April 8, 2024 #ContentChat Recap: How to Develop a Powerful Thought Leadership Platform for Better Branding

A Content Chat header image featuring an array of flowers behind a text overlay that says today’s topic is how to develop a powerful thought leadership platform for better branding with guest Michelle B. Griffin.

“When we think about thought leadership, it’s like I’m going to be speaking and writing books. But that comes with time, expertise, and honing your craft. That’s not where you start usually. Start small, get traction, and make sure you like it.”—Michelle B. Griffin

In this #ContentChat recap, Erika Heald is joined by The Brand Therapist℠ Michelle B. Griffin, a personal brand, public relations, and LinkedIn visibility strategist, to explore how to develop a powerful thought leadership platform for better branding. 

Learn more about personal branding from Michelle in her books How to Build Your Personal and Business Brand on LinkedIn and Own Your Lane™ – The Visibility Roadmap For Women In Business.

Watch the entire conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.

Q1: What is (and isn’t) thought leadership?

Thought leadership is more than just creating content or doing content marketing.

“A lot of times people think that just creating content and doing content marketing is thought leadership. Spoiler alert: It’s not.”—Erika Heald

“Thought leadership gets misused a lot on LinkedIn. People think it’s just creating content, or they put fluff out—and let’s not even talk about how ChatGPT can make us thought leaders. It’s not throwing content out there, and that’s exactly what personal branding isn’t either.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Thought leaders are passionate about sharing their expertise and inspiring change in their fields. 

“In the realm of thought leadership, these are people who have really deep expertise [and] they’re looking to find a way to create change. [They] go to the root cause and [are] out-of-the-box thinkers and innovators, usually with frameworks or an IP or some way of thinking to influence change. I also like to think most people who are thought leaders don’t like to call themselves thought leaders.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“These are the people who get tagged and referenced and have systems and frameworks that we attribute to that are leading the thoughts and conversations on particular subjects.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Thought leaders have engaged communities with whom they can start conversations. A large follower count does not make someone a thought leader, which we explore more in this #ContentChat recap about the value of influence marketing

“I don’t even like to bring in the term influencer, because just because you have millions of followers does not mean you’re bringing actual expertise and thoughts that cause change in conversations.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Importantly, thought leaders make bold or potentially controversial claims about their space. 

“There are a lot of people who are putting their expert thoughts that influence change out there. I like to call it thought makers, because a thought maker is someone who’s actually making a real legitimate thought. It’s not the cliche, but it’s causing innovative change in discussion. We’re not the echo chamber, and that’s what we see too much in social media, the echo chamber. And that’s not thought leadership.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Thought leadership can mean many things, which makes the topic tricky (and full of opportunity). 

“There’s not one nuanced, legal definition. And that’s the problem.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Q2: Why is a personal brand necessary for building thought leadership?

A personal brand shows who you are and what you stand for. This brand serves as the foundation for your thought leadership platform. 

“You need a personal brand because that is who you are and what you stand for. [Your ideal community] needs to know that person, who they are, what they stand for, what they’re about, who they help, all the things that draw us to them emotionally.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Q3: What are the foundational elements of a strong brand platform?

A brand platform should explain what you believe and how you perceive the world.

“Who am I separate from my beliefs? Not what is my title [or] what do I do at work. Who I ultimately am that shapes my character, my beliefs, and my perspectives. The right people really know who we are top of mind, then we develop the brand.”—Michelle B. Griffin

The platform should focus on your ideal customer or community member. Who do you help, and how do you help them?

“Who are we here for? What is the ultimate problem we’re sharing in our brand and the thought leadership we put out there? What is the problem? We want a very narrow thing.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“And then how do we position you so your brand is out there and also the point of view and the premise you share is very clear and defined.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Michelle’s ‘Own Your Lane’ framework starts with defining your personal brand.

“My Own Your Lane framework, which is a thought leadership framework, is four stages. I have a seven-step process, but the four pillars of Own Your Lane are: Put yourself out there, you have to decide to get visible and have a powerful presence. Set your purpose. Then the presence is born; we get out on the social media channels and the long-form and short-form. And then after that, we start amplifying in wider circles, that’s where the PR part comes in.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Q4: How can aspiring thought leaders get started with building their influence?

Set realistic expectations about the effort involved in specific activities and the results you will achieve once you start. 

“You have to be careful about having too many expectations and maybe jumping in with stuff that’s going to take a bunch of time and not necessarily pay off with quick results to stay motivated.”—Erika Heald

“We read and see all the ideas of the shiny objects and say, oh, that looks easy. But what’s easy and right for some person isn’t always right for us.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Michelle recommends starting to build your thought leadership on LinkedIn. 

“Once you have your foundational things set, you have real clarity to get out there. And LinkedIn is the place. Of course, I’m biased, I wrote the LinkedIn brand book, but it is the place.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“When I left my job to start my consultancy, I saw right away that LinkedIn was the place to be seen. It took me nine months to start posting, and it wasn’t until I made myself a huge challenge in 2021 to post every single day. So I did it. I don’t recommend it, it was just a personal challenge, but I learned a lot.”—Michelle B. Griffin 

“You do develop—I wouldn’t call it an audience—a community of people who share your ideas, who listen, who are partaking in conversations. You can start sharing your thoughts, you can test things, you can see what sticks and what doesn’t.”—Michelle B. Griffin 

Join LinkedIn events to meet new people and find peers in your space. Engage with others regularly and write your own posts, articles, or newsletters.

