Always be curious. Ask a ton of questions. Look for patterns in the answers. And make sure you watch as much as you listen. Whenever I have a chance to talk to a wedding pro, I ask them what they’re excited about, what keeps them up at night, and what we can be doing better. I bring their answers to meetings with colleagues every day. There is a great example outlined in the book Customers Included, by Phil Terry and Mark Hurst, about how the OXO measuring cup was invented. In a test lab, designers observed people bending over to see the markings on conventional measuring cups at eye level. This resulted in error and discomfort. So they made a new version that allows you to see the measurement markings from above as you pour, without having to bend or lift the cup to eye level. Note that no one told them this was a problem; they observed it and acted on it.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Mead.
As Vice President of B2B Marketing at The Knot Worldwide, Julie Mead is responsible for reinforcing the company’s commitment to a successful two-sided marketplace that connects couples wanting to create their unique weddings and small business owners who will carry out their visions. Mead oversees branding, product marketing, lead generation, and educational initiatives to help wedding professionals build their brands and grow their businesses. Following the merger of The Knot and WeddingWire in 2018, she led the go-to-market strategy and launch of the integrated B2B brand WeddingPro, the largest marketplace, and community for wedding professionals.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Julie! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I’ve spent my career working at the intersection of technology and society. As a marketer, I get to wear a lot of hats; my favorite is a storyteller. Every brand I work with involves persuading people to change their behavior in some way — from embracing apps and websites to plan a wedding to adopting technology in the classroom. Good storytelling is the most effective way I know to motivate those kinds of changes.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I’ve been fortunate to work with many incredible thought leaders. What I’ve learned from them is that the key to launching successful products and brands is to put them into a context that creates a meaningful connection with consumers.
With the recent launch of WeddingPro, the largest marketplace and community for wedding professionals, I had the opportunity to reposition two well-known brands (The Knot and WeddingWire) in a new light by starting conversations that are emerging as priorities to Millennial and Gen Z audiences.
An example is our #LoveEveryBody campaign. The Knot Fall 2019 Fashion Issue featuring body positivity advocate Hunter McGrady as a cover model and guest editor has sparked discussions around how our industry can be more inclusive of all shapes and sizes. We feature tips on how to be more inclusive on our WeddingPro blog, and we’ve seen greater reach and engagement with our stories and posts on this topic than any other.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of my first jobs was at the first digital division of News Corporation. Even though their brands were at odds with my personal politics, I took the role to get a foot in the door at a digital company. It turned out to be a great learning opportunity and a stepping-stone to more exciting ones.
After working for big companies to learn the ropes, I decided to join a startup run by two Rhodes Scholars who wanted to put technology in the hands of K-12 teachers.
A year into my time at the startup, News Corp acquired us and set out to create the first truly digital curriculum. I never expected to work for a News Corp company again, but it turns out that education is a topic that crosses the aisles, and Rupert Murdoch wanted to be involved.
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?
I briefly went to grad school because of imposter syndrome. It’s actually not funny at all… but it’s true. And I have met so many people, especially young women, who have fallen for the same trap that I think the story is worth sharing.
After working as a “thought leader,” writing and presenting research to executives and representing the ideas behind that research in the media and in client consultations, I felt lost. I knew I had some skills, but I didn’t feel confident translating them into a meaningful next step in my career.
So, I applied to grad school at Columbia University. After a semester taking interesting classes and meeting a handful of life-long friends, I realized that I was there for the wrong reason — because I thought I wasn’t capable of taking the next step without knowing more about how you’re supposed to do it. I dropped out, but ultimately found my way. Today, I’m in a leadership role at a company whose mission aligns with my personal values. I get to work with talented leaders, including many female executives. I’m continually surprised to discover how many of us struggle with this idea of imposter syndrome, the idea that we’re really just faking it, that we don’t actually have what it takes to be where we are.
