In today’s complex and oversaturated marketplace, it’s more important than ever to position your brand around what you think over what you sell. Brands are leveraging themselves as trusted sources of knowledge and inspiration, to bolster their place in the minds and hearts of core audiences. By offering actionable insights as an industry expert, the end goal is not only to build brand credibility and authenticity, but to differentiate yourself from the competition. In a 2017 study by Edelman and LinkedIn, 45 per cent of 1,300 B2B decision makers asserted that the consumption of thought-leadership directly led them to award business to the thought-leaders in question.

With the proliferation of content in our cluttered knowledge economy, it seems like almost everyone is an “expert” (or at least wants to be). Executing thought-leadership poorly, however, often does more harm than good. The same study showed that 30 per cent of decision makers dropped companies off their shortlist after reading less-than-stellar content. So before you start vying for your first TED Talk, it’s worth asking yourself if you’re actually an expert and how you should establish yourself as one.

Brands like Cisco, GE and CBRE consistently deliver stand-out content that taps into authentic experiences and evolving markets. They’re recognized as experts and innovation drivers — because they know how to inform and shape the way their customers and fellow industry experts think. Here are six things that effective thought-leaders do differently.

Solve audience problems and specialize

Thought-leadership is more than pure innovation plays. According to the Edelman–LinkedIn study, decision makers value timely and relevant thought-leadership content more than pure originality. Thought-leadership begins and ends with providing real value and purpose to your audiences. It’s crucial to identify the issues that matter most to them and speak to their challenges, needs and desires. The more you can show your knowledge and authority in solving their problems and filling gaps in the content already out there, the better you can establish your brand as an expert.

Real thought-leaders figure out where their expertise and core values intersect with improving the lives of their customers. They know what drives their target audiences: from their frustrations and anxieties to their hopes and dreams. They also follow and participate in customer and peer conversations via online communities like Twitter and LinkedIn groups.

Moreover, thought-leaders drive the conversation by speaking from the perspective of what they know (and do) better than the competition. The most impactful influencers focus on one area. Dominate your niche by shining in your specific areas of expertise and leveraging your subject matter specialists.

Tell engaging stories

Thought-leaders are compelling storytellers. It’s critical to hook your audiences on your brand story for the deepest engagement with the consumer journey. The best stories draw from real experiences and data-driven insights, stemming from unique and authentic points of view. According to Erin Brand, Content Writers Group managing editor, “To succeed in this knowledge economy, your brand needs to be an expert…and tell a good story.” Translate your brand values into a captivating and heartfelt story by “digging until [you] have the anecdotes and evidence it takes to create a compelling narrative.”

Developing an affinity with your audiences is key. Forget about cold and catchy brand messages and superficial superlatives. It’s all about telling real-life stories that humanize your business and offer something tangible and relatable for your target readers to connect with emotionally. Build rapport through personal tales that genuinely represent your brand and your personal experiences. Be informative and passionate with a focus on your brand’s full story and how you do business, from your struggles and setbacks to your successes. According to Brand, “it’s important to include [your] weaknesses and challenges” and “communicate that your process or philosophy has been truly tested and is better for it.”

Think investigatively

The Holy Grail to delivering informed and passionate thought-leadership is asking the right questions and listening actively. According to Nicole France, Cisco’s manager of thought-leadership, “Much like innovation, good thought-leadership ideas, inspiration and insights can come from just about anywhere…[we’re] the ‘investigative journalists’ within the company.” GE Reports use the investigative journalism model to examine what’s happening inside GE and the global market, to tie brand stories with their customers.

It’s important to do some creative and critical homework before reaching out to your stakeholders. After researching the most pressing short- and long-term challenges, opportunities and trends in your marketplace, dig deeply for meaningful insights by interviewing subject matter experts — from your clients to your investors to your field sales, product, PR and management teams.

Clearly communicating your perspectives, and aligning them with your brand vision and values, often means stepping out of your comfort zone. According to Paul Suchman, CEO at CBRE, “Finding points of view requires interrogation and brave constitution, and marshalling the right people and aligning them around perspectives to find your brand voice.”

Deliver quality content regularly

Building a reputation as an industry expert is forged through the blood, sweat and tears of delivering valuable and relevant content regularly. From blog articles to newsletters, case studies, white papers, infographics, webinars and e-books, the more consistently you share your expertise to help your target audiences, the more credible you become as a thought-leader. Create a daily, weekly and monthly cadence to deliver continuous content, and sustain the rhythm by investing in the development of a dedicated content team.

Write a book

A book is the ultimate vehicle for showcasing your expertise and instantly positioning your brand as an authority. According to CWG journalist (and novelist) Micah Toub, writing a book produces “high-impact content in a format that invites the deepest engagement.” If you don’t have the time or skill to write a book, consider hiring a professional ghostwriter. Whether or not you make the New York Times bestseller list, writing a book is one of the most potent ways to establish your clout as an expert and stand out from the crowd.

Form strategic alliances

Thought-leaders often collaborate with top influencers to share their content (and generate reciprocal backlinks), like co-branded material and guest posts. Expand your reach and credibility as an expert by aligning your brand with other industry thought-leaders who reach your target audiences. BuzzSumo can be a useful tool for finding influencers by keywords and social media rankings. Also consider creating content for industry and business trade publications like Fast Company, Entrepreneur and Forbes.

The best thought-leaders know how to leverage their expertise to provide meaningful insights, perspectives and intelligence that consistently conveys their brand purpose. Beyond products and services, customers are buying into how you approach problems and embrace the future. If building better customer relationships is a priority, it’s time to stop hard selling and start leading.