Be Consistent — This is technically a modifier for the previous four suggestions, but no less important. Your popularity as a thought leader is a fickle thing that can disappear if it is not constantly fed with new activity. Several years ago, I pulled back on my writing and speaking appearances to focus on some other areas of my life at the time, thinking I could easily slip back into things when I was ready. Instead, when that time came, it felt like I was starting from scratch.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Ferguson.
Jeff Ferguson is a passionate growth marketer and digital educator who has led the online marketing efforts for companies such as Hilton Hotels, Kimberly-Clark, InterActiveCorp, Experian, and Napster.
In his current role as Head of Production at Amplitude Digital, he has worked with renowned brands such as Belkin, Billabong, CBS, eHarmony, JustFab, Manchester United, Paychex, PetSmart, Popcornopolis, The Smithsonian, Stila Cosmetics, ThriveMarket, Sony, and many more.
Honored as one of PPC Hero’s “Top 25 Most Influential PPC Experts” for three years in a row, Jeff Ferguson is a regular presenter at Ad:tech, AllFacebook Expo, Conversion Conference, eMetrics, Search Marketing Expo (SMX), Digital Hollywood, Online Marketing Summit (OMS) and Consumer Electronics Show (CES). He has been both a speaker and board member at Search Engine Strategies (SES).
Jeff is a columnist for Search Engine Journal, where his legendary data research projects have tipped many sacred cows of SEO and paid media advertising malpractice.
As an adjunct professor for UCLA, Jeff teaches introductory and advanced digital marketing classes and designed the school’s first-ever course on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Jeff volunteers time with the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) and Digital Analytics Associations (DAA) on both the national and regional levels, where he serves as a board member of the Los Angeles chapter.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jeff! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I started as a Computer Science major in college but switched to Communications and Advertising after a few years to become a copywriter. Near the end of school, my advisor told me that I was a couple of credits away from a double major, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt.
After graduation in early 1995, I sent my resume out everywhere, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the internet and this new thing called the World Wide Web. I passed at first, but after my first monthly bill for my student loan arrived, I told the next company, “I know everything about the Internet!”
I landed the job, ran out, bought a big book on HTML, and never looked back.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I have personally been a thought leader in the digital marketing space for at least 15 years now. I’m regularly requested to speak at digital marketing conferences around the world and have made several “most influential” or “people to follow” lists over the years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
A few years after I started my agency, a former client referred my team to their contact at The Smithsonian, who was looking for help in the area of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It took over a year to make it happen, but we eventually got the business, and it was a monster of a project.
We audited their existing website and their designs for a planned update, from top to bottom. Plus, I ran a multi-day education seminar to their team to upgrade the skill sets of multiple departments so that their entire squad became an SEO powerhouse.
If the project wasn’t cool enough on its own, I presented my findings and taught my classes at “The Castle” museum building on The Mall in Washington, DC.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is funny to me now, but then, not so much. Early on, while working at the first job I had out of college, I learned a valuable lesson about picking my battles.
While I held the title of “Webmaster” and wrangled all things digital marketing for the company, I was asked by the head of marketing to write sales copy for an upcoming update of a dental office point-of-sale software the company had sold for years. Like I mentioned earlier, I had initially wanted to become a copywriter, so I took the assignment very seriously.
I proudly turned it in and waited for the day it would appear in various marketing materials. Not long before the day, the copy was to go to press, and my boss pulled me aside to let me know that they had hired another copywriter to “punch up” my writing.
For some reason, I was furious. As far as I was concerned, that copy was perfect as is, and how dare they mess with my work. While I was able to hold back much of my anger when talking to the VP, it was evident that this was a hill I was willing to die on. I was so angry that my boss sent me home early, telling me to cool off before coming back to work.
The next day, I ran into the freelance copywriter they hired to revise my work. In hushed tones, he told me outright that it was kind of silly for them to pay him for what he was doing since the work was already great. He admitted that he was basically “dotting i’s and crossing t’s” and that I had a future in writing.
My takeaway from all of this was patience. When I was told that my work was getting revised, I had no idea what extent, and if I had shown some patience by waiting to see the changes, I would have saved myself the embarrassment of my outburst in front of my boss.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is? How is a thought leader different from a typical leader? How is a thought leader different from an influencer?
A thought leader is someone whose opinions on a given subject matter, in my case digital marketing, are considered to be influential or authoritative.
Typical leaders usually exist within the confines of an organization, such as a business, a movement, and so on, while a thought leader’s influence reaches an entire industry or group. Often, people can be both. For example, Richard Branson, one of my business heroes, is both a leader of his company, Virgin, and a thought leader on entrepreneurship, space travel, and more.
An influencer is a type of thought leader as far as I’m concerned. It might be a little hard to see given that they are mostly known for pushing clothing and energy drinks on Instagram and TikTok, but it is the same concept.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
Initially, I got into the thought leadership game to advance my career back when I was still working for other people. It helped a bit, especially when companies were smart and recognized this as a perk of my employment and used it to their advantage (the dumb companies just wondered why I kept asking them to pay for my travel).
Later, when I started my agency over a decade ago, I saw thought leadership as a “top of the funnel” way of getting new clients in the door. It works like a charm.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
I’ve been either a full owner or a partner in an advertising agency for over a decade now, and during that time, I would say a good 80–90% of my business came from referrals. Some of those referrals are from people I’ve worked with in the past; however, a more significant portion of them I can tie directly to my thought leadership efforts, such as my writing and public speaking.
