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How to Brand Yourself as a Thought Leader

I get emails like the following almost every day from people who are working as employees in companies and want to become prominent thought leaders:

“Lucas, I love your blog posts and how you are always out there helping others. But I’m not running a business or starting a company. I like being an employee. What should I do to become more of a thought leader in my space? Where do I start?”

These people usually have already achieved a lot of success in their fields. They are professionals. They just haven’t built a platform for spreading their message yet.

I can’t respond to every request individually, but I can explain the process in this post so that anyone can get started no matter where they are in their career.

I will guide you through the process of creating your own branded platform from start to finish. Also, I will leave you with resources to help you take it to the next level.

WARNING: This venture is not easy and will require a substantial amount of time to implement correctly. The payoff can be huge, but if you aren’t going to put in the time and effort to do it right, I will save you time now and tell you to not even try. Half-hearted efforts will lead to disappointing results.

Step 1: Register a Domain Name

Picking a domain name can be frustrating and difficult.

If you are trying to build a blog to be a thought leader, you are your brand. If your personal name isn’t taken yet (like lucascarlson.com), then register it now. It’s easy and straightforward (unless your name is impossible to spell or pronounce).

If your name is taken or impossible to pronounce, don’t despair. Here’s a great domain name picking guide. If you still need help, check out 18 Tools for Picking the Perfect Domain Name and 5 Tips for Choosing the Best Domain Name.

Step 2: Your Newsletter (Not Your Blog) is the Heart of Your Operation

Sign up for MailChimp. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I’m serious. Do it right away. If you don’t have an email newsletter already, you need to start there.

I can hear you now. “But Lucas, I thought you were teaching me the new way to do it. Email newsletters are so old and skeezy. I’m not a spammer. I just want to start blogging.”

Here’s what will happen if you start blogging without a newsletter: you will write your heart out, you will spend countless hours composing the best prose you have ever written in your life, you will eagerly press “Publish,” and… Nothing. No one will come.

At first, this won’t discourage you. You will continue blogging while telling yourself, “This takes time. Be patient.”

But after 10 or 12 posts, you will get discouraged, because after all your effort, you will still be getting only 15 people to come to each of your posts.

So, you will give up and think, “Well, at least I tried.”

Don’t be that putz. Sign up for MailChimp. It’s free. You have no excuse. An opt-in mailing list is the backbone of the whole system. It’s by far the most effective way to stay in touch with your true fans.

Remember, staying in direct regular contact with true fans is your ultimate goal considering all the work you are about to do.

Step 3: Create a Landing Page

Your landing page is like the front door to your personal brand.

Your homepage should be a simple page that collects emails for your mailing list. It should have one sentence that clearly defines the benefits people can expect from signing up (i.e., the selling points of your list).

But what about your blog? Where does that go? We will get to that in a minute. But, until you have over 1,000 subscribers to your newsletter, presenting your homepage as anything other than a simple mailing list opt-in page is inefficient.

A typical blog will convert 1–5% of its visitors into mailing list subscribers. A well-constructed landing page can turn 25–50% of visitors into mailing list subscribers. It is more efficient to use a simple landing page.

Again, staying in direct regular contact with true fans is your ultimate goal considering all the work you are about to do. So, higher email opt-in conversion rates are more important than the discoverability of your blog posts (at least at first).

If you have $37/month to spare, save yourself time and headaches and sign up for LeadPages. They have everything you will ever need: A/B testing, MailChimp integration, and pre-designed pages that look great and are proven to convert.

If you don’t want to pay monthly, you can pay $97 for lifetime access to a WordPress theme/plugin like OptimizePress.

Alternatively, if you are on a budget and want a simple free landing page service, check out LaunchRock.

I’ve used all three, but LeadPages is my go-to these days.

If you need help figuring out what to put on your landing page, check out How to Create Killer Landing Pages That Convert Users and Landing Pages: A How-to Guide and 6 Fantastic Landing Page Examples You’ll Want to Copy.

Step 4: Your Blog

Okay, now you have a mailing list, a domain name, and a landing page. When do you start blogging? Are you getting itchy? I bet you are thinking this is where I tell you to go grab WordPress.

You are wrong. Blogging on your own desert island when getting started is one of the worst mistakes you can make. Why? Because you have no captive audience yet. No matter how incredible your posts are, if you send them to your little obscure slice of the Internet, they will wither and die.

Imagine you are starting a new rock band. What does every new band do to get noticed? One of two things:

  1. Open mic
  2. Opening act for more popular bands

So, where do you start blogging? Currently, the equivalent of an open mic night in blogging is posting on Medium, LinkedIn, and Quora.

