelines with specific uses for your logo, messaging, color scheme, and so on. Keep an eye out for any misuse of your brand so that you can protect your reputation and control any marketing outcomes.

Much better: With social media channel proliferation, reputation management is a big deal. But protecting your brand is only the first step. Brainstorming opportunities with staff members in other departments could lead to identifying valuable and appropriate audiences to share your thought leadership and give your logo positive exposure. These opportunities come at a nominal price, so be sure to cost-track them

Craft all content with a WIIFM approach: What’s in it for me? Don’t fill your website home page with posts that talk about yourself.

6. Publish Trends, Surveys, and Forecasts

Good: Regularly issue data trends, surveys, and forecasts. Share them with members digitally or in print. Post them to your website.

Much better: Many associations are known for highly reputable reports that they issue regularly. Train your media contacts to look for yours on a given day, week, or month so they can report on them, showing your organization to be the authority on the issue. Also, if you publish a magazine, have it focus on industry news, not association news (there are other channels for that). Distribute your magazine at industry shows. Most will allow it.

7. Use Member-Based Storytelling

Good: Have your association’s experienced and knowledgeable staff write about or interpret critical topics that affect your industry. Voices of authority are respected.

Much better: Tackle these topics by sharing detailed perspectives from members—they are on the ground dealing with topics such as regulations, innovative technologies, and operations. If they look good, you look good.

8. Build Influencer/Subject Matter Expert Relationships

Good: Casually contact your industry’s subject matter experts and influencers (authors, speakers, bloggers) just to remind them that you are around if needed. Be mindful that the bigger their reputation, the bigger their ego, and probably the busier they are. But if you’re lucky, they might help promote you to their network.

Much better: Contact these experts and heap praise on their professionalism and accomplishments. Invite them to your events to share what they know with your members. Many will want to work with you because they know that you can help them as much as they will help you.

Ready to make your association a thought leader? Now’s your chance. Put these ideas to good use and you’ll be on your way.

Paul Bergeron

Paul Bergeron, IOM, is an independent association communications consultant. He served many years as a communications director and editor-in-chief for the National Apartment Association in Arlington, Virginia.