I want to be clear, though; it’s very rare that someone will rush the stage at a conference, begging to become a client. Thought leadership is a very “top of the funnel” (think, “Awareness”) level marketing activity, which makes calculating the ROI of things like travel expenses and such very complicated. This is the long game.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Help — No matter what the industry, subject matter, or profession, there are always people who are just starting out who are looking for help. A great way to start your journey as a thought leader is as a helper to these poor lost souls. The barrier to entry is incredibly easy and usually doesn’t take much more than a Twitter, Quora, or Reddit account. While Quora and Reddit have systems in place to feed you no end of posts inquiring minds, for Twitter, you may have to seek out questions by way of hashtags. Remember to be professional, thoughtful, and kind in your responses.
- Write — As someone who has worked in advertising media for over 25 years, I never ceased to be amazed by the existence of hyper specific professional journals for just about every specialty. I mean, there’s a journal that is specifically for I.T. professionals who work in hospitals! Your goal as a wannabe thought leader is to find those journals for your field of choice and provide the kind of deep insights your industry has longed to read. The good news: most of the time, these journals are constantly hungry for new content and the standards for writing are usually nowhere near that of the broader news channels.
- Speak — For some of you, this one might be a bit terrifying, but trust me, the impact on your thought leader visibility can be staggering. Similar to professional journals, there are myriad conferences around the world that provide opportunities for speaking appearances. Most of these conferences allow submissions for different sessions and panels each year at no cost to the speaker, plus, after you’ve established yourself, some conferences will actually seek you out to make an appearance. Be warned, some conferences are moving to a “pay-for-play” model where they actually charge speakers to appear, or force them to have a booth or some other form of promotional at the conference. If your company was going to show at these conferences already, then it may not matter, but if not, I don’t recommend doing so just for a speaking spot.
- Teach — A kissing cousin to the “help” and “speak” suggestions above, teaching can be a fantastic way to kickstart your thought leadership. This teaching can take on the form of webinars presented by yourself or partner companies that your target audience would use, or, in the form of more traditional teaching at the college and college extension level. The latter of which, I stumbled upon once I started teaching at UCLA several years as I started looking at my “Career 2.0 opportunities” for later in life. The amount of thought leadership weight that comes from, “Oh, and I teach at UCLA” was a delightful bonus for something I already enjoyed doing for the next generation of digital marketing professionals.
- Be Consistent — This is technically a modifier for the previous four suggestions, but no less important. Your popularity as a thought leader is a fickle thing that can disappear if it is not constantly fed with new activity. Several years ago, I pulled back on my writing and speaking appearances to focus on some other areas of my life at the time, thinking I could easily slip back into things when I was ready. Instead, when that time came, it felt like I was starting from scratch.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?
I’ve mentioned Richard Branson already for a reason — the guy is a master at his craft when it comes to thought leadership. We may not all have the resources he has to manage his personal brand, but the guy gets it when it comes to being a thought leader.
Branson can be found on all of the social media platforms that matter to his target audience (i.e. business related) and the content he pushed out is tone perfect every time. The guy is like an anti-Elon Musk.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
In a world where the title of “influencer” has entered into the collective conversation enough that my mother knows how to use it in a sentence, I think it’s kind of ridiculous.
There are some really silly buzzwords around these days, like “growth hacker” or “content marketing,” but thought leader isn’t one of them.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
There’s a really weird movement lately that seems to be part of the “hustle” movement in business where some articles are telling entrepreneurs that if they really want to “make it” in business, they need to start waking up early.
Ignore this. Get some damn sleep.
Where this comes from is the tendency for many entrepreneurs to be “early wakers” for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s anxiety, other times it’s just the way they are wired, but trust me, most of us would rather sleep in on the weekend.
I’ve embraced my early waking due to anxiety and it’s helped me expand how I work and play; however, if this isn’t the way you’re wired, don’t force yourself to to be awake when your body isn’t ready. The better advice is learn to work within the confines of how your body naturally operates.
Trying to make yourself into an early bird for work will just burn you out.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There are two things I would love to see happen, both involve working with young people.
We need to find a way to help high school students learn how to “adult” better these days. Before the 1970s, high schools used to provide “Home Economics” classes that taught basic cooking and cleaning skills and sections about home finances, balancing your checkbook, and so much more. When I was in elementary school in the mid-1980s, these classes were turned into “electives” and then eventually done away with entirely.
Another is giving young entrepreneurs access to resources to develop their ideas. My partner, Ellen, is a CASA here in Los Angeles, a program that works with individual wards of the state who would usually get lost in the system if not for people like her. Many of these kids are bursting with ideas, but most of them go unheard because the system focuses more on just getting them out of the system rather than setting them up for success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my early mentors once told me his favorite piece of advice: “Don’t be an asshole.”
He didn’t mean I was an asshole at the time, but having that kind of attitude in business doesn’t get people very far. I’ve kind of used that as my North Star in my life the best I can, and I think it’s one of the reasons why most of my agency’s business comes from referrals.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Have I mentioned Sir Richard Branson enough yet?
How can our readers follow you online?
I am @CountXero on Twitter, and everywhere really.
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.