How B2B entrepreneurs can establish and access thought leadership using social media

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By Alexandra Reid

I have discussed thought leadership here before, but never laid out just how important it is and the critical social media steps entrepreneurs can take to establish themselves as, and tap into the minds of, thought leaders in their industries.

In a study conducted for The Society for New Communications Research called New Symbiosis of Professional Networks, 44 percent of respondents said the primary reason they visit online networks and communities is to access thought leadership and information they couldn’t get elsewhere, while 43 percent said the primary reason is to showcase themselves or their companies.

The same study proved that there is a “relatively high inclination for decision makers to use various forms of social media to support their decision-making.” Top methods for doing so include reading other blogs, seeking peer referral, gathering opinions and researching other companies.

I have outlined before specifically how B2B companies can benefit from social media:

  1. Social media supports the typically long sales cycle for B2B products.
  2. Social media allows B2B companies to express their humanity, which is particularly beneficial because they traditionally have fewer opportunities to connect with others on a personal level.
  3. Social media awards value to niche B2B industries that are underserved by traditional media.
  4. Social media is a great knowledge centre for B2B leaders, providing them with information about their industries that they may not have been able to find elsewhere.

Entrepreneurs of new B2B companies should take advantage of the power of social media for all of these reasons. But first, they must understand what characteristics comprise a successful thought leader, and learn how to showcase these qualities within real time social media environments.

The key qualities of a social media thought leader

According to Social Media Today, corporate thought leadership needs four things to work well:

  1. The enterprise has to be entering new markets where it also needs additional credibility
  2. The thinking has to lead change, not contribute to a status quo
  3. The thought leadership has to be integrated with products and/or services
  4. It needs to identify the competition, however subtly, and say why you will win the battle

Embracing these qualities shouldn’t be difficult. New ventures and their entrepreneurs naturally exhibit all of these qualities, as they are typically in the process of bringing new products and/or services into new markets, changing the status quo, and constantly working to set themselves apart from the competition.

However, the real time nature of social media is demanding, and requires frequent and continuous participation to garner significant attention. Furthermore, because social media is about people, the most powerful form of social capital is personal, not corporate. Therefore, entrepreneurs who take the time to participate as individuals are more likely to rise to a position of thought leadership. As most entrepreneurs are stretched for time, the challenge is making the time for such activities.

There are ways around this. One way is to hire an agency or outsource a community manager to do the social media heavy lifting on your behalf. While many people will offer to do everything for you, including participating in social forums under your name, this method won’t get you far if your goal is to become a thought leader. The best approach, in my experience, is to have an agency sieve through the heaps of content and present opportunities where you can participate.

The top platforms for B2B entrepreneurs to establish  thought leadership

Blogs

According to Ben Yoskovitz, an entrepreneur and founding partner at Year One Labs, “Blogging is the single most effective way of getting your message out, building reputation, creating authority and demonstrating thought leadership.” Furthermore, Yoskovitz argues that you can’t build authority and thought leadership through Twitter or other microblogging services (or aggregator-type services) like FriendFeed unless you previously had authority and reputation through blogging. I agree with Yoskovitz, but I wouldn’t limit authority-building platforms to blogs; rather, I would also include other platforms that allow users to reply in long form, such as LinkedIn and Quora.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn Groups and Answers provide ample opportunities for you to showcase your knowledge in specific areas. I use this site religiously for clients, monitoring my news feeds of subscribed Answer categories and discussion Groups twice daily for opportunities to engage. As LinkedIn allows users to contribute long responses to questions and discussions, it is an excellent way for entrepreneurs to demonstrate a breadth of knowledge, as well as comment on the contributions of others, and distinguish themselves as leaders in their industries. It’s also a great way to keep a finger on the pulse of your industry. We subscribe to a number of startup-related forums, including On Startups, Ultra Light Startups, Area Startups, Startup Entrepreneurs Network, Silicon Valley Venture Community and Startup Specialists, where we meet, discuss and connect with potential clients and industry thought leaders. LinkedIn adds a new user every second, with about half of all new accounts being created outside of North America. This enables you to reach a huge and global market of potentially valuable individuals.

Quora

It’s no secret that Quora weighs heavily on startup entrepreneur queries. Just read this post by Social Times, Why any serious Internet entrepreneur is on Quora, and you’ll understand its merit. However, this post fails to mention that Quora also allows entrepreneurs to answer the questions of others, in long form. One of the many beauties of Quora is that it preserves its participants’ thought leadership, banking questions and answers forever and allowing individuals to search out information for years to come, which can situate you in a long-term thought leadership position. Also, because attention to quality questions and answers is fundamental to the success of Quora, the Quora team ensures that you always sound professional by enforcing proper spelling, grammar, punctuation, style and accuracy. People can also vote on your answers, which can quickly elevate you to expert status.

Specialized forums

There are also a number of specialized forums designed specifically for entrepreneurs to connect. Mashable compiled a useful (although dated) list of the top 10 social networks for entrepreneurs, which I recommend you check out. Since contributing to blog discussions is important for entrepreneurs to build online communities and establish thought leadership, Fast Company compiled a useful list of the best social entrepreneurship news sites, which I also recommend you check out. As the National Angel Capital Organization’s Bryan Watson suggested in an earlier interview, AngelList and AngelSoft are also good platforms to connect with other entrepreneurs and investors. He also offers best practices for how startups can use social media to court angel investors.

Did I miss any good ones? What are your favourite sites and why?

Image: Flickr

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