The power of thought leadership in a recession (and how to track success)

September 21, 2022

Episode 21: The power of thought leadership in a recession (and how to track success)

How does thought leadership fit in your marketing strategy during a recession, or when one may be around the corner?

Well, my first introduction to the power of thought leadership came in the last recession, as I was entering the workforce for the first time. It was 2009 and I had just graduated college. Not only did I graduate into a recession, but I worked for a small, mom and pop nonprofit. We didn’t have a big budget, but we did have a lot of heart, wisdom, and experience, as both an organization and in the people leading the charge. 

We decided to go all in with thought leadership and storytelling strategy for our marketing since we could not afford ads, glitzy marketing campaigns or events, or even a PR firm at the time. So, in this episode I want to tell you what we learned about marketing yourself as a thought leader in a recession, why it worked, some of the surprising side effects of creating a thought leadership strategy, and finally, what metrics you can track to see if your thought leadership is working successfully.

When I say thought leadership, what I’m talking about is a practice where we consistently use our passion, lived experience, and credibility as fuel to spark trust and community as we imagine and shape the future together, for the better.

Highlights from the podcast episode: 

In this episode, I talk about:

[02:13] The power of thought leadership

[07:07] Why thought leadership works well in a recession

[09:55] The difference between thought leaders and influencers

[11:25] The biggest barriers to thought leadership for social impact leaders

[14:26] My butterfly story of growing my own thought leadership

[16:27] How to track your thought leadership success metrics 

By the way, I’m hosting a LIVE PRIVATE TRAINING on my 3-part thought leadership framework to turn your LinkedIn into a hub of opportunities. Register now for your free ticket. 

The power of thought leadership

OK so let’s go back in time to 2009. I was 21, freshly graduated, and ready to join the workforce after 16 years of school. The workforce was not ready for me.  

But luckily, I fell into working for an amazing nonprofit. We were in the behavioral healthcare world but as a smaller 24-bed facility, we were a small fish compared to networks of care with thousands of beds nationwide. We were in the nonprofit world, but as a smaller organization at less than $3M a year at the time, we were a small fish compared to organizations with many millions in assets just down the street from us in well-resourced Orange County, CA, where I still live. 

We had really excellent, credentialed, and caring staff but none of them were known nationally in the field at the time –  they were in the trenches saving lives. And that mattered tremendously to the women and families they helped, obviously. But people outside of our immediate circle didn’t really know they could get help for their unique situation there. 

So all in all, we were small fish doing great work in a big pond. And it was like we were hidden under a piece of seaweed or something. We certainly were not a household name in the homes where we could and should have been.  

We couldn’t spend our way out of the problem of invisibility. The solution, we figured, was highlighting what made us different. That highlighting started with the people leading the organization and delivering care, and sharing their unique point of view, wisdom from the trenches, and sometimes, their own stories and lived experiences. 

So, we got scrappy and did that… I learned how to organically get our opinions in front of people who needed to hear them – via op-eds, industry publications, and LinkedIn content. I learned how to position ourselves as experts, and specifically, the people in the trenches providing care and our executive team, so we became known for very specific things like maternal substance use disorder and recovery for pregnant moms.  

Through that work, I realized “competition” is a myth. Other organizations that do similar work to us are not our competitors. First of all, we can’t compete when philosophically, we want each other to win because our visions are aligned. If we want more families to get sober and the place down the street wants more people to get sober, then, why are we even competing?

And second of all, we live in a world abundant with clients and with funding – the only thing that feels more and more scarce is time. So, the real competitor is noise and distraction. The real challenge for us is obscurity and figuring out how to transform from a best-kept secret to the go-to, top-of-mind, trusted social impact leader for an audience that can help you accomplish your mission.

So anyway, this process took a while. This work is not immediate, and consistency is key. I think that’s where a lot of folks go wrong. They put their thoughts out there a few times, get a few views but not much else, and then figure, hey this doesn’t work. But organic thought leadership is a long game. And it’s one that’s exponential and bears fruit over time. It builds, compounds, and grows because your name continues to be referenced and recommended in rooms that you’re not even in, scaling your impact and influence. 

Why thought leadership works well in a recession

As our thoughts and opinions and really, our thought leadership got out into the world, people would invite our Executive Director to speak at conferences, about her unique ideas and how to replicate them. Reporters came out of the woodwork to interview her and our clinicians as subject matter experts. We started to attract the right partners to move our mission forward in a way that felt serendipitous. 

