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How to Develop Your Association’s Thought Leadership

Professional associations have a lot to offer for their members. But perhaps no benefit is as great as knowledge and experience.By turning your own expertise into thought leadership, you advance the industry, build your association’s reputation.

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Professional associations have a lot to offer for their members. But perhaps no benefit is as great as knowledge and experience.

Being deeply entrenched in your industry for many years gives you insight and understanding that other individuals or organizations simply don’t have. You have a wealth of useful information within your walls and your employees. What are you doing to make use of it?

By turning your own expertise into thought leadership, you advance the industry, build your association’s reputation, and enrich the career lives of your members. But this leads to even more questions -- what is a thought leader? How does one become a thought leader? And what are some practical benefits of thought leadership?

We’ll dig into all these questions here, and then discover some ways to develop your association’s thought leadership. First, we’ll address the most basic question.

What is a thought leader?

A thought leader is, quite simply, a pioneer. Someone who not only has information, but who uses it effectively to develop new ideas and innovations. Now, that may not sound like it applies to professional associations; after all, you’re not necessarily developing products or anything material.

However, you do still have the ability to be a trailblazer. By taking the knowledge you have and interpreting it or extrapolating it, you can be a thought leader who innovates in ideas rather than products.

This can be manifested in making industry predictions, or in developing new methodologies. Some thought leadership simply means taking what industry insight you have and distilling it in a way that’s applicable to your readers -- and that will help them understand their industry better and develop their own knowledge base.

How do you benefit from thought leadership?

Your thought leadership benefits more than your members, although they are certainly a huge beneficiary of this industry insight. But there are also advantages which may be experienced by the association itself. Let’s outline some of them here.

You set yourselves apart as experts

In general, people will dismiss information that they think comes from a less-than-credible source. Setting your organization up as one that has mastered the ins and outs of your industry gives you credibility -- the kind of credibility that makes people sit up and take notice.

You boost your visibility

One of the necessary components of thought leadership is that it is visible. Information is no good to anyone if it isn’t shared! By disseminating your knowledge widely and through a variety of channels, you gain a following that extends beyond your own membership base into other spheres.

You can expand your membership

Members join your association because they see real benefits they can reap from it. They see that you can help them advance their career life, explore new opportunities, learn more about their profession. But if your members don’t see you as an authority and one that can deliver on these expectations, you really don’t have anything to offer. Having an established reputation for thought leadership shows your members that you truly do have a wealth of knowledge to offer -- and more than that, it’s knowledge that they won’t receive anywhere else, because it’s exclusive to and comes from within your organization.

Forging your own path to thought leadership

Of course, all these benefits mean little if you don’t know how to become a thought leader. Here are several ways that you can both establish and foster your industry leadership.

Bring something new to the table

Is there a hot discussion or debate happening within your industry? Or a problem that has gone unsolved for many years? Or laws or regulations that are set to affect the way members of your industry operate?

These opportunities are your chance to bring something new to the discussion.

Bring in your most experienced leaders. Brainstorm solutions with these colleagues. You may even send out member surveys to get some hard data on how these issues are affecting professionals. You may not solve every problem, but even if you can put the problem in a new light, or provide actionable courses that people can take, you’re offering something that is ultimately priceless.

You can also bring innovation by developing industry predictions. Obviously no one knows the future, but there are some things that can be extrapolated based on past experiences and awareness of current events. As industry leaders, your organization should have many combined years of experience from which to draw inferences. Take a good, hard look at the “signs of the times,” so to speak -- and then take this information one step further with projections of possible outcomes. Industry predictions are indispensable, as they allow your members (and the industry population at large) to look ahead and be thinking and planning for their future.

Start publishing white papers

Once you have something unique to offer, write it down!

White papers are an invaluable source of information, and one that most professionals make some use of in their career lives, whether simply for their own edification or to support their work in some fashion. White papers are becoming an accessible and yet more academic means of bolstering thought leadership, and thankfully, you don’t have to be a Ph.D. to write one (although credentials never hurt).

Hubspot defines white paper as “a persuasive, authoritative, in-depth report on a specific topic that presents a problem and provides a solution.” Take your own research and data that you’ve collected, and compile it in a way that is compelling, industry-specific, and definitive. Provide detailed footnotes and references so that readers know that you’ve done your homework. Then publish it online -- many companies do this in a PDF format so that it’s easy to download. Next, disseminate your white paper online. Make it available on your website, but also promote it on social media, link to it in your blog posts, email it to your members, or even create social ads for it. In order to gain the visibility that goes along with thought leadership, you have to do the actual thought work, but you need to support it through promotion.

Make journal contributions

A fantastic way to bolster your reputation as a thought leader is by making contributions to other publications. If there are any academic journals or publications that are specifically related to your field, find out what you need to do to get published in them. Show them your best work (a white paper or other piece that you’ve developed internally) and go from there.

Being published in journals is a mutually beneficial deal. You help bolster the journal itself by providing them something of value, and the recognition of being published in a well-established and authoritative publication in turn boosts your credibility and reputation -- while helping you to reach wider audiences.

Support industry research

Another tangential way to develop thought leadership is simply to aid research efforts within your industry.

Even though it’s not necessarily creating work of your own, the mere fact that you’re supporting other researchers in their efforts makes you in some ways both benefactor and beneficiary of their work. It’s a promotional point to be sure, but more importantly, it shows that you care about the issues that are facing members of your industry, and that you’re committed to solving problems. This is your chance to be active in that effort, and in so doing, you reveal yourself as a leader.

Network with other leaders

You always know leaders by the company they keep. Seek out other leaders within your industry and team up with them. They’re not your competition -- they’re your partners, working toward the same goals, and by mutually supporting each other you show your dedication to developing solutions that directly benefit the professionals you serve.

Provide a platform that established thought leaders can use to speak their insights. Publish them in your industry publication or your newsletter. Not only can you learn from these individuals and thus expand your own knowledge, but you also enhance your own reputation by associating with these leaders.

Paving the way for industry advancement

More than anything, members and non-members alike need to know that you’re an authority -- a voice that can speak to issues at hand with confidence. By forging a path to thought leadership, you do precisely that. Start assembling your top minds to undertake this effort, and you’ll promote your brand, your industry, and your members -- all at the same time.