“You don’t even have to start posting, you can start by going to LinkedIn events and commenting. Going to LinkedIn audio events now is a wonderful place. Starting a newsletter. You get your footing.”—Michelle B. Griffin 

“LinkedIn has really taken the place that Twitter used to have for a lot of folks in the professional community. [Twitter] used to be a place where you could go and have those conversations with people you didn’t know who had your same interests or worked in your same industry. Whereas LinkedIn had traditionally been more of a place where you were talking to your existing network, other than the folks who were really aggressively out there. But now it’s really become a place where you can have those professional conversations.”—Erika Heald

“That’s its tagline: Where business conversations happen. And it’s changed tremendously from its origins as a resume recruiter site. It truly is the global platform.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Consistent activities will gradually build your influence and help you earn new opportunities. 

“I use LinkedIn in my work as the visibility launching pad. Plus, media are here. You get invited on a podcast. Your natural thought leadership bubbles up and the right people see it and the right opportunities with the right people happen.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“You can get that tracking, get that confidence, get that clarity, and get really refined. So when the time is right, you can start that podcast, and then you have people who want to listen because you developed your community.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Find the channel that works best for you and helps you reach your ideal community.

“I don’t know what Twitter/X is like anymore, but I know there are amazing people still having conversations there, and a lot of journalists are still there. It has to fit for you, your industry, and what you like to do. There’s no one-size-fits-all.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Q5: How can social media help your thought leadership and branding efforts?

Michelle recommends you take a ‘perfessional’ approach to social media—personable, yet professional.  

“I like to take a perfessional approach to it. A personal brand, a lot of clients will say ‘I don’t want to be personal.’ They really push back. And I say it’s being perfessional, not a typo. You want to be personable. Yet we still need to see a professional side, you share your expertise.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Social media is a great place to showcase your personality. 

“Especially after the pandemic, the world just seems like we need more connection, and we crave it, and we expect it to be a mixture of both, so we can really get to know who you are, and you don’t have to be so robotic. Let your personality shine, but also inject what you do.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“Social media is where you can have those conversations you would have if you had unlimited time and money and could just wander around out in the world.”—Erika Heald

Social media is also helpful for amplifying your thought leadership content. 

“Social media is a place where you show up, you share your expertise, share behind the scenes [and] your personal journey, just to help those along who you’re here for. And there’s always those tools that, along with social media, can really amplify us that you cannot get standalone. Podcasts and a book are all wonderful accompaniments but social media is where you can go and share that to cross-pollinate it, if you will.”—Michelle B. Griffin

It takes time to build your network and you likely won’t drive immediate results, but you never know who’s listening in. 

“The downside is it can take a lot of time. I tell my clients to be very intentional and strategic, but I always say LinkedIn is your launching pad. Have multiple visibility streams. It’s rented land, we’ve heard that from the dawn of day. Your profile is still what I call your personal brand website. And you need to have that presence, that authority profile dialed in.”—Michelle B. Griffin 

“You never know who’s watching you. Even if you post, sometimes it’s your friend or your community, but also the people who want to work with you or feature you on a podcast or media. So it’s crucial to have a presence.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Q6: What mistakes do you often see thought leaders make when trying to activate their brand platform?

Don’t spread yourself too thin trying to be on every platform. Pick one or two places you can put a meaningful effort into.  

“Some people try to be on every single social platform that anyone they know is active on. And that’s going to be exhausting. Unless you’re unemployed with amazing stamina, I don’t see how you could possibly keep up.”—Erika Heald

“Certain platforms like LinkedIn take a lot of time. You have to go and don’t have a one-way conversation. It’s a two-way conversation. You want to have time allotted for that. I’d rather make a bigger impact with one channel. People spread themselves too thin and dilute all the impact they can make by [being on] too many platforms.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Be wary of fully outsourcing your thought leadership content. 

“Or you hire someone, and then that’s artificially not you.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Know who you are trying to appeal to and accept that you won’t appeal to everyone. 

“Sometimes folks try to appeal to everybody. And, of course, if you’re trying to appeal to everybody, in reality, you’re going to connect with no one. People don’t always define what they want to be known for, what’s really powerful and meaningful to them, so they can kind of chase after things. And that can really dilute your credibility.”—Erika Heald

“I start with the internal clarity of who you are, what you stand for, and what you want to be known for, so you’re known for something. That person, I am here for their problem. That’s the external clarity. And then I call it your professional clarity. How do you define and differentiate between that, too.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“Someone came out with something that even 100 true fans, if you are totally targeted to the right person, we might even just need 100. That’s the power of differentiating and what I call your narrow lane. Get in your narrow lane and get really fast traction for that person you’re here for. And see where they are.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Infuse personal interests into your brand and profile to spark conversations. 