One way we are working to combat this fallacy at The Knot Worldwide is with FoundHERS. This initiative launched three years ago as a platform to share the inspiring, honest and true stories of women who are founders of their own purpose and mission in life. Since our own company founding in 1996, The Knot has always worked to empower couples by giving them the confidence to break the rules brilliantly. The stories shared through our FoundHERS initiative are powerful accounts from inspiring women across various industries. These stories help to inspire and empower our users as well as our own team members as they navigate their own professional journeys. Through this initiative, we’re empowering all women to own their purpose and mission in life, whether that is through their career, family, personal endeavors, passion projects or a combination of those.
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 than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
An influencer is someone with a large following who likes to help people make informed decisions. They’re what Malcolm Gladwell referred to as “mavens” in The Tipping Point.
I think of a thought leader as someone who goes a step further to change the conversation by bringing a new lens to a long-standing topic or problem.
Takeru Kobayashi is a great thought leader. He changed the game of competitive eating when he succeeded in eating 50 hot dogs and buns — twice the number eaten by the previous record holder. He says he did it by asking a new question, “How can I make each one easier to eat?” rather than, “How can I fit more in my stomach?” The answer — by dipping the bun into a cup of water before swallowing it.
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?
As an analyst working for the leading market research firm studying the rise of the consumer Internet, I learned skills I didn’t develop in college.
I learned to challenge conventional wisdom, test hypotheses, and develop insights to advise executives in the media, advertising, and retail industries. In a nutshell, I learned to think critically. I equate thought leadership with critical thinking… plus a little bit of timing and luck!
This experience shaped how I approach every job I’ve held since then, and I am grateful to have had that training because it can be applied to any problem or opportunity in any industry.
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?
At The Knot Worldwide, we invest in ideas that fit within our mission of helping couples through life’s biggest moments. An example is Lasting, an app that makes marriage counseling simple.
Soon after Steve Dziedzic got married in 2014, he realized the only resources out there to help couples achieve a happy and healthy relationship were non-digital/non-evolving books and articles filled with opinions that weren’t backed by facts. So, he set out to create something that was digital, personalized, affordable, research-based and convenient, so that couples could make relationship wellness a daily habit.
In 2016, Steve became an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at The Knot and began investigating the opportunity to better support married couples. He became a certified relationship coach and expert on relationship health. In 2017, Lasting was founded.
Research shows that a healthy marriage is as vital to your overall health as diet and exercise. People in healthy marriages live 10 years longer on average, and marriages in distress can lead to a variety of physical health issues.
To date, Lasting has been downloaded more than one million times and continues to support healthy relationships across the nation.
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.
The below strategies apply regardless of whether you are championing a product, company or idea:
1) Always be curious.
Ask a ton of questions. Look for patterns in the answers. And make sure you watch as much as you listen.
Whenever I have a chance to talk to a wedding pro, I ask them what they’re excited about, what keeps them up at night, and what we can be doing better. I bring their answers to meetings with colleagues every day.
There is a great example outlined in the book Customers Included, by Phil Terry and Mark Hurst, about how the OXO measuring cup was invented. In a test lab, designers observed people bending over to see the markings on conventional measuring cups at eye level. This resulted in error and discomfort. So they made a new version that allows you to see the measurement markings from above as you pour, without having to bend or lift the cup to eye level. Note that no one told them this was a problem; they observed it and acted on it.
2) Identify your High Expectation Customer.
This term was coined by Julie Supan, who built brands like Airbnb. The trick is to position your idea for the customers who will benefit from your greatest attributes and spread the word. Then, others will say, “If it worked for her, it’ll probably work for me, too.”
At WeddingPro, our high expectation customer needs to stand out from the crowd, but she has a lot to focus on besides marketing her business. She expects we will help her balance the books by delivering her leads that convert. She hopes she can trust WeddingPro to help her grow her business, so she can do more of the weddings she wants to do, work less and earn more.
The key insight is that success in our industry is about more than just the numbers. Our positioning is focused on empowering pros to build lasting relationships with couples and other pros that help them truly “make it” in the wedding community. Our tagline is “Real relationships, real results.” We offer networking events and workshops across the country where pros can meet their next collaborator, referral or mentor. In fact, we made more than 10,000 real life pro connections last year.
3) Gather evidence.