If you are writing on technical subjects, Medium and Quora might be better for you. If you are writing business-related posts, LinkedIn and Medium might make more sense.

What’s the equivalent of opening for more popular bands? Guest blogging. If you don’t know much about guest blogging, start with this Free Guest Blogging Cheat Sheet. Then, read How to Find the Best Places to Guest Blog and The Ultimate Guide to Guest Blogging.

I used these exact resources to learn how to write for Inc., Business Insider, VentureBeat, InfoWeek, and many others.

Step 5: What to Write About

Now, you’re finally ready to start writing, right?

No. If you are like many professionals, you think you have a lot to offer just by speaking your mind. You may even be thinking of just blogging about whatever comes to your mind. A personal journal of your thoughts, perhaps?

That is the second most common mistake beginner bloggers make (next to posting on their own blogs).

Why? Well, think about it… When’s the last time you read someone’s personal thoughts about anything? Never. Professionals are far too busy to read the inner monologues of colleagues and friends, not to mention complete strangers.

If you want people to read what you write, give them a reason. Write something that will improve their lives dramatically, something that will help them.

Instead of writing “My Personal Thoughts about Enterprise Sales,” try writing “12 Ways to Double Your Enterprise Sales Deals This Year.”

Offer tangible direct value. Begin with the headline. Then, in the post, deliver as much value as you can. If you need an example of a value-first blog post, take a look at the headline and first sentence of this post.

Need help with coming up with your own headlines? Check out:

Another, more empirical, way to learn how to write great headlines, as well as study what kind of content you should write, is to look at hugely successful blogs similar to the one you want to establish. For example, I have spent countless hours studying the blog posts/headlines of:

A third, cheater’s, method is to copy/paste the format of proven headlines. You can buy reference books on Amazon, like Advertising Headlines That Make You Rich, full of the headline formulas. But, study why these headlines work and back them up with your own research.

I have used all three methods successfully.

Step 6: Your Author Bio

The trick to making the most of your posts on Medium, LinkedIn, Quora, and other people’s blogs is to compose a great author bio.

You are not writing these posts just for fun, after all. The hope is that your wonderful and well-researched blog post will create fans who want more of what you write about.

In other words, you want to direct readers to your landing page. They might discover your post on Medium, but you want to capture their email addresses so you can build a direct relationship with them. You can capture those addresses on your landing page.

Below is a free template of an author bio you can use. It is not a great bio, but it is better than average. In a minute, I will tell you how to make your bio even better.

These Medium posts are just the tip of the iceberg. If you liked this post, subscribe to Lucas Carlson’s Newsletter to get instant access to much more free content.

It’s a good idea to use UTM parameters to carefully track your referral sources. For example, let’s look at this link:

http://www.craftsmanfounder.com/?utm_campaign=medium&utm_source=medium&utm_medium=medium&utm_content=startblogging

Notice ?utm_campaign=medium.

This tells Google Analytics that the post came from Medium. Then, &utm_content=startblogging tells Google Analytics that it came from the Start Blogging post. You can put any words here to keep track of your traffic sources.

Now, how do you turn a good author bio into a great one? You do it by offering something irresistible and free, such as:

Lucas Carlson raised $10 million in venture capital and sold his successful businesses to a Fortune 150 company. You can download the free checklist and resource guide that goes with this post here: 34 Resources to Build a Popular Blogging Platform.

If you are just starting out, you might not have a free opt-in incentive to offer yet, so you can start out with the simple author bio above and work on creating something valuable to improve your bio down the road.

For example, if one of your posts becomes super popular, you could turn it into a PDF, spruce it up with infographics, add a checklist, and offer it as a giveaway. Make sure you give away as much value as possible.

If you need more ideas, check out 9 Irresistible Incentives That’ll Grow Your Email List Like Crazy by Jon Morrow.

Step 7: Build Relationships with Your Readers

What’s your ultimate goal? It should be to build deep and authentic relationships with your audience and turn your readers into true fans.

The blog is just one tactic in that strategy. Social networks and your newsletter are the others. Do you know how to use social networks effectively? Do you know what to say in your weekly or biweekly mailings?

Many people get social networks and mailing lists totally wrong. They use them solely as self-promotional tools. Recently, I started following someone on Twitter. The guy posted a link to one of his own blog posts every 40 minutes! I bet you can guess how long I followed him. It took me 80 minutes to unfollow the guy.

Let’s go back to the band metaphor. The band just finished playing and is having a post-gig cocktail party. Social networks are like that huge cocktail party (thank you Gary Vaynerchuk for the great metaphor). People just want to socialize and get to know you as a person.