We were still small fish, but we had a much bigger voice. 

And most of all – goodie for me as a fundraiser – I didn’t have to worry so much about where the next influx of resources was gonna come from, because we were attracting a sustainable stream of interested people who could come alongside us to support the work. Yes, even in a recession. 

Cause here’s the thing – even in a recession, people still need stuff. And if you have to tighten your belt, which expenditures are going to make the cut? Things you need. Things you feel emotionally connected to. Things you feel a part of, or in their community. Things you have confidence in. Things your friends referred you to. All of those things are deliverables of a good thought leadership strategy. 

Looking back at that time now, you know, more than a dozen years later, I think there were a couple of reasons why our thought leadership strategy worked especially well during a recession.

During an economic turndown, it’s kind of like we’re on soft soil. The ground is shaky, the foundation has been lifted up. People are looking for new ways of doing things because what used to work may not work anymore. 

People are looking for change. For innovation, and creative solutions. People are looking for hope.  

So when you put your unique ideas out there, that are rooted in your lived experience and what has actually worked for you and your community, people are more willing to listen and try something different for themselves. 

Especially if you have a “spicy” or ahead-of-its-time POV in your area of expertise and can tie it into the moment we’re in. If you’re a champion for working moms, share your opinion and point of view on Serena Williams’ retirement. If you’re a burnout and recovery coach for folks exiting toxic workplaces, share your opinion on quiet quitting. Those are just low-hanging fruit ideas today, as I record this on September 6th, but what are the trending topics in your specific niche or industry today?

You know what I mean? I’ve talked about my experience as a graduate of the Op-Ed project a couple of times on this podcast now, but something I learned from that experience is that our ideas are like ships, sailing on the water, looking for their port to land in. Does this moment in time have a mooring for your ideas?  Can you lead or convene conversations that you and the people you serve care about, so that together, you can think about things in a new way and disrupt the status quo? Maybe now is the time for you. 

The difference between thought leaders and influencers

Thought leadership is different than being an influencer or a subject matter expert. An influencer is someone who is just known. Not necessarily for anything in particular. They have a lot of followers and attention, but that doesn’t mean they have trust. A subject matter expert has a lot of expertise and credibility, but that doesn’t mean they have attention – they aren’t top of mind. 

The differentiator is there’s an action-orientation to thought leadership. They take their expertise and consistently take it outwards into their community, to build top-of-mind trust, so they can shape the future for good. And in a recession, or time of crisis, people are looking for solutions and answers from a reliable voice. 

The biggest barriers to thought leadership for social impact leaders

I realize that I’m talking about this like it’s easy. It’s not. Through my own trial and error and learnings, I had the strategy piece down, and even the schedule piece down. I gained the skill set and learnings of how to repurpose pillar pieces, batch content, capture unique organizational opinions in the moment and otherwise turn the practice of thought leadership into a habit vs. this thing on the to-do list that never gets crossed off.

But the real piece I think we have to overcome, as social impact leaders who are not male, pale, or stale, is systematically limited beliefs. I’ve started being very intentional about saying systematically limited vs. self-limited because they’re not our beliefs. They were planted and conditioned and trained into us because we live in a society with sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, classism, all the intersecting -isms baked into it, like butter in a flaky puff pastry. It’s so folded in you forget it’s there. So, imposter thoughts, overdelivering, perfectionism, people pleasing – all those things are not ours to claim, they are a function of oppression. Maybe I’ll do another podcast episode about that. 

But what I’ll say here, is that those are very real, physical barriers to thought leadership work because you are putting your face and name on the line of what you believe in. But that work also transforms you into a better, more embodied leader. Once the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it can’t change back. The chrysalis process is ugly and painful, and just kinda goopy. But once it emerges as a butterfly, it’s transformed.

My butterfly story of growing my own thought leadership

In everything I described so far in my early career, I was always very comfortable being the backup singer to the people putting their reputations on the line. I was planning and coordinating and writing and pretty much being safe and cozy in the background.  

But as I grew in the company and became E/D, there was no way around it, I was going to have to become a face of the organization. And that’s when the voice of my itty bitty shitty committee or inner chaperone got very loud. 

It told me, who am I to be talking to these PHDs and MDs when I just have a bachelor’s degree. 