“We want to start conversations, and social media is the digital town hall or the digital watering hole or whatever you call it. When we have those little nuances, like on my LinkedIn profile, I have 80s music fanatic, I get people asking what my favorite 80s band or music is.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Q7: What opportunities do you think are underutilized when building thought leadership?

Speaking slots at big industry events can be difficult to earn when you’re getting started. Virtual events and webinars can also help strengthen your thought leadership and are typically more attainable. 

“Too often, people think they have to go out there and speak at big conferences, but speaking is not for everybody. And some folks may do a lot better at getting valuable speaking gigs if they’ve built a thought leadership platform well in advance of going after those speaking slots.”—Erika Heald

“Speaking is at the top of the pyramid. If you start with a ladder effect, let’s start lower. You’re not going to get on Good Morning America the day you say ‘let’s do PR.’”—Michelle B. Griffin

Newsletters build thought leadership and cultivate an engaged community. 

“LinkedIn is a launching pad. Maybe you start a LinkedIn newsletter from that, or one of your own on Substack or Beehive or one of those.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Podcasts are a great option for thought leaders who love speaking. 

“I absolutely love to write, but I’m also an over-editor, over-analyzer, over-thinker. So I knew if I ever had a blog, I would be sitting for hours on something that shouldn’t take so long. But I also love to talk. So back in 2021, I started a podcast. And to me, I think they’re fun because I don’t have to sit there and edit everything. You get a glimpse of me [with] audio and video, and I have met the most amazing people and guests all over the world. So you may not want to start a podcast, but maybe guesting on podcasts sharing your message or expertise.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Start with activities you enjoy doing and position yourself in positive ways. 

“A lot of people have in their head what thought leadership needs to look like, without thinking through what they love to do and what is going to really let them shine. For a lot of folks, it is having conversations, it is having meaningful interactions moreso than locking themselves in a room and trying to write.”—Erika Heald

Any activity can be one way to strengthen your platform and get you closer to your goals. 

“Thought leadership has almost become a shiny object. And people think, ‘I’ve got to have it.’ But when we break it down into smaller things, it becomes a lot more easily built and attainable, but you’re still driving conversations, having conversations, and hopefully influencing change along the way.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Focus your effort on places where your ideal community is. 

“A personal brand is of you, but it’s for others. It’s for that one person you’re here for. That cause, that mission, that message, that problem you’re solving for them. And then that helps you keep that momentum going.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“We’ve all seen it. When you have an executive who says we’ve got to be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. And you’re like, ‘Why?’ Do your customers read the Wall Street Journal daily? Are you in banking? There’s the prestige, and they want the prestige, but is that really going to make a difference for your business? The answer is no.”—Erika Heald

“Yes, we want the coveted Business Insider or Forbes, but those don’t usually convert. Get that niche publication podcast. You’re going to be in front of your ideal audience that way. And then you eventually have an angle to get into the Forbes, because it’s really hard to get into those right off the bat without any kind of strategy, story, or angle.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Q8: Are there tools or resources you recommend for managing thought leadership activities?

Fathom.video and Otter.ai transcribe audio content so you can repurpose it for new formats.

Fathom.video. I have it on all my calls. You hook it to Zoom, Teams, and Google Meets. It records the audio [and] the video [and provides a] transcript, and the AI summaries are better than Otter.ai. It’s free, but they charge on the enterprise level. If you’re saying amazing things you know can be used for your thought leadership, you can clip it for video. And you could use it for blog posts, you name it.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“Otter.ai is good when you are ready to write, but you don’t want to start on a blank screen. When I walk, I’ll take my app, and I’ll just start brain dumping, and it’s transcribing as I speak.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“I use Otter all the time, and I can’t imagine life without it.”—Erika Heald

OpusClip creates snippets from video and audio content. 

“OpusClip is AI-generated. You can take a link [or] an MP3 and it’ll send you clips that are captioned. And then you can edit it. You can set the parameters like keywords and stuff. It’s a quick way to get out the raw, the real, and the relatable.”—Michelle B. Griffin

Download your social media post archives.

“Occasionally download your posts from LinkedIn. I archive all my posts because you never know when you can use that later in different formats and different ways.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“I used to use If This Then That, so whenever I would post to Twitter it would put it into a spreadsheet. So I have years of all my Tweets archived. I wish we could have something like that for LinkedIn.”—Erika Heald

ChatGPT and AI-powered tools can help throughout your thought leadership journey. Learn how to use AI to repurpose content in this book preview, and get more AI tool recommendations in our content marketing toolbox post. 

“I use ChatGPT to summarize stuff, but I’ll never let it write for me. I’m a firm believer we need more human connection, and it’s taken away our critical reading, writing, and thinking skills.”—Michelle B. Griffin

“I do think AI is helpful for all those things that you don’t like doing. And you just have to figure out what the right tool is that you can hook into your process so that you can outsource some of that stuff.”—Erika Heald

Looking for more tips to build your thought leadership?

Read our guidance in this post about how to create a thought leadership platform that earns people’s trust. Need help building your thought leadership program strategy? Get in touch—we’d love to help.

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