If social networks confuse you or if you have fewer than 10,000 followers, stop, and read Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World.

You also can think of social networks as short-form magazines. Pack yours with practical usefulness (with the occasional advertisement, which no one will mind), and you can’t go wrong. Listen to Branden Hampton (31+ million followers) on Lewis Howes’ Podcast to hear from someone who has made his living on social media.

Once you have read the book and listened to the podcast, you might want some tools to start managing your social media content streams. Check out Buffer, HootSuite, and Edgar. In particular, the Buffer Daily app is incredibly useful for coming up with great content to share with your network.

If social media is a big cocktail party, your mailing list is the private reception. Newsletters are more intimate and allow your audience to get to know you better.

Make your newsletter personal. Tell your subscribers about you, your past, your history, and why you think the way you think. Give them the back story, the behind-the-scenes look. This is like the interview with the director.

Just don’t forget to make the newsletter valuable. Every email you send out should be focused on how it helps your readers, not how it helps you. Subject lines like “I’m so giddy to tell you about my new launch” are ignored. Put as much thought and care into the subject lines of your emails as you do your blog posts. Why should people care? Why should they read this email? Let them know.

Treat every email you send like a letter to a close friend. Include one link per newsletter to minimize confusion in regard to your call to action. And, by all means, send people to your guest posts and Medium blogs. That’s what people wanted when they signed up in the first place!

BONUS: Build Relationships with Other Popular Bloggers

If you have gotten this far, you are already light years ahead of most bloggers. People are reading what you write because you are emailing them regularly to let them know about your new posts.

More readers mean more “shares,” which lead to new readers, which lead to new subscribers. It’s a virtuous cycle. This is the opposite of what novice bloggers do when they write endlessly to no one and wonder what went wrong.

But, maybe having a couple of thousand people on your mailing list isn’t big enough for your ambitions. Maybe you want tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of people on your list.

Typically, you can achieve that goal by building tight relationships with other bloggers who already have large numbers of subscribers.

How? By doing favors.

I mean favors like guest blogging for them since they are always looking for relevant content they can share with their audiences.

Or, you can interview those bloggers on your podcast and help them grow their platforms further. Or, you can promote something new they have done recently.

Whatever you do, make sure you keep the integrity of your own newsletter intact. Conveniently, a win-win situation often develops in that your readers want to hear you interviewing smart people and sharing cool new books and services that you are into.

If you add enough value to the lives of other popular bloggers, they will be much more inclined to introduce you to their audiences. Mega platforms get that way only by scratching the backs of other mega platforms all the way up the chain.

That’s It

There you go. I am done spilling the beans. This might have been way more than you expected. I told you at the beginning it was going to be hard.

But don’t worry. If you keep at it, you will find your rhythm. If you stick to a regular schedule, you will find that a few hours a week of dedicated effort will be enough for you to start.

Once you have built your platform, you can leverage it in countless ways. It is a tree that will keep on bearing fruit for many years. Eventually, you too will have people asking you how you did it. Then, you can point them back here instead of spending 20 hours writing this post yourself.

Now, go do the real work.

About the Author: Lucas Carlson raised $10 million in venture capital and sold his successful businesses to a Fortune 150 company. You can download the free checklist and resource guide that goes with this post here: 34 Resources to Build a Popular Blogging Platform.

  1. Lucas, nicely done! I am working through two blogging courses, one by John Morrow and another by Danny Iny, both of them use the same process you have shared in your post. It must be the current formula for success.

    Thanks
    Rob

  2. This is quite an in-depth guide you have here, Lucas. We are currently practicing almost all of these tips – I’m saying ‘almost’ because we still need to develop one of the most important factors for proper leverage: reader engagement. Social media experts would be of great help in this aspect. As for your insight between a blog and a newsletter – I’m quite surprised. Thank you for the new idea.

  3. Richard Scudder Nov 13, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Great advice. Wish I would read and subscribed to this formula long ago but hey that’s the beautiful thing about “better now than never”.

  4. Awesome information and links, right when I wanted to start off in this direction… Thank you Lucas…

  5. Lucas,

    Thanks for such an informative, thoughtful post. I’m at the very beginning of the process, and (if I’m being honest), probably ready to fall in some of the traps you’ve highlighted. I think the most difficult part in starting out is figuring out what you have to offer others. I know it’s the part I spend the most time thinking about!

    Brian

  6. Pierre Lechelle Dec 03, 2014 at 6:33 am

    Brillant article. I guess the main mistake people make (myself included), is to start creating our own audience. We spend countless hours to create an audience while others already have this audience.

    Guest blogging as part of this process is therefore primary to the creation of a powerful personal brand.

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