It told me, who am I to be asking these major donors for a six-figure gift when I might never be able to donate that amount of money in my life.  Have you been watching the show Selling the OC? These are literally the types of homes I’d go to donor functions in. I was like …. OK I don’t belong here. 

It also told me, wow none of the people in these boardroom tables and other spaces really look like me so maybe I don’t belong here at the table.  

We are more likely to have those imposter thoughts activated when we don’t see many examples of people who look like us in leadership roles in our field. That’s another reason why it’s so important for us to take that brave stretch to share our opinion and really shine in our leadership. Because the next generation of leadership will have people to look at and go, hey – look at them. They’re showing up so maybe I should too. 

How to track your thought leadership success metrics 

Finally, how do you track thought leadership? 

So let me start by saying as a consultant, coach, service provider, or independent consultant … I don’t track these things in the same way as I would if I were doing this for a company. Maybe I should, I don’t know. I’ve just never been as interested in gauging quantitative metrics as I am with qualitative metrics or even just vibes. Because here’s the thing – like I said before, the product of thought leadership is top-of-mind trust with an aligned audience. So how do you measure that? I think likes or even follower count on LinkedIn are – for the most part – can be considered vanity metrics. 

Instead, I think the things to pay attention to are: 

The number of times you’re mentioned or your stuff is shared. The greatest compliment and warm and fuzzy producer is when someone shares my podcast or other thought leadership content on their own platform, and mention what they resonated with.  When that happens, that means you’re generating conversation and sparking new thoughts and behavior change. And hey, if one person shares your stuff, think about how many people are impacted by it and never even tell you. 

Second, being asked to be on dozens of amazing podcasts and summit stages without sending out any pitches. If you send out pitches, great, keep doing that! But strong, consistent thought leadership means you’ll stay top-of-mind with aligned community partners so that your visibility becomes pitch-optional. 

Third, looking into the time it takes for someone to enter your ecosystem, perhaps by downloading your lead magnet or signing up for your email list, to applying to work with you (whatever that looks like, whether it’s a Honeybook application form or signing up for a donor cultivation event), to finally, “hell yes, let’s do something together.” With strong thought leadership, that average time gets shorter and shorter.

Fourth, your referrals, and the alignment or quality of those referrals to what you do. I get multiple notes per week like, “three people told me to reach out to you because my client wants X, Y, Z and I hear you do that.” Strong thought leadership does the heavy lifting of business development for you because again, your opinions, expertise, wisdom are disseminated at scale, so people are talking about you – positively, as a trusted guide – without you even having to be in the room. Which, for me as a kind of lazy person, is great. The less rooms I have to be in physically, the better.  

What else?  Fifth, your cost per acquisition of each client, or donor, or whatever type of audience you’re trying to bring in. Now, this is not something I currently track for my business but I did in my past career. And when you have a strong thought leadership brand as a social impact consultant, coach, service provider, or leader – your CPA will be lower because you already have strong awareness and trust without having to spend as much money on ads and other acquisition costs. 

And finally, something typically called a net promoter score, which gauges how willing your current customers or clients are willing to refer, or tell their friends about you, or post on social media about their experience with you. Again, not something I have done the work of tracking but have been enjoying the benefits of over the last few weeks as I launched a Social Impact Sunday Stories series on LinkedIn, where I highlight one of my clients each week, their work, and their testimonial about our work together. Can you create a similar type of series for your own clients? Are they willing to promote the outcome of your work together?

And there are so many things I don’t care to track but that I tap into. The texture and richness of my community. Someone sending me an email saying a post I made inspired them to x, y, and z. Someone telling me they sent my podcast to their Mom, because she works in social impact and her Mom was already a listener! A dreamy, O-M-G partnership opportunity falling into my lap recently that is so aligned, I don’t even want to talk about it and jinx it.  It’s those magic moments and signs that I think are the true metric that the alchemy of thought leadership is working. 

What are some of the magic moments you’ve experienced as a thought leader? Reach out and let me know! Until next time.   

Resources from this episode:

I’m hosting a LIVE PRIVATE TRAINING on my 3-part thought leadership framework to turn your LinkedIn into a hub of opportunities. Register now for your free ticket.

Connect with me:

LinkedIn: Tania Bhattacharyya

Instagram: @taniabhat

Website: lumosmarketing.co

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