Develop a set of hypotheses that are MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive). Make sure they’re provable or disprovable. Make sure they’re relevant. Use every method available to vet them; think surveys, interviews, data from analogous industries, etc.
An example might be, driverless cars will become mainstream within three years. The best part is, regardless of whether you’re right or wrong, you end up learning something valuable.
The conclusion might be something like this: while driverless cars are at least 10 years away from becoming mainstream, on-demand delivery via drone is more likely to become mainstream within the next two years. Your hypothesis didn’t pan out, but you’ve got a story to tell.
4) Create your narrative.
I like to use a creative brief format that distills things down into a “single-minded idea” of what we want people to do and feel as a result of using our products. This allows you to create a story based on compelling reasons to believe.
Make sure to sum it up in terms of the emotional benefits and not just the functional ones. For example, Apple recognized that the iPod wasn’t about “massive music storage” but rather “songs in your pocket.”
Watch Peggy Olson give her “Burger Chef” pitch on the TV show Mad Man for inspiration. She understands that while “technology has allowed us to put a man on the moon,” that moment wasn’t about technology or fast food. It was about finding a place where you could go for the “connection you’re starving for. At Burger Chef, there’s family supper.”
5) Establish an emotional connection with your audience.
The most effective approach I know to create change is a four-step process called KUBA. It stands for Know, Understand, Believe and Act.
First, your audience needs to know what you want them to do. Then, they need to understand why it’s important. Next, they need to believe it’s important. And finally, they need to act on it.
It may sound like jargon, but trust me, it works. At The Knot Worldwide, we’ve found that taking the time to walk through these steps with our colleagues and our customers helps to create loyal and independent supporters. Once they understand and believe what you believe, it’s easier for them to decide what actions to take next to support your idea.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that 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.
Simon Sinek is one of the greats. His “Start with Why” TED Talk explains the idea that great leaders inspire others by putting the Why (the purpose) before the How (the process), or the What (the product).
What I love about this talk is that it takes the focus off product, price, promotion — all the things you are supposed to do in marketing — and puts it on what it takes to truly inspire people. People want to belong to communities and they identify with brands that can explain their purpose.
This simple idea has helped me cut through a lot of clutter to focus on making personal and professional choices that are authentic.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I agree. I think storyteller might be a better label because the best thought leaders are the ones who win the hearts and minds of others by telling a relatable story that brings their ideas to life and gives them meaning and context.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take time out of your daily routine to explore things that are genuinely interesting to you.
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. 🙂
Our mission at The Knot Worldwide is to help every couple plan a wedding that is uniquely their own. We encourage all couples to personalize their wedding and break, twist or create new traditions based on their personalities and interests.
For couples, we create content and inspiration that’s inclusive of everyone, regardless of inter course orientation, gender, race, budget, or style. And on the business side, we educate and empower wedding professionals to create an inclusive experience for their couples.
I love being a part of this movement to help every person feel inspired to design their own lives together, breaking whatever rules they feel there are in weddings. It’s a privilege to work with so many creative professionals who are dedicated to helping couples realize those designs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
WeddingPro works with talented Educators who are experts on topics ranging from marketing to pricing to social media and share their expertise with other pros at our webinars and daylong workshops around the country.
Kaliegh Wiese, the founder of Méldeen, is one of our Educators and her motto really resonates with me: “The first step is the hardest: Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
I sometimes find myself three steps ahead of where I am in my head. This quote reminds me to stay in the moment and let things unfold rather than trying to plan everything out in advance.
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 a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Anna Wintour. I admire the way she continuously influences fashion by trusting her instincts.
As a young girl, I remember seeing her first cover as editor of Vogue. It was such a departure from what a fashion magazine looked like and stood for. Instead of a carefully styled designer outfit, it featured a model wearing the unlikely combination of a couture jacket with a pair of basic jeans. Instead of an elegant close up in a studio, it was shot on the street with the model looking away from the camera, hair blowing in the wind as if she couldn’t care less.
At the time, people thought she was nuts. But this single image ushered in a completely different concept of everything from fashion photography to how we dress, over a decade before street style would become mainstream. That’s better than thought leadership — it’s intuition.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.