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Why Thought Leaders Need a Niche

In a recent blog, here, I noted that people attempting to establish themselves as thought leaders would do well to find themselves a nice niche. That is, trying to be recognized as a thought leader by writing about “innovation,” “disruption,” “competition,” “social media,” or “business strategy” will not get you too far. These concepts are too broad; it’s too hard to say anything new and unique about them (and that’s the first hallmark of good thought leadership, here), and the set of people already opining about these topics is too established and estimable. We can’t all be Michael Porter or Clayton Christensen. Porter and Christensen spent a long time doing a lot of hard work before they became the mononymous brands Porter and Christensen, including snagging jobs as Harvard Business School professors.

Are you now, or have you ever been a Harvard Business School professor? If not, writing about the grand themes of strategy, competition, and innovation most likely will not get you recognized as a thought leader.

That’s not to say you might not have some terrific insights on these topics. It’s just that it will be a dauntingly difficult slog to get them heard and to become known for them. Can you be a thought leader if no one knows you’re a thought leader? Of course you can, but that’s not the name of the game, is it? You want to become known as a thought leader to reap the benefits: people seeking your expertise, with both parties profiting.

A good example of a thought leader who found a niche is Rob Sher, a Bloom Group client. Sher, who once worked hard running his own mid-sized business and later worked hard advising other people on how to run their own mid-sized businesses, recently worked equally hard to write and publish a book, here, on how owners and executives can identify and overcome the ills mid-sized businesses are heir to as they try to grow. (And from the book came a series of blogs on HBR.com, here.)

Sher is quite open about why he focuses on mid-sized businesses and not on all businesses. He writes about mid-sized businesses because a) he knows them, b) his experiences generally are not relevant to small businesses, c) small businesses usually can’t afford to spend money on outside expertise, and d) the big consultancies largely have ignored mid-sized businesses because they can’t afford them; the big consultancies instead have focused on the problems of the large enterprises that can.

In short, Sher found a niche – an under-served white space in the market he could fill: thought leadership focusing on the special, idiosyncratic challenges that confront mid-sized businesses.

Just as manufacturers and professional firms look to find unmet market needs before launching new products and services, presumptive thought leaders need to figure out what people are not thinking about, not writing about, and then judge whether they’re worth thinking and writing about. If they are, they’ve found a niche and, if they work hard – doing the analysis; collecting evidence to support their ideas; crafting their arguments in a lucid, logical, compelling fashion – then they stand a good shot of becoming recognized as thought leaders. If the subject is not worth all that the effort (and if producing good thought leadership content were easy, everyone would do it) then it’s time to do more thinking.

If you disagree and believe you can become a thought leader by writing about business strategy, or how smart phones are remaking society, please straighten me out.

I’m all ears.